The excitingly convenient thing about my philosophy seminar is that all the readings are online. This week’s was section 5 of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Intergenerational Justice. This is my (somewhat lame) response. I’m going to invite comments, insights and critiques on all of these things I post here because two of them are going to be turned into actual papers, and I am not very well-versed in ethics. Go for it.

At the beginning of section 5.1, Meyer raises the question of intergenerational reparations owed to the victims of past injustices and/or their descendants. Here, he offers two different interpretations: either the descendants of victims of past injustices suffer additional harm in the present, or both the descendants of victims of past injustices and those past victims have suffered harm. Intuitively, I think there is another causal way of describing the ways in which currently living people can claim reparations for the injustices committed against their ancestors.

Suppose that Meyer’s example African-American descendant of slaves, Robert, can indeed trace his genealogy back to a group of people kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery. Let us also suppose, as Meyer does, that we are only concerned with whether Robert has a claim against past agents of injustice, not whether he can legally demand reparations.

In note 47, Meyer mentions that we cannot use the diachronic notion of harm in Robert’s case. This is sensible because it assumes that Robert would have had a prior state of well being at the time his forebears were wronged. This doesn’t seem to make sense as Robert would not have existed in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. However, the subjunctive-historical notion of harm might allow direct descendants of slaves to claim compensation. He doesn’t explore this argument further.

To paraphrase Meyer, under the subjunctive-historical notion of harm, something at time t1 harms someone only if the cause makes the person to be worse off at time t2 than the person would have been at time t2 had the agent not been involved in the cause. While Meyer has a point in saying that it makes no sense to say that Robert is less well off now than if his forebears had not been kidnapped, there seems to be a more complex series of causal links here. I am skeptical about saying that there is a just cause for Robert to demand reparations for his forebears’ kidnappings, but intuitively it seems Robert is justified in demanding reparations for a series of events that began with the kidnapping and enslavement of Robert’s forebears.

Briefly, it makes sense to sketch a more complex picture of harmful events – Robert has a right to compensation due to a longstanding saga of wrongs. I suppose some of the same principles underlying the subjunctive-historical notion of harm can be used here. I was unable to locate Lyons’ 2004 paper that Meyers cites in his article, but in note 47 Meyers gestures at the idea that the injustices against African Americans are ongoing, or at the very least have persisted for generations.

So perhaps this is another kind of way to imagine intergenerational harm. It is possible that current generations can suffer from harm done to their forebears, but it might serve to better justify their claims to compensation if there is some way in which that harm is carried across previous generations. I think that this conception of intergenerational harm may run into issues of identity – what if, for example, the genealogy of harm is untraceable? (For that matter, why can certain people whose family has suffered longstanding historical injustice claim reparations and others not?) Why do we think the descendants of victims of injustice have claim to compensation at all?

To address the second question, at least, I think it is the case that repeated historical injustices may cause the current generation to suffer. Other individuals have not inherited a history of the same injustices, therefore putting them on unequal footing with the descendants of slaves, for example. These sorts of injustices may play out in preferential treatment due to bias, or economic shortcomings as a result of discriminatory practices, or even deprivation of life and property. Instead of isolating the injustice to the single event – when Robert’s forebears were kidnapped and sold into slavery – his claims to reparations are based on a series of events which have left him disadvantaged in comparison to others.

In order to construct a better case for reparations, it might be preferable to formulate a subjunctive-historical notion of harm that addresses persistent injustice.