The Limits of Compensation

rockwell thanksgivingHobyahs2smallThanksgiving is a time to come together with friends and family and discuss distributive justice and the limits of compensation.  What? No? Is that just me?

Accord­ing to our com­mon-sense notion of jus­tice, if I harm you inten­tion­al­ly or through neg­li­gence, I owe you com­pen­sa­tion for that harm.  If I steal from you and I pass the stolen goods on to some unsus­pect­ing third-par­ty, they are oblig­at­ed to give you back your prop­er­ty.  These prin­ci­ples have clear appli­ca­tions over rel­a­tive­ly short peri­ods of time.  But when the time between harm and com­pen­sa­tion stretch­es to decades or cen­turies and spans gen­er­a­tions, things become much less clear.

To under­state the issue, the Amer­i­can Indi­ans were treat­ed unjust­ly.  So were those Africans tak­en as chat­tel-slaves to Amer­i­ca.  So were the descen­dants of those Africans.  So were the Irish when their land was used to grow feed for high-val­ue live­stock instead of sta­ple foods that would have pre­vent­ed famine dur­ing the pota­to blight.  So were the Poles when they were invad­ed again and again through­out much of their his­to­ry.  We needn’t mul­ti­ply cas­es fur­ther.  I haz­ard to assert that absolute­ly no resources are in the hands they would be in had no one ever been unjust­ly harmed.

But we can­not sim­ply (ha!) fig­ure out who should have what, and not just because there are insu­per­a­ble epis­temic bar­ri­ers.  Had no one been unjust­ly killed, had no one been con­ceived through sex­u­al vio­lence, had no one ever had their lands stolen, the world would be pop­u­lat­ed by a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent set of peo­ple.  You and I would almost cer­tain­ly not exist.  The ques­tion is not just who would have what if things had gone aright, but who would or would not exist to have those things.

Some take this prob­lem to mean that things should be left as they are.  That con­clu­sion is not war­rant­ed.  Per­haps this sit­u­a­tion places us in some­thing akin to the state of nature in the sense that we can con­sid­er what is the most just dis­tri­b­u­tion of resources going for­ward, unbur­dened by con­cerns of who is enti­tled to what.

As a con­clud­ing note, I am inter­est­ed in the under­ly­ing jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for statutes of lim­i­ta­tion and how that might be applied to the moral the­o­ry of com­pen­sa­tion.  I will, I hope, take that top­ic up in a lat­er post.

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