The Philosophical Dimensions of Reparations

22 February 2017

At the end of our recent episode on reparations, John expressed bewilderment about what should be done. That’s understandable. The historical injustices perpetrated against blacks on American soil span four centuries and would be impossible to quantify. It seems impossible to settle who should pay reparations, given that slaveholders are all dead, and who should receive them, given that descent is a complicated affair. And the political sentiment is mostly contrary, even among liberals.

One’s feeling of bewilderment is apt to increase, at least temporarily, upon reading relevant historical information, such as in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s famous Atlantic piece, “The Case for Reparations.” Most Americans learn in school that slavery occurred. But the extent of racist practices like discriminatory house selling “on contract” comes as a shock.

But before we give in to the impulse to throw up our hands, let’s see if we can alleviate our sense of hopelessness by distinguishing components of the challenge injustices pose.

As I see it, when injustices have occurred, there are metaphysical, epistemic, and pragmatic dimensions to the question of how to address them.

The pragmatic dimension concerns how—in practical terms—to repair damages. Is it even politically possible to get enough support for reparations? What are the legal practicalities? Will there be enough resources? The pragmatic dimension is important to consider—not just for politicians and activists, but also for philosophers. But here is a crucial point: the fact that it may be extremely difficult to put justice into effect does not imply that there is no justice owed. True, 90% of white people may be against reparations, as guest Michael Dawson pointed out, but that may just mean that doing what’s right is hard. It doesn’t imply that reparations aren’t the right thing. So we should keep our eye on practical concerns, without succumbing to the erroneous thought that their difficulty renders the principled question with no answer.

The epistemic dimension concerns the difficulty of knowing who owes reparations and to whom they are owed. Naturally, the epistemic dimension is part of the pragmatic, since one of the practicalities of figuring out how to repair injustice is achieving relevant knowledge. But the epistemic dimension can be addressed without solving all the practical problems. As Ken put it on his recent blog, “Reparations are easier when they can be paid to assignable victims who have been done assignable harm by assignable wrong-doers.” As I read this, the assignable term is partly epistemic. A victim is “assignable” only if one knows who the person is (or who the people are), and likewise for harms and wrong-doers.

A lot of people despair over reparations because of this epistemic dimension. It feels impossible to know all the relevant facts. Yet Coates makes the point (not quite in these terms) that not all components of the epistemic problem are intractable. In some cases, it’s easy to know who has been the victim of injustices. The victims of contract loans (a predatory lending scheme in which would-be home buyers could be kicked out with no equity if they miss one payment) are in many cases living and identifiable. The perpetrators are identifiable too: they are the contract sellers and the crafters of racist policies that denied African Americans regular mortgages.

So, to me, there is hope in realizing that, although some aspects of the epistemic dimension may be intractable, some aspects can be addressed by historical research into racially-motivated zoning and financing practices. The victims and perpetrators can be known, and the loss of equity due unequal practices can at least roughly be quantified.

This brings us to the metaphysical dimension. In my view, there may be a right and wrong about reparations (or any issue of justice), even if we can’t know what it is. That is, there can be a truth about what someone is owed, even if, given our limited epistemic resources, we can never figure out what that truth is.

Let me give a not-too-fictionalized example of a situation like this (where there is a truth about reparation owed, but we can’t know it). Suppose that a German Jewish man in 1942 had 100,000 Reichsmark stolen from him by a German Nazi named Dieter Schmidt, who subsequently deposited that amount of money in a Swiss bank named ZBC. Obviously, the man should get his money back. But let us suppose that ZBC has five customers named Dieter Schmidt, all of whom have died, and each of them died with a large enough amount of money in the bank to have been the perpetrator of the theft. Each Schmidt has left all his money to a sole heir, and neither the heirs nor the bank has knowledge sufficient to settle which of them has the Jewish man’s money.

Nevertheless, one of the heirs named Schmidt owes reparation. There is a fact of the matter. But, given the circumstances, we may never be able to know what that fact is. In other words, metaphysically there is a fact about what’s owed, even if the epistemic dimension of this situation is intractable.

And this is a general point about the relation between metaphysics and epistemology. Knowledge aspires to facts, but may not always reach them; that doesn’t, however, show that the facts don’t exist. Obligations to repair may exist, even if we don’t (at least yet) know what they are. And so it is in real life, not just in my stylized example.

How might these distinctions alleviate our sense of bewilderment? I think they enable us to focus on one component of the problem of reparations at a time. The metaphysics is a matter of thinking things through in principle, as they would be for anyone who might be the victim of historical injustices. The epistemology requires finding the relevant facts in a way that counts as having knowledge of them. And the pragmatic dimension is largely strategic and a matter of political will. We can recognize there is a justice to be found, even if it’s a lot of work to know what it is and to put into effect.