Historical Injustice

Political philosopher Matt Zwolinski has a nice, little post at the Bleeding-Heart’s blog concerning the notoriously complicated problem of historical injustice. The fictional tale he uses to introduce the topic brilliantly exposes the untenability of the argument that we should ignore the past and “start fresh from where we are.” I also love his critical comment about how the dogmatic commitment libertarians have to methodological individualism tends to blind them to how the world actually works, which leads them to cast insensate moral judgments on disadvantaged persons (Bryan “the Western poor are undeserving” Caplan is a case study in this callous way of thinking):

Second, an over-reliance on so-called “methodological individualism” sometimes leads libertarians to be unnecessarily obtuse in thinking about historical injustice. “Only individuals act,” we sometimes like to say. Or even “there are no groups, only individuals.” But there are groups, and they matter. Individuals belong to families that transmit economic, cultural, and other advantages (and disadvantages) from one generation to the next. Individuals have racial, religious, and ethnic identities, and those identities shape the way they are treated by other individuals and institutions both consciously and subconsciously, intentionally and unintentionally. Put these two kinds of identity together and it’s easy enough to see that injustices against an individual in one generation can negatively affect other individuals in later generations. And that systematic injustices against certain groups of individuals can have systematic effects on other members of those groups in later generations.

4 Responses to Historical Injustice

  1. I would argue, though, that the son is not responsible for the sins of the father. At the same time, historical understanding should guide us in understanding how we got to where we are, and what institutional changes we should be working on. There is a difference between being social and collectivism. Racism is a form of collectivism, not social behavior. It is, in fact, anti-social behavior. At the same time, we do have to take into consideration how people identify themselves and others. Which only brings us back to institutions. We need good institutions.

  2. ” the son is not responsible for the sins of the father.”

    It seems like the son starts to become responsible for the sins of the father when he fails to acknowledge the sins of the father, the privileges he has because of these sins and the costs these sins have imposed on others. The son has, at the very least, a duty to seriously think about ways he can right the wrongs of the past that have benefited him and hurt others.

    I think you’re right to put the focus on improving our institutions and constructing new, better institutions, because the real goal should not be to punish the son for the sins of the father but to drive out institutionalized forms of injustice and to make the world more humane. So, partly, our thinking should be focused on advancing the condition of “the disadvantaged” in ways that does not needlessly harm “the privileged”, although justice may often require that we strip “the privileged” of their privileges!

  3. We agree that there should be no privileges. That’s an institutional issue. I would argue that anyone who is actively trying to create good institutions that do in fact create a level playing field, eliminating privilege and thus making it possible for each, regardless of race, ethnicity, etc., to succeed if they are willing to do what is necessary is the one who is in fact trying to make things right. Good intentions do not. And I would argue that the expression of good intentions is often used as a way to justify continuing privilege.

  4. Pingback: Historical Injustice 2 – Two possible solutions | The Social Rationalist

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