Competing Obligations

I’ve just finished reading Justice by Michael Sandel.

Near the end of the book, Sandel talks about reparations. In a Rawlsian framework of justice, which allows for universal obligations and particular obligations created by consent, reparations cannot be justified. As far as I understand it (and this is the first time I’ve encountered all of the political theories that Sandel is covering, so I may very well be misunderstanding), a system is just if all participants would have chosen it, if they’d been in a contracting situation where no one knew their role in society, what talents they were endowed with, etc. People probably wouldn’t agree to reparations in this kind of society, since they’d know that there’s some chance they’d end up paying for something their parents did, and so reparations cannot be part of a just system.

Sandel’s response to this is that it points out a flaw in Rawls’ political philosophy – we do think that there’s a third category of obligation – we think there’s universal obligation, obligation because you consented or made some contract, and then there’s a type of particular obligation that’s situational. Like, I’m obligated to vote, because I’m a citizen. Or I should call my mother, because I’m her daughter – not because I need to call everyone in the world, and not because I made some kind of contract with her to call her, but simply by virtue of our relationship.

I might be obligated to pay reparations or to make apologies for the sins of my ancestors because I recognize that I’m a member of this society. I recognize that the government from which I now benefit was built on the backs of slaves, and I recognize that many of the prejudices from that time are still held, making it difficult for black Americans to receive equal treatment in society.

So, let’s talk about taking statues honoring Confederate generals down. Sometimes people make the argument that we need to keep these sorts of monuments up in order to remember history. These are clearly people who don’t understand the basic purpose of Wikipedia. Or a public library. Or a museum.

But what about the folks who are more open about keeping such monuments? These are the ones who will tell you that they are proud of legacy of their ancestors. They want to keep these monuments up to honor them. [Peek on a Facebook comment thread about monument removal if you don’t believe that this opinion exists.]

However, I will bet anyone $500 that I don’t have that the very same people who want to honor and preserve the legacy of their ancestors are the ones who would not want the United States government to issue an official apology for enslaving Africans and their descendants. And I’ll bet you another $500 that if you asked one of those people why the government doesn’t owe black Americans an apology for slavery, they would say, “I didn’t own slaves.”

Look – I haven’t fully worked out this screed yet, so I’m not 100% sure that this is entirely logically consistent, but it seems to me: You Can’t Have It Both Ways. You cannot say that you are honoring the legacy of your region and your ancestors without accepting some modicum of responsibility for their actions. What, then, are you honoring? If you completely disavow their actions, then you wouldn’t want to preserve their statues. If you do not completely disavow their actions, then you probably do owe an apology to black Americans, because you’re actively contributing to a prejudiced society.

Now, I think you might be able to get around this conundrum if you were super specific about what it was that you wanted to honor. If you said, I want to honor my great-great-grandfather’s commitment to his children, then it’d be acceptable to have a statue of him, even if he was a slave-holder. But Confederate monuments aren’t honoring some aspect of men unrelated to slavery – they are honoring this man’s willingness to die in defense of slavery. So either you support that or you don’t.

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