In this post, I comment upon the sentence I put in bold type in the quoted paragraph from Daniel Philpott’s July 24, 2023 essay in the on-line Public Discourse: A Christian Case for Racial Reparations.
“Slavery, Jim Crow, and distributive discrimination assaulted natural rights and the dignity of persons made in the image of God on which these rights are based. They leave behind wounds, the most central of which is the standing victory of injustice, the moral fact of injustice itself that persists in time unless it is repudiated. While constitutional amendments, legislation, and policies have countered and delegitimated these injustices, the lack of a formal apology and reparations has left them still standing.”
I have two themes. First, and mainly, I note how writing of injustice as a moral fact which is a wound curable by repudiation supports my notion of Moral Harm. That notion is that the mere fact of violation of a moral law produces moral harm. Moral harm is the creating an ad hoc moral rule to the effect that some harm be done. I am always seeking support for my notion of moral harm which I use to show that Retribution Punisment is morally intelligible and not mere vengance. I always hope to show my notion is not idiosyncratic.
The notion of ad hoc moral rule is not onceptually confused. It is common in moral thinking even if some special obligation is not explicitly identified as an ad hoc moral rule. The situation of making a promise creates a moral obligation that the promise be kept. If the promise is kept, the obligation vanishes from morality.
Here are some links to my development of a notion of moral harm as ad hoc norms that some harm ought to be done. Moral Harm, Retributive Punishment, Punitive Harm and Contrition. Contrition is the Sorrow of Moral Harm . A Conceptual Path from Moral Harm to Contrition. Moral Harm as The Wrath of God.
Second, I observe that apologies and reparations as ways to remove this immense moral harm are racist in a morally legitimate sense of “racist.”
What is the moral fact of injustice persisting in time? Admittedly, there were injustices in the past which have bad consequences now: some of which are new injustices. But these admission are made from a historical and sociological stance which does not hesitate to pass some moral judgments on human affairs. Good history ought not be written from an amoral perspective. But, I believe, that Philpott does not hold that a moral fact is a natural fact described with use of some moral language. As a morally described natural fact the injustice of slavery can never be removed by any apologies or reparations. Suppose there are apologies and reparations. They will be irrelevant to describing USA slavery in the 1830s and 40s. A hundred years from now USA slavery in the 1830s and 40s will still be properly characterised as unjust. There are natural facts of injustice which can never be removed from accurate history..
The following is my interpretation of Philpott’s talk of a moral fact which is a wound
A moral fact is a condition of morality. A statement of a moral fact is a statement about the condition of morality. In this case, there is a condition of injustice in morality and this condition is a defect, a wound, in morality. The natural facts of injustice have wounded something more than the people wounded by the innumerable unjust acts. They have wounded morality itself by putting injustice into morality. How has natural injustice wounded morality itself? Whenever anyone commits an unjust act they create an ad hoc moral norm that some harm ought to be done. These ad hoc moral norms are wounds in morality because they are “junk” norms in the system of moral norms. The system of moral norms is built on the basic norm:do good and avoid evil. The junk norms tell us to do some evil. This is not mere logical inconsistency; it is a moral obligation to do what morality in general forbids. It is the rationale for retributive punishment. The moral norms prescribing retributive punishment are unclean or impure moral norms. Morality is cured from this “junk” ad hoc moral rule when the prescribed harm is done: the retributive punishment is carried out. Retributive punishment is a cleansing of the moral order.
Unjust acts also create some ad hoc norms to the effect that some good ought to be done. These are norms to the effect that some reparation, provision of goods, to whoever was deprived of goods by the unjust act. But norms requiring restitution and restoration are in harmony with morality. They are not wounds in morality. Philpott writes of wounds in morality. So, I think he is writing of apologies and reparations as accomplishing what retributive punishment is supposed to accomplish. Reparations can do more than restore what was taken from someone treated unjustly. If the reparations seriously harm the one who has to make restititution they can be retributive punishment which satisfies retributive justice. But if a very rich man only pays back what he stole from a poor man, retributive justice is not satisfied.
Guilt is recognition that oneself or one’s community is an entity to whom the harm prescribed by some of these ad hoc norms ought to be done. Guilt is not fear of the harm. Guilt is the dread of the moral requirement that we suffer harm. The moral requirement that one suffer harm is moral condemnation. This dread of moral condemnation persists even if we are aware that will never actually suffer the harm that ought to be inflicted upon us. Indeed, the guilt is exacerbated by an awareness that we can never suffer the harm which ought to be inflicted upon us. The harm might be so immense that it would annihilate us or it is so immense that it cannot be inflicted during our lives. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural speech conveyed well the sense of national dread about the retributive punishment we deserved. Bit by bit, Divine Providence will mete out to us all the evils we deserve.because of slavery. In guilt we let the wounds in morality be our psychological wounds.
I will assume that some efforts for public apologies and reparations may be motivated by a desire to overcome guilt by somehow removing all of the norms requiring natural harm for all of the natural harms inflicted on African Americans during slavery, the failures and abandonment of reconstruction with Jim Crow society and adverse impact of post WWII social legislation.
I admit that I do not appreciate public apologies from social leaders. This may be a defect in me. To me they are primarily media events. The leaders may express sincere sorrow over the injustices for which they apologize. The leaders of the groups to whom the apologies are addressed may appreciate the apologies and even feel forgiving. But to whom. In my judgment, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was a near perfect apology for American slavery. The apology event passes by and becomes part of the historical record. It does not do anything in the historical record What does accomplish much from the historical record is the description of the injustices. In generation after generation, the factual historical record calls forth shame and guilt for some and resentment for others.There is no final solution for social injustices. I use the term “final solution” to indicate that it is not a bad thing that we cannot cleanse the grevious wounds in morality. We should not long for a final solution for the moral tension between Whites and African Americans: White awareness of guilt, Black awareness of injustice.
The main point I want to make about apologies and reparations for injustices done to African Americans is that the demand for them requires racism. But being racist does not make the demands morally illegitimate. For racism is not intrinsically wrong. By “racism”I mean bestowing privileges and obligations upon members of a race simply because they are of that race. In the case of White and Black races in the USA, if we can talk so simplistically of races in the USA, racism is expressed by uses of phrases such as: You must do this because you are white, you may do this because you are Black, etc.,. If the demand for apologies and reparations are accepted, such racist phrases will be used.
So, requiring racism is no moral objection to apologies and reparations for slavery etc.,. If there is a moral problem with apologies and reparations, it is because they are incapable of curing the wounds in morality.