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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