Reparations and Ethics

My wife, who has published two books on slavery, recently gave a presentation to a local group interested in exploring the parallels between slavery and today’s movement for racial justice. One of the first questions was whether reparations were justified and useful.

The question spoke directly to one of the main points my wife had made—that slavery has persisted since ancient times because those who had the privilege of owning slaves were reluctant to give up that privilege. As Americans struggle today with how to begin correcting for our history of racism and inequality, a key question is what and to what extent are the privileged willing to give up their privileges.

From an ethical point of view, it’s clear that discrimination is wrong. There is no ethical theory that justifies treating people differently depending on the color of their skin, their religion, or their ethnic heritage. But equal treatment in the present is just the beginning. How do we try to correct the imbalances resulting from centuries of unequal treatment?

Ethical theory, in almost all of its forms, speaks to that as well. Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism (simply put as the greatest good for the greatest number) requires that the privileged among us takes steps to help the less privileged so more people enjoy the good. Even Aristotle, who believed slavery was natural and right, pushed the notion that human beings can best flourish as individuals if society flourishes as a whole. Confucius and Kierkegaard reached similar conclusions via different paths.

On an individual level, many of us try to address the problem by volunteering or donating to organizations that help those in need. But reparations and charity are different animals. We give charity because it’s the right thing to do. Reparations are specifically to address past wrongs. That’s also the right thing to do, but it instantly becomes political because people tend to think reparations must be justified by past misdeeds that they may be unwilling to acknowledge or accept responsibility for.  

Let’s leave the politics aside and just focus on why addressing inequality is the right thing to do – the ethical thing to do. That means putting intentions and guilt aside, not because they shouldn’t be considered at some point and in some way, but because they stir controversy that detracts from action. And the need for action is urgent because inequality as it exists today in America is self-perpetuating. Growing up poor, often a direct result of slavery, makes it infinitely harder to prosper as an adult.

We know for example, that the resources available to schools vary considerably, even in the same county or city, because most school revenue is based on property taxes. So wealthy neighborhood schools have smaller classes, better teacher-to-pupil ratios, newer books, and more computers. A couple of jurisdictions have tried to address this by enlarging school districts or even proposing statewide funding equality, but the opposition to that is intense. People who’ve moved into a neighborhood because the schools are good are rarely willing to see some of their property taxes diverted to schools in poorer neighborhoods. The question again, is, what are the better off willing to give up?

The pandemic has not only exposed these long built-in disadvantages, but it is also making them worse. As schools move to online learning, poorer kids without computers or broadband are suffering. The inequalities in health care seem particularly unethical. We are seeing much lower survival rates for Covid patients in public hospitals, which treat mostly Medicare and Medicaid patients and have smaller staffs and fewer resources than private hospitals that cater to patients with private insurance.

The pandemic is also having a very uneven effect on incomes. Those in lower income categories are more likely to have to work in person and more likely to lose jobs when businesses close or scale back. White collar workers are far more likely to be able to work from home. It’s inconvenient and more difficult, but it’s hardly the same as losing jobs or hours. In fact, many other Americans have benefited from the pandemic, as economist Peter Atwater explained in an interview with Axios. With the stock market rising despite the economy, those who still have jobs and investments have gotten a boost, making the wealth gap even larger than it already was. 

Atwater points to growing evidence that those doing well are hoarding their cash. I’ve argued that this is morally and ethically wrong. There is a greater need than ever before for charitable donations that mitigate the economic pain suffered by so many today. But that is a band aid approach to the underlying problem. And that leads us back to the question of reparations for Americans who have suffered from generations of discrimination.

Let’s try to avoid the political minefield of deciding who’s guilty and to what extent and focus instead on how to fix the problem.

If we think of reparations as a way to ease inequality and begin to make up for past discrimination, perhaps we can agree that it is ethically right—that, as Aristotle believed, none of us can truly flourish in a holistic sense unless we all flourish, then it’s obviously time to get to work.

The work must begin where we started this essay—by asking what are the privileged willing to give up, not as individuals trying to repay specific descendants of slaves, but as a society trying to address the systematic inequalities that are tearing us apart.

The only way to do that is through government programs on the national and local levels, but the money for that must ultimately come from the privileged in the form of higher taxes.

We need to equalize spending so that students have a fair shot no matter where they live or what school they attend. We need to treat health care as a right so everyone has the same basic level of  care. We need to address housing, policing, and social services and so much else in ways that approach equality. Obviously this won’t be quick or easy, but that’s why we need to begin now.

And in the meantime, those of us who haven’t been hurt financially by the pandemic need to step up and do as much as we can through charities. Many Americans are already doing that, and we can be proud of being the most generous nation in the world, but we can’t let up. Charitable giving may just be a temporary salve, but it is a salve that is sorely needed right now, and beyond a doubt, it’s an ethical imperative.

But the bigger questions must be addressed on a national and collective level. And it can’t happen soon enough. 


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