Doubtless few would disagree that those who wrongfully harm others owe something to those they harm.  This ‘debt’ can be conceptualized as compensation, punishment, the "re-balancing" of the moral relationship between the harmer and the harmed, or as an instrument of rehabilitation or forgiveness.
But what about those who benefit from a wrongful harm without engaging in it?  Do they owe something to those they harm?  This seems like a central question in what we might call ‘historical justice’.

(Incidentally, I was led to think about this issue in connection with post-war justice: If nation A wages an aggressive and unjust war against nation B, and nation B triumphs in the war, who in nation A owes a debt to nation B?  A’s political leaders? A’s military personnel?  All the citizens of A?)

Here I’d like to consider some cases and put forth a possible principle for discussion.

THE SWISS BANK CASE: As many of you know, Swiss banks have been made to pay compensation to Jewish families for receiving property stolen from Jews by the Nazis. I imagine most of us think this is a just course of action, even if those bank officials who actually received and deposited the property a half century ago are not the ones in charge of the banks now.  The banks benefitted from, and likely continue to benefit from, the additional capital, etc., that they enjoyed thanks to these illicit deposits.

MY NEIGHBOR’S MIRACLE BRAIN DRUG: My neighbor is a brilliant neurochemist who one days lets slip that he has developed an amazing drug that when administered to a child below the age of one virtually guarantees that the child will grow to have a 200 IQ.  I steal the drug from my neighbor’s house and administer it to my newborn son, who later wins multiple Nobel Prizes.  Does my son owe my neighbor (or my neighbor’s family or descendants) something for my injustice?  I’m inclined to say he does not. 

Now if you agree with the verdicts I’ve offered in these two cases, why are these the right verdicts?  It seems to me that the difference is that my son was a wholly innocent beneficiary of my injustice, whereas the Swiss bankers almost certainly were not.  The Swiss banks had an opportunity, at a discrete moment in time, to decide whether to accept the property that the Nazis acquired from European Jews through wrongful means.  Furthermore, the Swiss banks likely had suspicions about the origins of the property, suspicions they could have confirmed with relatively modest investigation.  In contrast, my infant son doesn’t even know that he’s receiving the miracle brain drug, nor is he in any meaningful position to decline it.  This suggests that whether a beneficiary of another’s wrongful harm owes something to the party harmed can be determined by the following principle:

If A wrongfully harms B, and C benefits from A’s wrongly harming B, then C owes a debt to B, only if:
(1) C has reason to believe that C was benefitted by A’s wrongly harming B (or C could come to believe this with modest investigation)

(2) it was within C’s power to choose not to be benefitted by A’s wrongly harming B.

I’d like to think that this principle works in the relatively easy cases of individuals harming individuals, but I have doubts about its applicability to larger-scale injustice, such as aggressive war, ensalvement, etc.  For instance:

THE OIL WAR CASE: I am a citizen of nation R, which has unjustly invaded nation S, thereby acquiring S’s extensive oil resources.  I depend on oil to fuel my car so that I can drive to work and I know I benefit from the cheap oil R now enjoys.  I am not a political or military leader,  a member of the economic elite, or a member of R’s armed forces.  In fact, I vocally opposed R’s invading S in the first place.  But the tide of the war turns and S ultimately defeats R.  Do I owe a debt to nation S, however modest, for the cheap oil I had temporarily?
I must admit to not knowing what to say about such a case.  According to the above principle, I would owe a debt of some sort to nation S.  Arguably, I’ve not committed an injustice against S, but I am not an innocent beneficiary of nation R’s injustice either.

But I’m less confident about the verdict in the Oil War Case than in either the Swiss Bank Case or the Miracle Drug Case.  Does it matter that I opposed R’s injustice at the outset?  Would it matter if the benefit were not oil, something that I could refrain from using, albeit at significant loss to my own income and well-being, but something more essential, like food or clean water? And in cases where the above two conditions are not met, are those who’ve suffered the relevant harm simply out of luck — what should take priority?  The claims of the wrongfully harmed or the claims of the innocently benefitted?

3 Replies to “Harming and benefitting from harm

  1. I’m not so sure about condition #2 (C is only owes A if it was in C’s power to choose not to be benefited by the harm to A). If I inherit an extremely valuable painting at the age of two that was original stolen from an out-of-favor family in 1930’s Germany, then it seems to me that I really owe that painting to them, whether I was in a position to choose to be benefited or not. Surely some sort of right of private property or just dessert more generally should be allowed to trump the issue of whether or I was in a position to choose. Perhaps I shouldn’t be *punished* for inheriting the painting, since (being unable to choose) I am not responsible for accepting the unjust benefits, but I nevertheless *owe* it to the family anyway.
    This distinction between being punished for and owing for a harm that I did not commit is important, perhaps, for more reasons that just moral esteem. If I merely owe for a harm, then I would be within my rights to demand that the reimbursement respect a certain threshold level of well-being on my part. You could not ask that I bankrupt myself in order to reimburse, or that I commit myself to years of unpaid labor. If I am rightly punished for it, however, then it seems like you really could go beyond the threshold. I might really owe it to the victims to do whatever is in my power to compensate them.
    This distinction might, in turn, explain why it seems wrong to punish your son in the “neighbor’s miracle brain drug” case. It seems patently unfair to ask your son to somehow reimburse your neighbor’s son for all of the latter’s opportunity costs. After all, the neighbor’s son has lost a great deal, and your son could well spend the rest of his life making it up to him. But surely to go so far would qualify as a punishment, and not just a legitimate debt.

  2. This sort of issue comes up in affirmative action debates with Fullinwider arguing that one does not owe compensation if one benefits from a harm one does not oneself commit. He has a driveway example he uses to argue for this, but I think it does not show what he intends it to show. (I think that one can come up with variations of his example to argue for something like the approach I suggest below. I think I once argued about this in print, though it may just be in my class lectures on his paper.)
    Myself I think the right way to think of the issue is this. If one benefits from a harm done by another one owes compensation to the extent that it makes one no worse off than if the harm had not benefitted oneself. Since this is compensation and not punishment (as Justin rightly notes), one is not required to give up benefits if doing so does not compensate the person harmed. And one is also not required to make oneself worse off than one would have been without the harm or without one’s benefit from the harm, because that would be to punish one for something that was no fault of one’s own.
    Where goods are easily transferable, such as stolen paintings, returning the painting to its owners is an example that fits the suggestion I favor. If I give back something that was stolen and given to me I’m no worse off than if I’d never gotten it, and the person who gets it is fully compensated for their loss of that painting.
    The war example also brings in questions of group agency, which complicates matters siginficantly. It seems intuitively that a group such as a country can owe compensation. But at the same time I can be a member of that group while having opposed the bad things the group did. This is where my thinking gets muddled. On the one hand I’m drawn to the idea that one does not owe compensation (other than that suggested by the above approach) if I have not done wrong. But if my country (say) does a harm and it needs my taxes to compensate those harmed, doesn’t this give me some reason to do what is needed so that my country can meet its obligations. (As a gratuitous aside, I think that the war in Iraq is a very good puzzle case as I think I am worse off for our having started it, and lots of Iraqis have a good claim to be harmed (and unjustly harmed) by our actions. But that is not really central to the issue.)

  3. “If A wrongfully harms B, and C benefits from A’s wrongly harming B, then C owes a debt to B, only if: (1) C has reason to believe that C was benefitted by A’s wrongly harming B (or C could come to believe this with modest investigation)
    This issue of course also comes up in discussions of restorative justice, particularly in regards to indigeneous rights.
    I want to make two quick points.
    1. It is unclear to me why C has to benefit from B’s wronging.
    Take this example
    Timmy steals a packet of milk biscuits from Tommy. He gives one to Toby, who as it turns out is lactose intolerant and becomes rather ill.
    I still think in this case it would be true to say Toby owes Timmy a biscuit, despite the fact that he doesn’t benefit from getting it.
    2. Waldron in a paper on this subject called I think historic injustice and its supercession makes a point about the contaigion of justice.
    He argues that in part one injust act can infect all other actions making them likewise injust.
    Take for example car stereos
    It seems a fair claim that we ought to pay whatever the price is derived from a market in these goods between consumers and producers.
    But of course we actually pay less than this because people steal and resell car stereos lowering the market price.
    Thus I am advantaged by car thieves stealing car stereos (as long as it isn’t mine!)
    What do you think?

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