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The Ethics of Reparations

It’s back pay, it’s owed, and it’s overdue

I have never, not once, supported reparations simply because I was stuck on the “how” part of the solution and the notion that individuals, who have had nothing to do with the original crime, should not be punished for the sins of a crime committed a century ago. The aim of this essay is to show the reader how I, and probably others against reparations, were under a misunderstanding regarding the problem of reparations and how understanding this can help those for reparations reason with those against reparations. The solution to reparations is found in a careful study of basic ethical theories as well as in the understanding of the positions both sides take. When answering if reparations should be paid I will, for simplicity’s sake, not delve into how the reparations would or should be paid and anyone who does is shying away from the actual question and is in bad conscience. The question of reparations is indeed an ethical one and is a complex ethical question in that it forces one to consider many different angles of ethical reasoning as well as whether reparations, or paying for labor, is fair and/or just for all parties. To better frame the solution to this problem, fairness and justice should first be examined.

Fairness is the act of “treating both or all sides alike without reference to one’s own feelings” or rather, an objective viewing of a person, situation, or event without reference to one’s own interests whereas justice implies “adherence to a standard of rightness without references to one’s own inclinations” (Paul and Elder, 45-46). To apply the frames of fairness and justice to the problem of reparations, one must consider the crimes: slavery, treatment of slaves, and a society that supported or did not resist slavery. Additionally, because economic and monetary sources are being considered, we must ask ourselves: was there a theft? A loss of life and career? 

Turning our attention toward ethical theories, one is presented with two obvious choices: consequentialism and deontology. Deontology holds that certain acts are wrong in and of themselves. No matter the outcome, acts that are deemed to be immoral or unethical are simply wrong. This does create a problem when considering community-held beliefs. In the South, as with the bible, slavery was not inherently bad. The South, closely related to biblical scripture, held an outdated belief that slavery was not immoral and often used the bible in defense of slavery (Rae, 2018). Never take moral advice in tablet form, and that is what the South and other traditionalist societies have done to justify their actions throughout history. And it is only absurd now because time has dragged areas like the South by the hair toward a more enlightened time. The South, arguably has never and will never give that up. It is easy to say that slavery is wrong therefore deontology solves this issue, but try telling that to communities that still defend slavery and, indeed, the communities that defend the actions of the South to this day.

Consequentialism is a much better system to use in this particular situation because it relies on consequences rather than acts to judge right from wrong. Although this system, much like deontology, could be misinterpreted to justify actions (slavery of a mionority helps the majority – a fallacy, but an argument nevertheless) it does provide one with a pathway to action now. Understanding that a great miss deal was done and that many suffered and that many are still suffering today as a result, it begins to become clear that there needs to be an act that leads to an outcome that attempts to rectify this issue. One would ask what is the best outcome? Well, in a Lannister fashion, most would claim that paying debts is a virtuous quality. Additionally, we would also claim that damaged parties should always be compensated. Both of these qualities together would suggest that we, as a society, should

Remember, these were not just slaves, they were people who could have lived the life they wanted and pursued any sort of career they wanted. But because those many lost lives, and the livelihood of their descendants, can never ever even hope to be compensated, we can only deal with the labor they were not paid. Christopher Hitchens provides a beautiful argument for reparations (link here and below – I strongly encourage the reader to watch it), and answers all these questions in a way only he can:

“there was an original traceable offense – a taking, a theft, a rape, a dispossession, a confiscation [and] there isn’t a thinking person who can say ‘no’ to that. The evidence is very clear and it mounts with every every chapter of historical inquiry” – he goes on to explain that there is “hardly one official brick piled on another that wasn’t piled there by unpaid labor…and [the wealth from that labor is] piled, actually in the Treasury Department and the federal financial system who took that free labor in those dead souls and turned it into capital and it’s back pay and it’s owed and it’s overdue” (Hitchens, 2001).

In this sense, not only of lost lives, lost careers, subjugations, but also of stolen and unpaid labor, one gets an undeniable sense that: yes, of course slavery is wrong and labor should be paid. Just that simple admission will lead any fair-minded individuals gently toward the path of reparations. Additionally, it would overwhelmingly suggest that what happened was undoubtedly unfair and unjust by its very nature.

Because the issue is largely an economic one, Adam Smith would be the first one to turn to regarding ethics and economics. Adam Smith, like his Enlightenment colleagues, would suggest that human nature have fixed qualities. Smith broke these qualities down into two general groups. One is the lower or commercial virtues that include self-interest, prudence, justice, industry, frugality, and the like while the other set consists of nobler virtues of generosity, gratitude, compassion, kindness, pity, and other  sympathetic characteristics (Younkins, 1 – 2). Additionally, Smith also asserts that all basis of morality is sympathy which, to him, means “harmony of any emotions ranging from compassion to pity to joy” (Younkins, 2). Adam Smith contributed much to our current idea of economics and would assert that “the more economic thinking extends its reach into social and civic life, the more market reasoning becomes inseparable from moral reasoning” (Sandel, 138). In this way, the standards, values, and virtues people hold have an effect on what non-market norms are pressed upon society. Most in today’s socity would agree that slavery is wrong and not paying labor is also wrong. What then is the issue when considering reparations?

Of course, most enlightened people would agree that what happened was indeed horrible and should be scorned. However, there are those remaining who would claim that reparations should not be paid because it is not practical, or fair to punish individuals today who did not have any hand in what happened in the past. As Carolin Emcke mentioned, regarding the German attitudes about reparations for crimes after the Holocaust and Second World War, “it really doesn’t matter if I committed the crime” and it really “doesn’t matter if my grandparents personally committed any crimes – that’s irrelevant. It was a collective crime committed by society” and that society owed to those it harmed (Sandel). In the show Point Taken, the issue of reparations is discussed and the side against reparations rests their entire case on the issue that individuals now are not at fault for crimes of the past. This is an understandable position – Immanuel Kant would agree that we are only responsible for the acts we freely choose to make. But the Prussian philosopher did not live through the nationalistic and collectivlist attitudes that evilved in the early 20th century and did not consider the choices made by collectives. The party in favor of reparations, likewise, agreed that the “how” of reparations is irrelevant until we, as a society, recognize that it is not just or fair. Additionally, because the value stolen is definitely not zero and that the wealth from unpaid slave labor does not just go away, it is available for repayment. As Hitchens mentined before, this amount is piled in the very instituations slavery helpped strengthen. And finally, the party in favor of reparations made the point that reparations are not a burden on the individual, since the individual did not commit the crime to begin with. Reparations are a burden on the government – the same government that either supported slavery or allowed it to continue for far too long. 

Although it does not seem that the anti-reparation clan (pun intended) is close to accepting that even the government should be held accountable and responsible for reparations, we are still posed with the question as to whether we have a collective responsibility.  Anti-reparation individuals who are left would still insist that there is no collective responsibility because people cannot be held accountable for the past, people’s ancestors may not have been involved, or other excuses of the sort. They would undoubtedly claim that collective responsibility for crimes unrelated to individuals would result in a cycle of retaliation where individuals would perpetually be punished for crimes or people would be “less likely to feel responsible for their own misconduct if they feel others would be held collectively responsible” (Smiley, 14). Hitchens, too, addressed these sort of excuses by pointing out that “ when people begin to introduce the irrelevant and the non sequitur and the generalization,  you know you’re onto something” (Hitchens, 2001). This is just a way to create an absurd situation where the crimes of the past cannot be repaired or addressed. These objections, like the others, are either a misunderstanding of the facts at hand or a refusal to accept even collective responsibility a nation’s past. But individual and collective responsibility, especially with so much time passing after the initial crime, are mutually exclusive. In the case of slavery, “the collective itself appears to have produced the harm…through its saping and organization of individual intentions and actions” so purely individualistic arguments for responsibility is not the answer and simply false in the case of reparations (Smiley, 14). So, since the crime is clearly a collective one, and since it is not the individual who is being punished, and since we as citizens of the nation that facilitated the crime have decided that we do not accept slavery and do not agree that labor should be unpaid, it is clear that we, as a collective nation, denounce the actions of the past and should pay reparations for the stolen lives and labor.

The last line of defensiveness in the counter arguments towards reparations lies not in the practicality of the repayments nor in the individual accountability. It lies in, what is viewed to be, cultural pride. The rebels of the South lost a devastating defeat that left them at the mercy of the North. Many lost their lives and their livelihood in the fiery March to the Sea and other offenses by the North and were forced, with the exception of the Confederados, accept the terms of surrender (Greenspan, 2018). The South did not, however, honestly accept the terms. They denounced equality with their former slaves and violently rejected the 14th, 15th, and 16th Amendments and, in this sense, never accepted their place back into the Union. A key benefit of a democratic state is the pluralist good which overrides local ethnic enclaves and unites the nation (Bounds, 359). But this does not seem to ring true with our Southern comrades. Many in the South still consider the cause of the Confederacy to be a pure and untainted one that should be respected. They demand respect for the flag that represents this movement even in the face of mass disapproval towards the treasonous Confederacy. The battlerag of the Confederacy, “is not just unpurged and unwashed – it is quite deliberately flaunted by those who still think that the vilest aspect of the old ‘way of life’ are the ones to be cherished” (Hitchens, 2000). This rings true to the integrationist belief that, “the problems of alienation and conflict in modern society can be resolved only through recovery of a coherent value scheme” and especially a traditionalists value system that respects the South’s history of slavery and injustice towards those they deem to be inferior (Bounds, 357). In contrast to this traditionalist system, there is the North and urban cities which embrace the participationist system, “concerned nt with the experience of belonging but instead with the loss of political agency and efficacy that results from contradictions among the various spheres of society (Bounds 357). This is the major flaw in republicanism in that it relies on a common life and common values in order to deliberate, but when communities are separated by culture, wealth, and otherwise socio-economic variables (some of which come directly from this reparation issue), the government is unable to accurately and fairly represent the citizens and the public voice is split and eroded at a national level. The split, in my opinion, is a result of experience or lack thereof. In virtue systems and most ethical systems, the more experience and education the better, which should why the tolerant tend to belong to well-educated and multicultural communities. The South is not only closed off to different people, it is dreadfully uneducated compared to the rest of the country. By the 1830’s because of public schools, “it was clear that the North would have better schools than the South” which would, over time, create a huge gap between integrationist South and participationist North, a gap which “has not been fully closed even today” (Jacoby, 52). 

This gap seems to have created two separate value systems – one which includes virtue and one that does not. Virtues are habits that strive toward an ideal character and “at the heart of the virtue approach to ethics is the idea of community” (Velasquez, et al., 2). Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics agreed that virtue is shaped by the habits and ideal character of the community one is exposed to and that the greatest principle of a virtuous character is that we should “enjoy the things we ought to enjoy and to hate the things we ought to hate” – and in today’s society, as well as post-civil war, most agree that slavery and ineuqality between races is wrong, and yet the South resisted those virtuous charactoristics in palce of their own. Virtue ethics is flawed in this way because any comminity which values something as horrid as slavery is unethical and not virtueous. So, virtue ethics in today’s standards is find, but these standards can and often do change in a way that can be justified to fit the narrative of the time. The SOuth, for example, rejected the virtue of the North and other enlightened nations in favor of their outdated virtues – virtues which become all too absurd and disturbing as time marches on. But this gap in values seems to be key in explaining why the South and the rest of the country (and the rest of Western civilization), slite on the issue of reparations. 

When confronted with an admittedly difficult injustice, one must ask themselves: can it be repaired? Can it be made good? In the case of slavery, the crimes committed can never be compeltly repaired and we, as individuals, cannot do much for those lives already taken. We can, however, as individuals of a nation, take the first important step and decide to acknowledge the issue and begin addressing it. Once the problem is acknowledged, the nation can begin deliberating how to pay reparations – but that first crucial step the United States and the South have been avoiding for centuries, must be accomplished first.

My solution, or more specifically, any solution must begin by coming to terms regarding a few basic principles that all Americans agree on: labor should be paid, slavery is wrong, and untold damage resulted. Additionally, reparations are not to harm or punish individuals, but rather the state which is still responsible for the initial crime. This would require something of a cultural confrontation with the South and those who sympathize with their traditionalist pride, but it would be a confrontation worth having. Those who resist should be dragged to the moral and cultural standard of the modern times and leave the outdated pseudo-virtues behind where they belong. As for the method of the solution, I have heard some grumblings that suggest the social safety net and benefits are in fact the reparations. Whether or not this came from a good place or not is unknown, but they may have a point. The base for a solution may in fact be a stronger safety net that addresses specific issues with inequality as suggested by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Other solutions may include a guaranteed income as suggested by the likes of Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King Jr, Milton Friedman, Stephen Hawking, Barack Obama, and Andrew Yang to name a few (Yang, 166-167). Finally, nay-sayers must be convinced that the issue is an economic one and the stolen labor must be paid back. Once we, as a country can agree on that, then the logistics can be addressed. Until them, we must recognize that this stolen labor is in fact back pay, owed, and overdue.


Aristotle, Ross, W.D. Nicomachean Ethics Book 2, Section 1-3 and Book 10, section 1-3. Createspace Independent Pub, 2014.

Coates, T. “The Case for Reparations” The Atlantic June, 2014. Accessed October 23, 2019 at

Bounds E. M. “Conflicting Harmonies: Michael Walzer’s Vision of Community” Journal of Religious Ethics Vol 22 (2) Fall, 1994, pp 355-374.

Jacoby, S. The Age of American Unreason. (2008) Pantheon books: New York. 

Hitchens, C. “Christopher Hitchens about Reparations for Slavery (2001)” Filmed November 7, 2001 Youtube video posted September 13, 2009.

Hitchens, C. “Scars and Bars” The Nation February 21, 2000. 

Greenspan, Jesse. “The Confederacy made its Last Stand in Brazil” History August 31, 2018. Accessed October 24, 2019 at

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2006). The Thinker’s Guide to Understanding the Foundations of Ethical Reasoning (2nd ed.). Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

Sandel, M. J. “Market Reasoning as Moral Reasoning: Why Economists should Re-engage with Political Philosophy” Journal of Economic Perspectives Vol 27 (4) Fall, 2013, pp 121-140.

Smiley, M. “From Moral Agency to Collective Wrongs: Re-thinking Collective Moral Responsibility” Journal of Law and Policy Vol 19(1) 2010. 

Rae, N. “How Christian Slaveholders used the Bible to Justify Slavery” Time February 23, 2018. Accessed October 23, 2019 from

Yang, Andrew. The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future. United States: Hachette Books, 2018.

Youkins, E. W. “Adam Smith’s Moral and Economic System” Le Quebecois Libre Montreal, No 153, April 15, 2005.

Featured image is by A. A. Lamb, Emancipation Proclamation (1864)


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