Political Philosophy Fall 2022

Limits of Economic Reparations


Satz’s essay has a broad theme and a narrow target. The broad theme is that there are a variety of ways of responding to past wrongs and that not all of them are appropriate for every case. The narrow target is a view that the appropriate compensation for past wrongs is economic, specifically, that the victim of an injustice is “completely compensated for a loss when he is indifferent between his life as it was before the loss and his life as it is now after the loss but with additional goods” such that the victim “has no reason to prefer his past situation before his losses to his current situation after the loss has occurred” (Satz 2012, 132). Satz seeks to show that this economic understanding of compensation is too limited.

The most important section for our purposes is the second section. It concerns compensation in general; it mostly addresses cases of wrongdoing among people who are alive at the same time (see section 2, “Countering Wrongs in Terms of Compensation,” pp. 131-38).

The third section concerns cases of historical injustice, where the chief victims and violators are dead (see section 3, “Countering the Wrongs of the Past in Terms of Compensation,” pp. 138-41). The fourth section discusses a specific academic theory of historical injustice, the fifth section briefly mentions some practical difficulties with calculating the value of economic compensation in historical cases, and the sixth section draws some conclusions.

I think that Satz’s alternative to the economic approach that she criticizes is stated at various points in the third through sixth sections. It can be hard to extract them from the more detailed presentation in those sections, so I copied the relevant paragraphs here.

The economic model

Satz’s target is the idea that compensation for wrong is primarily economic. She says that there are three assumptions behind this idea; she attacks each assumption in the subsections of section 2. The assumptions are:

  1. the only thing that matters is preference satisfaction.
  2. preferences can be put on a single scale and aggregated with one another.
  3. the basis of a claim to compensation is a person’s loss of satisfaction, not the need to redress a particular wrong. (Satz 2012, 133)

Satz uses the example of educational inequality to challenge the first assumption. Suppose that, on the whole, Black children receive inferior primary and secondary education such that they are, on the whole, unable to compete for spots at selective universities. Suppose the government paid them enough money to leave them indifferent between having a university education without the payment and receiving the payment without a university education. Would that count as compensation for their poor educational opportunities?

Satz thinks the answer is no because she thinks there is something that matters beyond leaving the victim satisfied with a payout. She lists three points on pages 134-35.

For the second assumption, that preferences can be compared with one another, Satz uses the examples of the Sioux tribes who refused payment as compensation for their lost land and Korean comfort women who refused payment raised by private groups in Japan. The people in these cases like money: they prefer to have more of it than less. But they did not think that money alone would give them what they wanted. To put it another way, there is not enough money to make up for the failure to get what they want: either land, in the case of the Sioux, or payment from the government of Japan, in the case of the Korean comfort women (Satz 2012, 135–36). They do not think that their preferences for getting those things are comparable to their preferences for money; that is why you could not pay them enough to leave them indifferent between getting the payment without the other things they want and getting the other things they want without the payment.

In challenging the third assumption, Satz argues that it is important not just that compensation be paid, but also that the wrongdoer be the one who pays it. The economic view that she disputes only looks at how much to pay the victim; it does not take into account who makes the payments. This obviously will not do in individual cases. If I hurt your feelings with a thoughtless remark, I have to apologize, no one else can do that for me (Satz 2012, 137).

She thinks that this is the lesson of Boxill’s bicycle case. Boxill, as she understands him, says that Harry should give the bicycle to Jim as compensation, despite the fact that Harry has done nothing wrong to Jim. (Remember, it was Dick who stole the bicycle and the person he stole it from was Tom.) What she calls “reparative duties,” by contrast, involve restoring relationships and that, she thinks, involves more than just compensation.

A Digression on Boxill

I do not understand Boxill’s argument the same way Satz does.

First, Boxill uses “compensation” to refer to forwards looking considerations about what will make life better in the future (specifically, what will make competition in the labor market fair) rather than backwards looking considerations about wrongs in the past. It was unwise of him to choose that word, in my opinion, but he did. This is a superficial point about their use of words, but it has to be said. In any event, what he calls “reparation” is what she calls “compensation” and what he calls “compensation” has little to do with anything she is talking about.

Second, and more importantly, I put Boxill in the economic camp, that is, I think his primary aim was to argue for transferring money as a way of making reparations for slavery. Restoring relationships did not strike me as being important for him. I think he should be one of her targets.

Third, I am not sure he does think that Harry has done nothing wrong to Jim. He thinks that Harry is holding something that belongs to Jim and, if he refuses to give it back, he is, in effect, stealing from him. Harry did not steal in the way the Dick did. But he is holding stolen goods and, if he does not give them back, he is behaving as badly as if he were a thief. As I understand it, that is how Boxill thinks of the present relationship between white and Black Americans: the former are holding wealth that belongs to the latter.

For that reason, I think Satz is probably correct to say that, for Boxill, it is important not just that Black Americans receive reparations but also that white Americans pay reparations. If Saudi Arabia offered to pay the lost wages of slaves plus interest to their descendants, that would not be a completely just solution since white Americans would still hold ill-gotten wealth. But I am not sure about that because Boxill did not imagine any source for the reparations payments other than white Americans.

In any event, I still think that Boxill focuses more on economics than Satz does. So I view them as mostly disagreeing with one another rather than making the same point. Satz treats Boxill as an ally. If her point is that he thinks it is important that white Americans pay reparations as well as that Black Americans receive them, she might be correct. But now this digression has gone on too long. You can make up your own mind.

Satz’s positive view

The third section concerns the kinds of large, historical cases that we started with: slavery, the Holocaust, taking land, and so on. Satz notes a number of problems with thinking about compensation in these cases. The original victims and wrongdoers are all dead and it is hard to calculate the present day value of what was lost or gained. There are some other, more arcane, points as well. For instance, the people who are alive today would not be here without the historical events of the past, both good and bad. It is puzzling to think about how to compensate someone for the conditions of her own existence.

Do not sweat the details. Satz says that these problems undermine the economic model for reparations; that is less important than what comes next. Satz thinks that these arguments do not show that there is no point to reparations because, she believes, there are reasons to make reparations for historic injustice other than compensating the victims or their descendants.

What are those reasons? Here, I think it would be best to quote her in her own words. These are three statements of what Satz takes to be an alternative to economic compensation. This constitutes her chief positive proposal about compensation for historical injustice, in my opinion.

the case of compensation for historical injustices primarily rests on the mutual recognition of a wrong, and even those who disagree about the quantitative extent of the wrong might nevertheless agree that there needs to be some response to the commission of a wrong. Even if we cannot determine the exact level of compensation that descendants are owed, we might be able to show that, if not for the wrong they … would plausibly be better off than they are now. So understood, compensation would take on a different goal from that of literally making up for historical violations. I believe that, indeed, this is the significant underlying purpose of compensation in intergenerational contexts: its role is to help reestablish relations of trust and mutual respect in the context of a torn past. (Satz 2012, 141)

To the extent that we find demands for compensation for past injustices, like the Holocaust, slavery, apartheid, and genocidal killings, plausible, I suspect that this is because we understand such claims fundamentally as means to reestablish relationships of mutual respect among persons and groups whose relationships have been severely damaged by past denials of that respect. The relevant relationship here is not between individuals and their descendants but between each of us now as inheritors of the legacies of an unjust past. The question that gives compensation for these past wrongs its point in this case is: what can we do now, in light of our past wrongs, to appropriately express the social value of mutual respect and trust that we want to characterize our society? … Even if we cannot precisely quantify the degree of harm done to blacks [by the racist past], we cannot ignore the past an its role in shaping opportunities and relations. We may not be able to achieve full justice for victims and descendants, but doing nothing is usually worse than doing something imperfect. In some cases of intergenerational compensation repair, then, the message sent by compensation can be more important than its tangible effects. (Satz 2012, 144–45)

While some worries about the usefulness of compensation in the context of historical injustice are well founded, they yield no persuasive general challenge to compensation. Indeed, many of those who ask for compensation are under no illusion that there is any payment that can bring back what they have lost. … Instead, victims are seeking a second best and rough form of justice. For this reason, economic compensation remains a form of redress that belongs in the toolbox of those seeking to counter the crimes of the past. While it is imperfect and unlikely to admit of precision, it can be the best alternative available to victims. However, I have argued that the applicability of that form of compensation is limited by principle and by practice. In principle it is inappropriate in contexts in which claimants seek to repossess a particular good that has been wrongfully taken from them. This has especially been the case with land, ancestral remains, works of art, and other property claims. In other cases, what is needed primarily to reestablish relations of respect, among both groups and individuals, that have been badly frayed by injustice. Compensation serves, in this case, less as the dutiful payment of incurred in the past than as a means of expressing sincerity and respect and reestablishing relationships based on mutual respect. Compensation in this case may take the form of apology, of institutions, and measures aimed to restore trust. Still, in other cases, the type of harm that was done may call for a specific form of response. In practice, economic compensation must compete with other aims and needs. (Satz 2012, 146)

Why these examples?

Emily raised important questions about the way we have been talking about this that I would like to address. Specifically, she asked:

  1. Why do we keep talking about things like bicycles and cars? Racial injustice is a far larger thing. (I might be putting words in her mouth here; that was the thrust of it, as I recall.)

  2. Why do we keep using Michelle Obama as an example of someone who would receive reparations under Boxill’s system? That cannot be a representative case.

I understand where she is coming from on both points and I would like to explain why I made the choices that I did.

We use simple examples to explore complex issues when one of two conditions are met.

  1. We are not sure of what we, ourselves, think about the complex issue.

  2. We find ourselves in conversation with people who have different opinions about the complex issue than we do.

We try to use the simple example as a starting point in both cases. Roughly, “I think I understand the simple example. Now I will see how the complex issue is like or unlike the simple example in the hopes of better understanding what I think about the complex issue.”

Or, “You and I disagree about the complex issue. Maybe if we agree about the simple case, we can move to talking about how it is like or unlike the complex one. Perhaps this process will lead us to agree with one another. But if not, at least we will be able to better understand where each of us is coming from.”

It can go in the other direction too. You might start feeling very confident in your opinions and come to think things are a lot more complicated than you had previously believed when you start comparing things like reparations with even very simple examples. That is productive too, although sometimes in a disquieting way.

The hope is that this method gets you somewhere: either by making the complex seem more simple or the simple seem more complex. However, it is not the only method you should use to think about moral and social questions. If you tried to analyze slavery by talking about stolen bicycles, you would leave a lot of information out! This is no replacement for history or the social sciences. But it does have its place.

Speaking for myself, I think it lowers the temperature of discussions considerably. For example, in one of the years around when Trump was elected, when we got to the immigration part of the class, there were a lot of angry voices and talking over one another. Things calmed down a lot when we had two philosopher’s arguments on the table. We focused on what the authors had said and I think everyone came out of it at least understanding the other side a little better.

Of course, lowering the temperature is not always the right thing to do. Many things are worth being mad about and having a calm discussion where you consider the other side is not always appropriate. I myself do not think that reparations is one of those issues, but this is something on which reasonable people can disagree.

As for the Michelle Obama example, the point is not that she is a representative case. Rather, it is to try to tease out the difference between race and class. That said, this is not just an academic question.

First, as it happens, the example is not as unrepresentative as you might think. Quite a few people who believe their ancestors were enslaved have college educations or upper incomes. This is from a Pew Research survey that was reported in April 2022.

College-educated Black Americans (66%) are more likely than those with lower levels of education (54%) to report that their ancestors were enslaved. Among Black adults with less than a bachelor’s degree, 37% say they are uncertain about whether their ancestors were enslaved. Black adults with upper incomes (70%) are more likely than those with middle (61%) and lower incomes (53%) to say their ancestors were enslaved. About four-in-ten Black adults with lower incomes (39%) report being unsure about this fact.

Now, do not make too much of this. College educated people are more likely to have traced their ancestry than people who have lower levels of education. We cannot take this to mean that higher education is positively associated with being the descendant of slaves. No, no, no, no. But I think we can take it to show that a meaningful number of people whose ancestors were enslaved are reasonably well off. On some reparations schemes, they would get payments.

I think that advocates of reparations could accept that for the reasons we talked about. Other advocates of reparations, or opponents, could reasonably think otherwise. I think your reaction to these cases tells you a lot about what you think reparations are supposed to achieve and how you think reparations schemes should be structured.

Second, there are cases where groups whose members seem to be eligible for reparations based on historical wrongs are, on the whole, fairly prosperous. As John Stuart Mill reminded us, Mormons were persecuted in nineteenth-century America. There were massacres and a forced migration. Those crimes are not on the scale of slavery, but they seem to me to be similar to those that receive reparations. However Mormons, as a group, are doing pretty well. Would that affect the case for reparations? That’s the question.

The idea is to give you an occasion to think abstractly about what you think the point of reparations is by considering how they would work in different cases. It is not a way of gaining a comprehensive, or even an accurate, understanding of history. You should not rely on philosophy alone if you really want to understand history and society. But I do think that what philosophy has to contribute is worthwhile.

Key concepts

  1. Satz’s criticisms of the economic compensation model of reparations.
  2. Satz’s alternative: reparations are for restoring relationships of mutual trust and respect.


Satz, Debra. 2012. “Countering the Wrongs of the Past: The Role of Compensation.” In Transitional Justice: NOMOS LI, edited by Melissa S. Williams, Rosemary Nagy, and Jon Elster, 129–50. New York: NYU Press.