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The American Indian Quarterly 29.3 & 4 (2005) 538-559

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Moral Minimalism in American Indian Land Claims

This is an essay about Indian claims for the return of historically stolen lands, written from the perspective of a "Western" academic moral philosopher. I want to try to outline points of agreement and disagreement between Indian and Western moral conceptions and to seek common ground on which land claims can be more clearly evaluated and justified to both sides. To foreshadow my conclusions, I will argue that Indian nations seem morally entitled to the return of a significant land base and that there are good reasons for the United States to re-open consideration of Indian claims on a more serious and pluralistic basis than is now occurring or than occurred during the late Indian Claims Commission. On the other hand, the United States seems morally prohibited from transferring lands held by individual non-Indians in most circumstances.1 Or at any rate, that is what I will argue—the test of the argument's effectiveness, as always, is whether it actually proves convincing to those who read it.

Moral Minimalism

Many academic philosophers assert that all moral questions have correct answers.2 Few, however, believe that they have full and direct access to those answers, and many disagree among themselves about the appropriate methods for recognizing better and worse answers. In this essay, I will talk about moral principles and answers to moral puzzles, but they are offered in this spirit of uncertainty—these are only my thoughts on the matter and should not be taken to represent the pretense of perfect, flawless reason or the shared beliefs of my academic field. My arguments [End Page 538] are offered in the spirit of dialogue, with the assumption that our moral debates matter a great deal for our long-term political practice, even if they cannot immediately reshape it in any magical way.

Before beginning, let me say something about the essay's approach to moral questions and its intended goals. If we believe that some moral principles are better than others but have no certain access to moral truth, one reasonable solution is to seek actual points of agreement between apparently competing viewpoints. The political philosopher Michael Walzer has argued for the value of "moral minimalism" in seeking points of overlap between different "thick" moralities.3 In Walzer's view, it is a mistake to begin from the assumption that certain moral values are universal and objectively true. This assumption threatens to run roughshod over the complex webs of moral belief held by members of different cultural traditions. Instead, Walzer argues, "Morality is thick from the beginning, culturally integrated, fully resonant, and it reveals itself thinly only on special occasions, when moral language is turned to specific purposes."4 We must be clear about the status of this minimum if we are to use it well: "Minimalism . . . is less the product of persuasion than of mutual recognition [of shared values] among the protagonists of different fully developed moral cultures."5 When we try to make minimalist moral arguments, we should whenever possible seek grounds on which we believe both sides already agree and use these points as leverage in seeking more extensive commonalities.

One might argue, of course, that such a complex and uncertain philosophical approach is unnecessary because claims for the return of Indian lands can be easily evaluated without it. The principles at stake, one might assert, are so simple as to need no deep consideration—the problem is simply that the obvious principles are not applied in good faith. For reasons that should emerge, this view seems to me mistaken: I believe there are serious moral questions involved here for which there are few comfortable answers.6

Rather than drawing up an extensive list of Western and Indian beliefs, I will assume for the purposes of this essay that both Indians and non-Indians share a desire to prevent needless and undeserved suffering, even if we disagree about the exact connotations of those terms...


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