While political theorists have long supported redistribution of economic benefits within states, many have denied global redistribution out of a state-centric theory. Reparations and their nexus to global justice have thus become a hot topic in the world of contemporary political theory. Dr Dan Butt’s recent presentation, ‘Reparations and the End of Empire’ (see here for podcast), at the Oxford Department of Politics and International Relation’s ‘Engagement of Theory Conference’, makes a cogent case for the connection between past and present actions on a moral level – leading to the necessity of reparation payments between states in a post-colonial world. In order to make such a claim, Butt’s wide-ranging presentation had some serious questions to answer. Who was harmed and who benefited from past injustices? Can mere involuntary receipt of benefits give rise to reparative responsibility? Can we ‘inherit’ responsibility from previous generations? If we pay reparations, do we pay them to survivors or their descendants?
Butt posits that there are three ways that the past connects with contemporary moral obligations: through (1) entitlement, (2) benefit and (3) responsibility. Entitlement is the most straightforward, but it is also limited in the sense that it is something tangible taken from another. It means that quite literally one has possession of property owed to another. Benefit consists of any benefits stemming from injustice, which could be automatic or direct, voluntary or involuntary. Lastly, responsibility is the active responsibility for an ongoing injustice in connection with another, ongoing failure to fulfill rectificatory duties over time.
Butt focuses almost exclusively on the benefit angle of moral obligations, given that it is the most nuanced and often the most divisive. We have a duty to scrutinize our modern day advantages, he avers, as the liberal idea of ‘social mobility’ does not do enough to right past wrongs. Who, if anyone, has been advantaged or disadvantaged as a result of injustice? Why does it matter? In answering these questions, historians like Niall Ferguson have often been particularly guilty of looking at the net gain or net loss of empire only (in utilitarian fashion), ignoring all the suffering involved in imperial conquest and governance. What is more, this involves an incredibly controversial, counterfactual claim that one would be worse off if some injustice did not happen. It may indeed be true that a nation is better off after colonization, but it is also true that there are an infinite number of other counterfactuals under which a nation may fare better without colonial rule.
This leads us into the intellectual morass of counterfactuals. All claims about harm and benefit necessarily make reference to some counterfactual, argues Butt. There are multiple counterfactuals and an infinite number of ways the act of colonial injustice in particular may not have happened. Here comes one of Butt’s central claims—viz., we ought to make reference not to the most probable counterfactual, but the most morally relevant, and in the cases of exploitation, the morally relevant counterfactual is one whereby the same kind of thing would have happened, but consensually and without exploitation. Butt’s analysis shifts the question from the one Ferguson seeks to answer positively—whether the people of a former colonial holding are better off when all is said and done—to whether they would be better off if they consented voluntarily.
Butt’s theory encounters trouble—as do all theories of moral obligation related to benefit—with the thorny question of involuntary receipt of benefits. There are numerous accounts of ‘foisting’ benefits on people and demanding their repayment in return: Hume’s house repair, as well as Nozick’s famous public broadcasting initiative, to name just two. Butt attempts to sidestep these examples by claiming that it is altogether a different type of benefit about which he is talking in the failure to repair past injustices. Above all, we have a moral imperative not to take advantage of other’s suffering and its lasting effects, which can take the form of either an active denial of reparations or a passive denial of the duty to give up benefits.
Having argued this, Butt must then make the critical connection between past injustice and the contemporary moral obligation of redistribution. Tout court, a failure to rectify injustice is unjust. We often think of injustices as getting better with time—indeed, their consequences might—yet Butt argues just the opposite. In fact, wrongs do not get better with time. They get worse. Every day that we fail to rectify a past injustice constitutes a new injustice—even if the recipient of the injustice does not ask us for such rectification. This is where Butt’s theory of responsibility enters. Nations, comprised of overlapping, interconnected and successive generations, can, in some cases, be held responsible for the effects or actions of their leaders. At the most fundamental level, Butt’s argument from responsibility implies that every day, irrespective of whether a victim asks, when we fail to fulfill rectificatory duties to a victim of colonization or their offspring, this injustice implicates society anew, thereby ‘covering’, implicating, or including the new members of that society who have failed to rectify for the past injustice. This somewhat unsettling conclusion, if true, implicates nearly every member of former imperial nations to disgorge the benefits of past empire.
Yet Butt’s conclusion suffers from a number of lacunae in argumentation. First and foremost, the more dispersed the benefit, the harder it is to claim responsibility for reparative obligation, while on the other hand, the more tangible it is, the easier it is to claim responsibility for rectificatory duties. It is quite straightforward if I ‘own’ the property rightly belonging to someone else that I ought to return it, and that each day I fail to return it—whether its owner asks me to do so or not—I commit injustice anew. However, these are not the types of benefits in question here; Butt focuses instead on the more diffuse and incredibly nuanced benefits supposedly incurred as a result of colonial holdings. Whether one has gained from such benefits—and just as importantly, whether one continues to gain, or whether gains have ceased to be extant—is a matter largely of social scientific discovery, which political theorists qua theorists are more or less ill-positioned to answer. (Ideally, of course, we can remove our theorist ‘hats’, so to speak, to answer the question social scientifically.) Simply positing that there have been diffuse benefits that are social scientifically visible and provable is not sufficient for a complete theory of global redistribution. Yet another shortcoming of Butt’s theory is that it focuses monolithically on economic reparations, when in fact, economic redistribution is quite insufficient for the reparation of the most egregious crimes of colonialism. The examples par excellence would be rape, murder and genocide, which remain, obviously, unrepaired by any level of economic (re)compensation. The last major shortcoming of Butt’s theory is that it lacks a statute of limitations, meaning that any advantage that can be demonstrated as having recourse to an historical injustice is fair game for generating reparative obligation claims. It seems quite absurd, however, to claim that modern day inhabitants of the former Roman Empire, for example, have claims against modern Italians, although some sort of disadvantage could likely be shown. The existence of a statute of limitations may make the theory seem more credible—at the slight, albeit probably not high, cost of potentially dampening Butt’s claim that it is always wrong to take advantage of another’s suffering or experience of injustice.
In sum, Butt’s theory attempts to close the gap between internal arguments for economic redistribution and global arguments for redistribution. It gets us partly there, but critical gaps exist in the theory for it to be sufficiently convincing. Thus, in no way does Butt’s theory, as currently explicated, come close to ending the current debate in political theory over global redistribution. But this is a tall order and, I presume, not his goal. Academically speaking, the theory does make a very important contribution to an evolving and ever-contentious subfield within the discipline, and provides a framework within which to deal with hairy issues of counterfactuals, harm, and benefit when arguing for or against the existence of reparative obligations due to historical injustice.