The Collective Moral and Practical Burden of Past Injustices: An Exchange

JD A couple of weeks ago, my friend Scott wrote a brief comment to something I had written about collective compensation for wrong inflicted one group by another group. Scott was frustrated because he could only answer me from a small impractical handhold device. Below is his expanded response typed on a conventional computer.

My argument is summarized below. It’s in two parts, one ethical and moral, the second part practical.

1 When the harm was inflicted with help from the polity and when there is polity continuity and when the harm inflicted has consequences into the present, then compensation is due to the group that was harmed. That’ s three conditions that have to be met.

African-Americans whose forebears were not voluntary immigrants (about half of today’s black Americans) fall into that category. As far as the third condition is concerned, of course, as a conservative, I believe that families matter. I think slavery permanently injured family formation among the African-Americans as described above.

Native Americans also belong to that categories because of forced relocations and numerous broken treaties by governments (plural) that were the direct antecedents of today’s American governments.

I stated than and repeat now that no immigrant group belongs in the category.

2 It’s difficult or impossible to put an end to the continued, ill-defined claims harmed groups place on the general polity without a comprehensive compensation program. The continuing claim most injurious to the polity is affirmative action because it demoralizes and makes immoral our whole social system .

Scott’s response is below.

SC    What I am saying is that for a practical purposes every person/generation gains/looses from his/her previous generation and determining and meting just compensation is impossible from both a practicable standpoint as well as getting all parties to agree on valuation.

Example, slavery, an inarguable sin, ended the only way we seemed to be able to end it, with over 600K casualties in the Civil war, more than every other American war combined. It was, inarguably, the greatest price paid by America for absolutely anything, ever.  If that was not sufficient compensation, what is?  Does it not count? And for how much?  If that is not enough, could we afford the remainder?  Let’s even say that we could somehow agree to a price for having an ancestor enslaved is $1000. Let’s pretend that Jesse Jackson does not march insisting it should be a billion plus interest). Let’s assume we have perfect linage and ideal census numbers (despite the fact the first census was in 1790, earliest slaves came to Jamestown in 1619).

How do you compensate for this? (there will be no straightforward cut and dry cases)

One of my great great great great great great grandfathers was a slave owner, with between 0-219 slaves depending on which time.  One of my great great great great great great grandfathers ran the underground railroad. One of my one of my great great great great great great grandfathers was a slave for 2 weeks, before escaping. One of my one of my great great great great great great grandmothers was a slave her whole life. My great great great great great great grandmother is Harriet Beecher Stowe. One of my one of my great great great great great grandfathers died in the civil war while fighting for the confederacy. One of my one of my great great great great great grandfathers was blinded and crippled while fighting in the Michigan regiment at the battle of Gettysberg. One of my great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandfathers was a slave trader. My father is Chinese.   My grandmother smoked like a chimney and both my mom and me were born prematurely with lung problems.  How much do I owe?/ get?

At what point does one say that the effort to try to settle (with widely imperfect data) create a greater harm (especially as a precedent) than to pick one’s self up and move on?

About 25 years ago the US compensated (belatedly) existing Japanese Americans who were interned in camps during WWII.  I supported that. I wouldn’t had it happened a 100 years earlier, though I do concede that there would still be legacy harms.  I am aware of the moral hazard of waiting out a statute of limitations but I still think it is the lesser evil.


About Jacques Delacroix

I am a sociologist, a short-story writer, and a blogger (Facts Matter and Notes On Liberty) in Santa Cruz, California.
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5 Responses to The Collective Moral and Practical Burden of Past Injustices: An Exchange

  1. Scott Cochran says:


    I think what you are saying is that those whose ancestors were slaves or American Indians have been harmed and deserve compensation. Again, I agree, but from a practical standpoint, determining and distributing that compensation, I believe, risks being more injurious that that it intends to compensate, especially in the long term when the practical and measurable injury of the harm diminishes and the aggregate secondary injuries of the compensation are increasing. The latter is especially true to those such as myself who had no hand in evils of long ago even if I, very indirectly, have inherited benefits from the harm, (though you and I will disagree a bit about how vestigial that is). I still think (original comments not noted) that a reasonable statute of limitations is if no man is alive to remember the harm. I think that Affirmative action is a poor compensation vehicle (Perhaps you would agree) but possibly just in that some form of compensation is due to those who suffered through civil rights abuses pre mid sixties. For slavery, abolished much longer than any man has been alive, I would say that no compensation could practically be distributed, and thus we should not try, and the harm is somewhat diminished anyway. For example I would also argue that being beaten by you master is more injurious than hearing about it from your grandfather than is reading about it in a history book 150 years later. I also feel that the long term consequences of affirmative action reinforce victimhood and deter “sucking it up and bootstrapping”, which all people who will eventually befall hard luck, need to learn to do, or worse an sense of entitlement that less effort needs to be made. The longer this policy exists, the greater the harm, ultimately surpassing the injuries suffered from the original harm.

    I am aware that in the case of American Indians, non Indians still own most of the land. I don’t have a good realistic proposal for compensating for that, there is no way they are getting all of it back. Furthermore, I would argue, that while atrocious in an absolute sense, Indians in what is now known as the US were better treated than many or even most other native people who were conquered by other countries like Spain and Portugal. I do think that casinos (having worked closely with Indian casinos), are a poor compensatory vehicle, as they create more of a sense of entitlement engine, to be fueled by a constant milking of white guilt.

    Re: The continuing claim most injurious to the polity is affirmative action because it demoralizes and makes immoral our whole social system .

    I agree, So what is your proposal? If we end AA, replace it with what? If you feel descendants of slaves are due compensation. Specifically. How?

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      I am against affirmative action. I guess the summary of my position must not have been clear.

      My contention is that descendants of slaves and American Indians continue to be harmed by past actions as we write.

      My ancestors were digging potatoes in central France during slavery days in America. Yet, I belong to the same polity today that did it then. Therefore, I am responsible today. It’s a moral position about which not much can be argued.

      The practical problems of compensating victims (as defined above) are overrated. Alaska did it.

  2. robert holifield says:

    If I were to be required to compensate today for someother’s crime of yesteryear to someone else of yesteryear would I also be a victim and deserve compensation in the future for compensating today to someone else today for something I never did to anyone in the first place?

    I don’t know what Alaska did but it looks like they need to be compensated for compensating.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      Don’t caricature what I said, Robert. You and I benefit greatly from being a member of this polity, the US of A (at least, I do).I enjoy the benefits so, I should contribute to paying off the debt of the very same polity. If you think there is no debt, my statement is irrelevant, of course, If there is a debt, you want to inherit and estate but magically make the debt attached to this estate disappear.

  3. robert holifield says:

    I apologize. I pay attention to your radio show and read your blog because you make sense and I learn.

    The way you explain the inheriting of benefits and of debts sounds right and responsible to me.

    I just wonder if the debt part is going too far.

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