Friday, 6 October 2017

Our Moral Obligations

This post is about an issue in moral philosophy that I don't understand and its main purpose is to help me wrestle with my confusion. Let me begin with some invented scenarios.

Suppose my adult brother who lives far away robs someone and then disappears. Do I have a moral obligation to make any restitution to the victim for the harm they have sustained? So long as I didn't encourage or aid the crime I imagine the answer is No because I myself took no part in the act of harm. If you disagree I'd like to hear from you via a blog comment!

But here's a second scenario. Suppose my father and his brother (my uncle) were in a quarrel that resulted in my father being able to steal very significant assets from his brother. Maybe this happened years before I was even born and both protagonists are dead. Do I have a moral obligation to my uncle's children (my cousins) to make restitution. This seems like the same as the first scenario. But I think it is actually more complicated if my father was able to pass on to me wealth that resulted indirectly from the fraud against my uncle and my cousins are therefore poorer than they would be otherwise. In that case I am profiting inadvertently from an act in the past and my cousins are suffering. So, should I compensate my cousins for their loss?

Here is an issue on which people might disagree. On the one hand I committed no crime so I should suffer no penalty. On the other hand I profited (albeit inadvertently) from a crime and should make redress. Is there some sort of statute of moral limitations at work here? Would the onus to make redress lapse after a generation? A century? A millenium? It seems clear that for personal moral sins the obligation to make amends should remain until redress has occurred. But what about moral sins that you did not commit but just profited by?

So, to restate now in general terms the dilemma I am wrestling with: if you profit from a crime that you did not commit, possibly long in the past, do you have an obligation to make restitution? I'm aware that the answer might be very much more complicated than a simple Yes or No. Indeed possibly neither of these extreme answers would satisfy most people. If you think you know criteria that might resolve particular instances of the question I'd like to hear from you.

I have a feeling that many people will answer with some sort of qualified Yes, hedged with remarks about circumstances to be taken into account, the practical matter of verifying the facts of the crime if committed long ago, and the moral complexity of being accountable for very many actions beyond ones control. Nevertheless a reluctant "Yes, in general" is how most people will answer the question.

And this brings me to some of the greatest conundrums of our time. How should the countries that used to be colonial powers compensate their former colonies? This applies to some very wealthy countries such as Britain and Spain who stripped their colonies of immense material and cultural wealth. Another question: How should countries that, historically, have repressed groups within their borders compensate these groups? Here an obvious example is the USA's behaviour towards its black citizens.

These are questions so large that we run away from them most of the time because we cannot bear the enormous guilt that honest answers would cause. Do wealthy Englishmen whose estates have been purchased or maintained with the plundered wealth of African countries think too much about the suffering of present day Africans whose ancestors were robbed? Do rich white Americans think about how their wealth has been accumulated by enslaving black people? No, because the guilt would be crushing.

So what do the beneficiaries of their plundering ancestors do instead? They either ignore the moral question or they construct complex narratives that absolve their guilt.

What can we do about this? I accept that facing up to their moral guilt is too much for most people. But we have to begin somewhere. We have to change the narrative of entitlement that the rich countries cling to. We have to talk about these moral questions, make people aware that their present comfortable circumstances have been won by actions taken in the past that cause suffering in the present. This will hardly begin to redress the injustices we ignore every day but recognising how we became so rich and fortunate is surely the first step.

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