Political Philosophy Fall 2022

Reparations for Slavery


Boxill’s article falls into two parts.

In the first part, he distinguishes what he calls “compensation” from what he calls “reparation.”

The idea is that compensation is forward looking while reparation is backwards looking. A society compensates for unequal opportunities in, say, education, in order to ensure that economic competition will be fair in the future. A society pays reparations in order to make up for injustice that happened in the past.

In the second part of the article, he makes the case for reparations from White Americans to Black Americans to make up for the injustice of slavery.

Reparations for Slavery

Boxill’s idea is that reparations are similar to everyday cases of righting wrongs. The specific analogy he proposes involves the theft of a bicycle.

The clearest everyday cases go like this:

  1. A was wronged (injured, treated unjustly, etc.) by B.
  2. B is capable of repairing A’s injury.
  3. Therefore, B owes reparations to A.

Here, the person who owes the reparations, B, is also the one who did the wrong. And the person who receives the reparations, A, is also the one who suffered the wrong. This is like the first version of Boxill’s bicycle case: Dick, the guy who steals the bicycle, has to return it to Harry, the guy he stole it from.

When we are talking about reparations for historic injustice, however, the people who pay are not the ones who did the wrong. And the people who receive the payments are not the ones who suffered the wrong.

Boxill’s bicycle example tries to show how reparations could be like the ordinary cases. He gets around the apparent difference between them by using inheritance (Boxill 1972, 119–20). This is the function of the second and third versions of the bicycle case.

In the second version, an innocent person is given the stolen bicycle; Boxill thinks it is obvious that this person has to return the bicycle to its original owner even though he did not steal the bicycle.

In the third version, the original owner of the bicycle dies; Boxill thinks it is obvious that whoever has the bicycle has to give it to the heir of the original owner even though he was not the victim of the original injustice.

As Boxill sees it, American slavery is similar to the third version of the bicycle case. The victims are Black Americans living now whose ancestors were enslaved in the past. The Black Americans living now would have inherited resources from their ancestors. But those resources were wrongly taken from their ancestors through slavery. Black Americans living now are represented by Jim in the third version of Boxill’s bicycle case. They have been wronged because they do not have resources that belong to them and those who do have those resources should return them.

The people who owe reparations are White Americans living now. This is so even though they have not necessarily done anything wrong themselves. They have inherited, perhaps innocently, the resources that should have gone to Black Americans. Just like Harry in Boxill’s second version of the bicycle case, they have to give the resources back, even if they did not do anything wrong to acquire them in the first place.

Individual and Collective Responsibility

Boxill believes there are two classes of White Americans who owe reparations (Boxill 1972, 120–21).

  1. Each white person individually owes reparations to the black community.

  2. All white people collectively owe reparations to the black community.

As I understand him, Boxill thinks that this is a kind of redundancy: either one would do. This is because individual white people have ill-gotten gains from slavery simply through being white.

It is not being claimed that the descendants of slaves must seek reparation frmo those among the white population who happen to be descendants of slave owners. This perhaps would be the case if slavery had produced for the slave owners merely specific hoards of gold, silver, or diamonds, which could be passed on in a very concrete way from father to son. As a matter of fact, slavery produced not merely specific hoards, but wealth which has been passed down mainly to descendants of the white community to the relative exclusion of the descendants of slaves. Thus, it is the white community as a whole that prevents the descendants of slaves from exercising their rights of ownership, and the white community as a whole that must bear the cost of reparation. (Boxill 1972, 120)

If what was taken from a given slave was something concrete, like a bicycle or a pile of gold, then we could go get that concrete thing back and give it to that slave’s descendants. (Or sell it and divide the proceeds among the slave’s descendants.)

But what was taken is wealth and that wealth has spread throughout the white community. So individual white people have things that don’t belong to them because they belong to the white community.

That is what Boxill thinks. It is not obvious that he is right about that.

On the face of it, an individualistic program of reprations would seek to match those who inherited ill-gotten gains with those whose inheritance was taken from them. A collective program would transfer wealth from one group of people to another.

The chief advantage of the collective approach over the individualistic one is simplicity. The chief disadvantage is its imprecision: some will pay too much, others will pay too little, and some will receive too much while others will receive too little.

Race vs. Class and Forwards vs. Backwards

Who should reparations be paid to?

  1. The descendants of slaves who are poor (or not well off).
  2. The descendants of slaves regardless of how wealthy they are.

I think a case can be made for either way of doing it.

One thing I want to get out of discussing the point is to isolate two different arguments for giving reparations:

  1. They would make people’s lives better.
  2. They are owed to people for past wrongs.

The first is a forwards looking reason and the second is a backwards looking reason.

Key concepts

  1. The difference between reparations and forward-looking considerations
  2. Boxill’s bicycle
  3. Individual vs. collective responsibility
  4. Whether reparations should be based on race or class (in addition to race)


Boxill, Bernard. 1972. “The Morality of Reparation.” Social Theory and Practice 2 (1): 113–23.