Updated: May 5, 2021
Recent arguments about whether or not descendants of Black American slaves should be recompensed have often called on a variety of terms that can confuse what really might be at stake. Did you know that there are different kinds of justice, each with respective applications and aims?
For example, would you characterize a transaction where you buy something from someone an act of reparation? Would you say you were owed the purchased item because you were wronged or because you paid a fair amount for the exchange?
In the example above, the idea of fair exchange is reciprocal justice; whereas the idea of correcting a wrong is corrective justice.
When reflecting on and considering the question of reparation for slavery, what can help provide more light than heat is distinguishing different kinds of justice and whether they apply.
Which Justice for Slavery?
Let us consider whether reparation is an issue of corrective justice since enslaving persons is in fact a wrong done that calls for correction. Aristotle describes the concept of corrective justice by an image of a line where the wrong done results in breaking the line. Correcting the wrong is a matter of restoring the wholeness of the line by some means. In many cases, wholeness cannot be restored when the damage itself cannot be undone. So a substitute is often proposed whereby the wrong is translated into another form. Perhaps the wrong done results in a prison term; or as with insurance injury claims, it results in financial compensation (e.g. a broken arm = 3 times the medical bills).
The limitation of corrective justice is that it requires identifying an actual perpetrator in order to make good for the damage done. With our historical issue of slavery, corrective justice becomes quite cumbersome because neither the victim nor the perpetrator are physically present to account for the harm done.
Arguments that refer to the descendants of both slaves and slave owners may at first make some sense. But the limitations of corrective justice very quickly become revealed. In most corrective justice cases the preponderance of evidence links the victim and perpetrator by means of causation, or what is called proximate cause in legal torts.
Linking descendants of slaves and slave owners becomes tenuous at best because we are assuming an identity between past and present people that directly ties them to the wrong done. In other words, per corrective justice, the descendant of a slave owner is actually the descendant by virtue of guilt or negligence. It becomes very hard to say to someone not directly tied to an event that they are to blame.
Such allegations are not only questionable, but they also miss what is important about recognizing and resolving historical events involving large groups of people. Such resolution requires involvement of others on a large scale who may not have been involved and may in turns lose out or be disadvantaged when reparations are made. Think about a white family who moved to the U.S. during the early 20th century. Are they culpable for the slavery? If not, do we try to trace who is?
Corrective justice in such matters seems inappropriate; and blaming someone who is not directly and causally linked to a transgression or crime only creates more harm and resentment.
So what, then, is appropriate? Philosophers will often speak of restorative justice and contributory justice.
Restorative Justice & Slavery
Like corrective justice, the idea of restoration recognizes that a wrong has been done. However, it also supposes that restoring wholeness is not necessarily related to specific individuals that can be directly tied to the transgression or crime. In other words, restoration might recognize generally what needs to be done by many individuals who themselves are not deemed to be guilty or responsible. Instead, such individuals might be called upon simply by virtue of being citizens of the same society. I will come back to this.
For now, let us note that the idea of restorative justice is to determine the best way to make a person or group of people whole who cannot be directly linked by means of causation to the wrong done. In addition, restoration means not simply trying to compensate (per corrective justice) but to improve and even empower.
An easy way to think about this is in terms of making someone or group more capable human beings. In our case of slavery, restoration (and not reparation!) might consist in investment in the improvement of black communities (access to decent housing, their schools, public services, etc.).
Contributory Justice & Slavery
To recall, with corrective justice someone must “pay” for the wrong done. S/he is seen as the cause of the harm. In contrast, restorative justice calls on those who are not the cause of the harm to help contribute to the restoration of the situation.
The simple principle of contributory justice is that people are called upon to help out because they want to contribute to society at large for the very reason that they and those deemed to have been wronged in some way are members of the very same body.
Contributory justice does not therefore rely on negative motivations, such as guilt, blame, or shame. Rather, it relies on a sense of respect for oneself and others as well as virtues of compassion and courage to take action and be a part of the solution.
I want to suggest that by keeping the ideas of restorative and contributory justice in mind when reflecting on the issues of Black slavery in American history and what we can do in the present, we move along way from the blame game and towards a more constructive and virtuous space of reasoning and feeling.
I am a public philosopher and business consultant who specializes in the areas of meaningful work, the philosophy of work, virtue ethics, and hermeneutics. I was formerly Assistant and Associate Professor at the University of Dundee and the University of Kent, respectively. In addition to being an academic writer, I am also the author of a short sci-fi novella called Pig Terrorism. When not immersed in reading and writing, I can be found rock climbing or windsurfing.