A little more on the principle of rectification.

William Brafford

William Brafford grew up in North Carolina, home of the world's best barbecue, indie rock, and regional soft drinks. He just barely sustains a personal blog and "tweets" every now and then under the name @williamrandolph.

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14 Responses

  1. Art Deco says:

    For example, I am pretty convinced that any good principle of rectification would require some form of reparations to, say, descendants of slaves (at least from certain corporations and municipalities), but I don’t have the first clue how such reparations would be determined or structured on a large scale. I really don’t.

    You are convinced that we should compensate people for torts which occurred five generations ago?Report

  2. William Brafford says:

    Within the context of an entitlement theory and based on the arguments I’ve read and not related here, yes. But my whole point is that the amount of compensation due is effectively indeterminate since we don’t have a principle of rectification.Report

    • Unless you have had considerable inter-marriage between proximate cousins, you have 16 great-great grandparents. Just out of curiosity, how many do you know by name?Report

      • William Brafford in reply to Art Deco says:

        I could look up a few names pretty quickly. Off the top of my head, one great-grandparent was a Presbyterian minister in the Shenandoah valley, and another was a doctor in Lexington, VA. Two out of sixteen isn’t so great, I admit.

        I want to reiterate that I’m not arguing for reparations in this post. I’m saying that I think Nozick’s entitlement theory, if true, would require us to take historical violations of rights very seriously, since every transaction in the history of any given holding has to be legitimate. But I myself am not convinced that the entitlement theory of justice is right.Report

        • No, your great-great grandparents, not your great-grandparents (who would number only eight). If your an adult of median age, that likely would be last generation in your family who owned slaves.

          A great deal can occur in the life of a family in five generations, in terms of the rise and decline of its fortunes. With regard to people in advantageous positions in 1860, I will wager you regression toward the mean has dissipated it.Report

          • William Brafford in reply to Art Deco says:

            Sorry, I mistyped “great-grandparents.” The two I described are great-great-grandparents. My grandfather’s grandfathers. Civil war era. (I could tell you a lot more about my great-grandparents.)

            You are probably correct about “advantageous position.” Unfortunately, Nozick isn’t concerned with relative position in society. He’s concerned with specific holdings. I don’t know how I can be more clear that I’m trying to talk about what follows from Nozick’s theory of justice, not what follows from what I myself believe about justice.Report

            • O.K.
              But you said, “For example, I am pretty convinced that any good principle of rectification would require some form of reparations to, say, descendants of slave”. To a mind such as mine, untutored in philosophy, that sounds like a statement of your view, not a restatement of Robert Nozick’s view.

              If you are making an argument for reparations with reference to rights of ownership over land or merchandise or cash or securities derived from the chain of custody and lawful conveyance of same, the question immediately arises as to what, in the relationship between slaveholder and slave, is analogous to tangible or abstract property.Report

              • William Brafford in reply to Art Deco says:

                Well, it’s not a statement of my view. The ambiguity in the sentence is my fault. I mean something more along the lines of “any principle of rectification that would be good for Nozick’s theory.” I have tried to emphasize this in all of my further comments.

                “the question immediately arises as to what, in the relationship between slaveholder and slave, is analogous to tangible or abstract property.”

                A good question. It might be that the owner’s taking of crops harvested by slaves violates the principle of acquisition, but as I’m writing that it seems like a stretch. I have to admit I picked a poor example.

                So let’s pick a better historical example. What about the appropriation and selling of Cherokee lands under Andrew Jackson’s questionable diplomatic leadership? There’s tangible property involved in that.

                Now here’s what I am trying to say, and this applies to historystudent as well. A whole bunch of holdings in the southeastern USA have a snag in their transfer history, which means that the principle of rectification has to be applied. Does the kind of principle of rectification Nozick’s talking about say, “just forget it and start over”? If so, why? If not, then how could we possibly know the kind of counterfactual information we would need to rectify the injustice? Has the government done enough to rectify it already? How do human choices affect the outcome? For me, these questions are enough to make Nozick’s entitlement theory impractical until he can supply us with a principle of rectification. That’s the point of the post. If neither historical example works for you, surely you can find an example in history of some large-scale violation of property rights. (And for Nozick, property rights are natural rights.)

                I am not presenting a positive argument for reparations, and if that’s what you think I am doing, then we are talking past each other and should probably stop.Report

  3. historystudent says:

    Justice isn’t something that can be served up to one generation in order to rectify matters done to their ancestors. Justice is either meted out properly to the living who are directly concerned, or it is not. If it isn’t, then, those who were wronged die wronged and those who did the wrong die without having made restitution. But one cannot make amends to the dead by throwing money or other forms of recompense at later generations. Each generations is responsible for how it relates to its contemporaries, not for how ancestors related to theirs. One can only treat our own generation with respect and dignity. We can certainly regret certain actions of some who might have been our own forebears. We can even say (and, of course, mean) that we regret it. But no one can truly apologize for another, and no one can give “justice” that isn’t his or hers to give.Report

    • William Brafford in reply to historystudent says:

      I can see where you’re coming from, but we’re talking specifically about Nozick’s theory. According to Nozick, a person is entitled to a holding (basically inclusive of all kinds of property) if (1) that holding was properly acquired in the first place and (2) the holding in question was transferred legitimately (i.e. voluntarily) from the original holder through any number of intermediaries to the current holder.

      If either of these two principles has been violated, then the person may not be entitled to the holding. This is Nozick’s entitlement theory. It seems pretty necessary that every transfer in the entire history of whatever holding we’re talking about is necessary. If you want to talk about a different theory of justice, be my guest. But that’s not what the post is about.

      In the context of an entitlement theory, consider this example.

      Someone (perhaps a Bernie Madoff type) steals from or defrauds a whole bunch of people of their legitimate holdings, then marries, has a daughter, and the holdings to her. He dies before he is caught. Is the daughter now entitled to all her riches? I would say no. Now suppose one of the victims also died. Could that victim’s child press a claim against the perpetrator’s daughter, even though they’re both a generation removed from the crime? I think so, and the entitlement theory certainly says yes, since the daughter is not entitled to her holdings by the first two principles. Now, since we don’t know what the rectification principle is, we don’t know whether all the holdings go back to the victim’s descendant, or just some of them. It’s easy to complicate this scenario so that we have no idea who owes what to whom, but I think it’s enough to hint that at least some kinds of rectifications may be pursued after the parties directly involved have died.Report

  4. historystudent says:

    I understand how you are approaching things and that you are analyzing Nozick’s theory. I base any and all comment here strictly on your posts, and not on the original Nozick material which I have not read. My previous post was mainly responding to your assertion that “I am pretty convinced that any good principle of rectification would require some form of reparations to, say, descendants of slaves (at least from certain corporations and municipalities).” I disagree with that, regardless of what Nozick says or does not say. I don’t consider a “good principle of rectification” to require those kinds of reparations, whether or not we might be able to some complicated formula to enable some kind of accounting of the matter.

    But on a more concrete basis, you are certainly correct that the laws (both U.S. and international) make provision for the recovery of stolen property. As you know, a person who knowingly or unknowingly purchases stolen property is not entitled to it. The property is returned to the rightful owner when such a situation is uncovered. One can cite examples of artwork that was confiscated from Jewish owners before or during World War II. When their proper owners are discovered, those works have been returned.

    In your example, of the daughter being sued by the heirs of the defrauded, this would depend on a number of factors you didn’t specify, such as the statute of limitations for torts in the given state (assuming this is a U.S. case) and whether the heirs are actually suing the estate of the man who defrauded them. There are also questions about whether the daughter is entirely ignorant (innocent) in the matter or not. If she was aware, she may be considered complicit, which could change the face of the case. And there are questions about the heirs of the people who were defrauded: what did they know and when, why wasn’t the case adjudicated prior to the death of the original defraudee, etc. These are just normal legal points that would have to be clarified before any decision could be made about whether the daughter could be sued. Nozick’s theories really don’t need to be considered because this situation will be covered under established legal precedents.Report