Since President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a long, hard fought battle over the rights and restoration of slaves has hung over the heads of the American public. Now, with a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips and with a readiness to act against prejudice and for the equality of all people, it is imperative we try to understand the history of reparations and, if implemented, how it could affect our day-to-day lives. By using contractualism, virtue theory, and Scripture, I will attempt to prove offering reparations specifically to African-Americans is morally permissible.
First and foremost, in order to understand the argument, one must define these two terms. According to Southwood (2009), contractualism argues the wrong action is licensed only by rejectable principles. However, since contractualism comes short philosophically, virtue theory is the optimal substitute to morally justify reparations for African-Americans. According to Hursthouse (1991), virtue theory argues, “An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would do in the circumstances.” Nevertheless, these two arguments are sufficient to prove the case for reparations.
For further clarification, Boxill defines restitution as “restoration of something lost or stolen to its proper owner” (2010). However, remunerating exact payment for something done isn’t ideal. For example, A steals B’s bike. B returns the bike = restitution. B returns the bike + additional expenses for lost wages = reparations. According to Robert Nozick (1974), “Something fully compensates a person for a loss iff it makes him no worse off than he would otherwise have been.” In other words, compensation = whatever it takes to satisfy the recipient.
Multiple proposals have been considered to solve this colossal dilemma. One of the earliest included the displacement of slaves from the North American continent to avoid unnecessary integration and polluted genetics (Boxill 2010). Proposed by President Thomas Jefferson, who described blacks as animals in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), and the American Colonization Society, the resettlement of the “negroes” would suffice, thus removing the tumor residing in the affluent chrysalis that would become an industrial, political, and military superpower in the years to come (Boxill 2010). This eventually culminated in the creation of the Republic of Liberia, with its capital—Monrovia—named after slave-displacement proponent President James Monroe. Furthermore, President Lincoln urged compensated emancipation” for the slaveholders’ lost wages and the eventual deportation of slaves to the aforementioned settlement.
In response, a virtuous agent wouldn’t accept such an egregious effort to stymie educational and business progress on the grounds of polluted genetics and animalistic behavior. A virtuous agent wouldn’t commit the wrong action (e.g. deportation) to simply appease the Confederates. Rather, to create a more cohesive Union, it would behoove the people to work together to find a common solution to this unfortunate circumstance.
Now, in his article “Reparations,” J. Douglas Allen-Taylor (2009) begins his argument for reparations by documenting the federal government’s original intentions to establish reparations for African-Americans via tracts of land. Near the end of the Civil War, U.S. General William Sherman ordered that each “negro” family in Georgia and South Carolina were to receive “not more than forty acres” as recompense. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens likewise proposed “forty acres and a mule” for all freedmen to become “independent yeomen farmers” plus an addendum to the Freedmen’s Bureau Act that would secure this promise legally (Allen-Taylor 2009). However, with Lincoln’s assassination and President Andrew Johnson’s attempt to pacify the Confederates, Reconstruction failed miserably, thus ending the duly deserved land distribution guaranteed to freed slaves. For another hundred years, the federal government failed to protect their civil rights, thus creating a new era of de facto slavery.
To begin, one might object noting the reallocation of funds could expand the welfare state, further enslaving minority groups to the state rather than promulgating independence. However, in these circumstances, it would behoove the federal government to restore to the African-American community the dues it deserves on the grounds of precedence and mutual agreement. This would not only ease the conscience of the American public but also fulfill a long overdue promise.
Though this post strictly pertains to African-Americans, we mustn’t ignore other nations’ actions and efforts to repair and restore various schisms. For example, Germany offered reparations to the newly established State of Israel after the atrocities committed against the Jews during World War II. Furthermore, in our own history, the United States reimbursed Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II. Other countries have offered formal apologies in lieu of monetary compensation.
On the grounds of precedence, a virtuous agent would encourage governments that have promised reparations or some type of allowance to follow through their promises for the sake of integrity and honesty. However, calculating the amount of monetary compensation due is tedious.
Examining “The Economics of Reparations,” Darity and Frank (2003) both posit that precedence dictates the United States follow through their original plans to compensate African-Americans. However, the timing and the exact cost are only speculative. Cash reimbursement is an option, but objectors note that would do more harm than good. The authors agree, writing,
“We find that reparations payments that either mandate or provide incentives for blacks to spend on goods and services produced by nonblacks will raise the relative incomes of nonblacks…result[ing] in an absolute decline in black income” (Darity & Frank 2003).
If the federal government were to offer cash reparations after the emancipation of the slaves, “the 40-year period 1929-1969 alone runs between $500 billion and $1.6 trillion in 1983 dollars” (Darity & Frank 2003). Therefore, since cash compensation would exacerbate current financial need, a virtuous agent would reasonably reject this proposal on the basis of moral and long-term principle.
Furthermore, the harm argument posits that slavery “initiated an unbroken chain of harms” that have caused vast disparities between whites and African-Americans (Boxill 2010). Objectors of the harm argument opine that without slavery, African-Americans wouldn’t exist. However, a virtuous agent would find this argument devoid of empathy, reflecting the “slavery civilized African-Americans” argument (Coates 2014). This is not only unfitting and inappropriate but also repulsive. Slavery is not morally justified despite possible future benefits.
Conversely, the inheritance argument posits that present day African-Americans “inherited the rights to reparations” their ancestors never acquired (Boxill 2010). However, one might object saying the original slaveholders are deceased, and since historical records are untenable, descendants of slaves cannot attain the inheritance. Boxill retorts, “any responsibility for the legacy of slavery that persists today must be attributed to post Civil War governments” (2010). Though there isn’t a consensus behind this statement, others such as John Locke proposes, “When people die their rights to their property are normally passed on to their heirs” (Boxill 2010).
Following this line of thought, it is only logical that African-Americans should receive the due reparation promised to their progenitors. Therefore, a virtuous agent would, in these circumstances, concede, foregoing the antebellum inheritance argument for the postbellum reparation. With the passage of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments, the federal government pledged an oath to protect and uphold the moral principles they had failed to recognize for so long. Therefore, recognizing the inheritance model as a link in the “unbroken chain of harms,” it is incumbent upon the federal government to restore the postbellum reparations impeded by Jim Crow on the grounds of honesty and a restoration to the social contract guaranteed by the Constitution.
Furthermore, Laura Shin (2015) notes the numerous disparities afflicting minority families. She delineates the perpetual problems inlying these groups, stating that minority families are unable to withstand the economic shocks during volatile times. This wealth disparity can be traced back to redlining in the 1930s and the prejudice against blacks applying for mortgages (Coates 2014). The effects of such nefarious policies are prevalent today within the segregated, quarantine-like ghettos and projects near every major city. She attaches the educational disparities with the homeownership disparities by noting, “residential segregation keeps [minority] families in school districts with low-quality, under-resourced schools, which can then influence students’ preparedness for college” (Shin 2015). This resurfaces Boxill’s aforementioned harm and inheritance arguments, both of which agree an “unbroken chain of harms” persists to this day.
Though these observations aren’t particularly arguments for or against reparations, it is important to note the prolific effects of slavery and postbellum treatment toward the freedmen. Rather than cash compensation or land delegation, a virtuous agent would infer it would be more conducive to provide equal opportunity and incentive to raise all persons to greater heights and expectations. One might object, noting possible partiality and ensuing resentment. However, by moving forward and improving “education, training, and economic development” for all, it is indeed possible for the American public to move past the continual conjuring up of old sins, scarring our consciences and perpetuating cycles of hatred and prejudice (ABC News, 2017).
Moreover, some propose reparations as a type of retribution. In support of this claim, Locke believes that reparations repair the “damage that crime…causes” (Boxill 2010). For example, A punches B. B retaliates, justifiably, against the wrong action in the name of self-preservation (i.e. contractualism). Therefore, this type of retribution is justifiable. However, a virtuous agent would object to retributive justice, citing due process.
In the court of law, the criminal justice system isn’t meant to avenge or deter so much as it is meant to protect society from violent and unruly persons. Therefore, since the United States accrued wealth and strength by the forced and involuntary servitude of black slaves and, after emancipating the slaves, elected officials ignoring the illegal scourge (i.e. Jim Crow) inflicted upon the freedmen, after examining all the aforementioned data and exhaustive content elucidating the present day effects within the African-American community, in accordance with virtue theory and the reasonably justifiable means for reparations, it would behoove the federal government, to 1) formally apologize to the American people for the wrongs it has committed, 2) acknowledge history and proceed to remove all Confederate monuments from public places, and 3) return stolen land originally purchased, inherited, or by some other legal means, acquired by African-Americans during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era.
Lastly, Deuteronomy 15:12-15 says,
“If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you [or sells himself], he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today.’”
Usually, those who berate the Bible as an archaic work of primitive, illiterate, sub-intellectuals with nil understanding of science and philosophy, who have a skewed, misconstrued (and frankly, narrow and sometimes bigoted) understanding or view of the Bible are its biggest critics. Take, for example, Charles Dawkins. The Oxford Professor of Zoology minimizes clergymen of their limited understanding of science while raising his…even though he doesn’t specialize in theology. Regardless, he and many of his cohorts say the Bible supports slavery even though it doesn’t, quoting cherry-picked passages all the while denouncing others who do so.
“If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst” (Deut. 24:7).
(These are “impious actions” noted by Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.)
Throughout the Book of Deuteronomy, the Lord commands via the Golden Rule to remember their enslavement in Egypt under the Rule of Pharaoh. Therefore, the people of Israel are to welcome strangers in accordance with the first and second greatest commandments (Matt. 22:36-40; Deut. 6:5). But the imagery of slavery is much deeper than the surface of the skin or the treatment of others.
(For the sake of time and brevity, I will end here. But please be expecting a future post pertaining to the interwoven philosophy of slavery, determinism, free will, distraction, and punishment.)
In conclusion, I have provided substantial evidence and coherent judgment using contractualism, virtue theory, and a few biblical references to prove offering reparations to African-Americans is morally permissible. By implementing these long overdue policies and promises, hopefully a healing between majority and minority groups will transpire.
(For other references, please see On earth, as it is in Heaven.)