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Canadian Journal of Philosophy 37.1 (2007) 129-152

On Benefiting from Injustice
Daniel Butt
Fellow and Tutor in Politics
Oriel College
Oxford University
Oxford OX1 4EW

How do we acquire moral obligations to others? The most straightforward cases are those where we acquire obligations as the result of particular actions which we voluntarily perform. If I promise you that I will trim your hedge, I face a moral obligation to uphold my promise, and in the absence of some morally significant countervailing reason, I should indeed cut your hedge. Moral obligations which arise as a result of wrongdoing, as a function of corrective justice, are typically thought to be of a similar nature. If I set fire to your hedge, I owe you compensation: both for the damage caused to your property and for any directly related losses you may have suffered as a consequence of my actions. It is more controversial, although not uncommon, to suggest that agents can acquire moral obligations as a result of the actions of others. Cases of rescue are an obvious example: if another individual is pushed into a pond and is about to drown, and I (and only I) can rescue her at no risk and little cost to myself, many would maintain that I face an obligation to save her. This obligation may impose costs upon me (which may be unrecoverable), but it mandates me regardless of the fact that I have done nothing to bring this obligation upon myself, other than happening (blamelessly) to be in a particular place at a particular time. The case of how an agent may be said to acquire moral obligations involuntarily is particularly important in philosophical consideration of present day obligations arising from historic injustice. One commonly expressed claim has it that agents can acquire rectificatory obligations as a result of benefiting from acts of injustice committed by others, such as their ancestors. Judith Jarvis Thomson makes the case in the context of the debate over positive discrimination, maintaining that it is not inappropriate to impose costs upon young white males, even though 'no doubt few, if [End Page 129] any, have, themselves, individually, done any wrongs to blacks and women,' since 'they have profited from the wrongs the community did.'1 More generally, claims that various Western nations owe compensation to their former colonies as a consequence of the (disputed) fact that they are benefiting from colonialism and/or from slavery in the present day are commonplace.

This article examines, and defends, the claim that agents can acquire rectificatory obligations through involuntarily benefiting from acts of injustice.2 I start, in Part I, by considering David Miller's article 'Distributing Responsibilities,'3 which focuses on the distribution of duties of assistance, in cases where it is accepted that someone ought to provide assistance to those in need but where it is controversial upon whom the costs of assistance should fall. Miller proposes four morally relevant forms of connection with the victims of injustice which can give rise to moral obligations to assist — I propose that benefiting from the plight of those in desperate need, however involuntarily, constitutes an additional morally relevant form of connection. Part Two goes further, and argues that moral agents can possess compensatory obligations as a result of involuntarily benefiting from injustice even when the victims of injustice do not need to be lifted above some minimal threshold level of well-being.

I Miller on duties of assistance

In 'Distributing Responsibilities,' David Miller seeks to address what he calls 'the problem of remedial responsibility,' which he defines as follows:

To be remedially responsible for a bad situation means to have a special obligation to put the bad situation right, in other words to be picked out, either individually or along with others, as having a responsibility towards the deprived or suffering party that is not shared equally among all agents.4 [End Page 130]

The kinds of 'bad situation' Miller has in mind are those where individuals or groups are below some minimal threshold of well-being...


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