April 2, 2022


Philosophy and Reparations

An interview with Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò on climate crisis, reparations, and the use of history

Every new climate study seems to confirm what we have long known: the brunt of these impacts will fall on those least prepared to weather them, in considerable part because the basic structure of our global system had long ago elected these people and places as expendable in service of the projects of world economy. Meanwhile, scholars of past and present injustices—studying issues such as uneven development or vaccine apartheid—uncover the same regularities. There are those who “developed,” and those who continue to indefinitely. 

Academic philosophy claims both interest and even a kind of specialized expertise in these moral and political problems. Yet the methods of analytic philosophy tend to abstract away from precisely the features of our global predicament that make it so politically knotty and morally troubling in the first place. Why, exactly, are global distributional flows patterned the way they are? What are the inertial forces that lock these flows in place? What precisely is colonialism’s so-called present? And what does it suggest for what we owe each other now and in the future? On these questions, academic philosophy is largely silent. 

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò breaks that silence in Reconsidering Reparations, a book of political philosophy that challenges the dominant style and method of the discipline in its richly empirical, historically driven argument for a global reparations project. In Táíwò’s view, reparations are not cleanly rooted in particular injustices belonging to a sharply delimited historical moment. That is, reparations for an institution like the transatlantic slave trade should not be simply conceived of as payments for the atrocities that took place on ports and slaveships from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Violent conquest, colonial dispossession, and imperial expansion are, Táíwò argues, worldmaking processes. They built the world we still live in today and in which we are destined to live tomorrow—unless we actively pursue its dismantling and complete remaking. To conceive of the problem in this way is to confront a constructive project of reparations that traces back to the past but is centrally concerned with what prevails here in the present. 

In the following conversation, Táíwò considers the role of reparations in dealing with the world-altering  fact of climate crisis, and what we must do to have any chance of justice in the future.

An interview with Olúfémi Táíwò

LILY HU: In the preface to your book, Reconsidering Reparations, you cite Toni Morrison’s notion of racism as “distraction.”1 In the realm of scholarly production on race, this “distraction” often takes the form of being concerned with other people’s questions, like arguing against Charles Murray’s bell curve argument, or figuring out, as I try to do in my work, the premises of statistical treatments of racism. 

Your book is about climate reparations, but notably, you don’t follow the various rabbit holes the philosophical work on reparations for historical injustice has gone down. You’re not concerned with the conceptual question of clearly counting who historical victims are. And you don’t get into the nitty gritty of the post-Rawls discourse on global justice. 

My first question is: do you see your lack of focus on questions that have been deemed important in philosophy as a case of refusing that “distraction” referenced by Morrison? How do you see your work on reparations as a philosopher, walking the line between contributing to an existing philosophical discourse on reparations but also setting it on a fresh course?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò:  I’m less concerned about which questions to focus on, even though in principle I’m willing to make a point about the priority of different kinds of questions. For example, I engage with discussions in the philosophical literature about the so-called non-identity problem, which calls into question whether it makes sense to make reparations to the present-day victims of great historic injustices, who, it is argued, owe their existence to those unjust institutions. The non-identity problem asks: if so many populations would not themselves exist had it not been for these processes of great injustice, can we really say they’ve been made “worse-off” by them? It’s a jarring question, but it has been taken as a substantial hurdle in philosophical debate about reparations and climate justice. I also think there’s a distributional factor around whose questions we take up.

Lots of people have fought for justice, for the redress of grievances, and for social transformation, sometimes explicitly using the term reparations and sometimes not. I’m not necessarily tied to what academic philosophers have said about reparations, or the idea that it magically overrules the actual history of struggle and activism. It is one thing for scholars to make an intellectual contribution to something and quite another thing for them to assert a kind of ownership over a topic. If we position ourselves as contributing to social discussions and social struggles, I think we will all be better for it.

LH: Syllabi for philosophy classes on reparations often have a certain kind of structure where they first start off by grounding the course in something like the 2014 Ta-Nehisi Coates piece on reparations and then by week two, they’re back at it with the non-identity problem and a Lockean argument for reparations. It feels like philosophy has this tendency to recognize the wider conversation going on, but then says, “Well philosophers have weighed in on this and let’s do the real work of getting into the guts of the problem.”

Your constructive view reminded me a lot of the late Iris Marion Young’s work on responsibility for historical injustice,2 as you both categorize the rectification of past injustices as a forward-looking distributive justice project: It’s something that we do for the sake of people who exist now, for the sake of people who exist in the future. In my reading of her account, history has a key explanatory function, illuminating how and why distributive patterns are the way they are, to get the correct diagnosis of present injustices. If we realize the injustice is structural, then we know a one time payment is not going to do the job. 

Is this explanatory function the primary role of the historical work in your theorizing? What does it mean to get the history right when trying to theorize about what we ought to do politically?

OT: It is definitely true that there is a kind of diagnostic role for history, explaining why things are the way that they are and letting us use that explanation in thinking about other ways that the world might be. History can play this instrumental role, giving us ideas, and steering us clear of dead ends. But I seek to go beyond the explanatory function of history and argue that history is constantly being made. We are making history. 

In the book, I am trying to motivate a longer term perspective on politics—the time equivalent of the same move that I make with respect to space, which is the idea that we need planetary scale politics. Those in charge have never been willing to settle for control or influence over what happens in an arbitrary set of borders, but they have sought investments and political control over parts of the world very far away. That is colonialism, that is capitalism, that is your retirement account, that is your system of policing that you live under, that is how your army is trained, that is the world. Getting readers to that scale is my primary motivation for using history in the way that I do in my book.

LH: The particular historical injustice that your history focuses on is the development of the Atlantic order throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. That is a world-making historic injustice. There are clear continuities from that project to the world that we live in now—more than, for example, the various campaigns of Genghis Khan. What do you think about the delineation between world-making and non-world-making historical injustices, and how does temporality inflect those assessments? Older injustices may be perceived as less relevant to the events of contemporary society, or alternatively, they may be perceived as foundational to present-day social arrangements.  

OT:  It is a position about causal explanation. It is not that the moral dimensions of slavery and colonialism are historically distinctive. Atrocities are very old, and white people did not invent them. The difference if anything is about the particular kinds of atrocities that started in the fifteenth century with the Iberian powers. These events built the world, and that is the difference. 

Foundationality is a claim about why social advantages and disadvantages are distributed in the world in the manner that they are. In those earlier centuries of geopolitics, the particular institutional actors that were active at that time really did build the world, and they really did create the kind of foundational scaffolding for our own geopolitics—the state system, the industrial revolution, and so on.

LH: I read your book as making an argument for a particular forward-looking project of distributive justice that needs to be a total remaking of the world. In parallel, it argues that the global system that we currently live in was constructed and follows from this century-long racial empire. If we accept this argument, any forward-looking project will turn out to be a reparative one—it will seek to annihilate the outcome or the patterns that have precipitated from that earlier order. You are interpolating between the two, in the sense that the history can help us understand why the forward-looking projects realize these precise corrections, and it can also help us see why the distributional and the reparative in some sense must come together. 

OT:  I think that’s exactly right.

LH: It seems left-liberal or libertarian egalitarian positions argue that requirements of distributive justice ought to take priority over the requirements of reparative justice if they ever conflict. The thought is, we can tell what is unjust by looking at who gets what now, and what justice requires, and we can address those directly, without dredging up the past.

You argue explicitly against this snapshot view of distributive justice, saying that it under-emphasizes the question of how exactly we got to where we are now. If we look naively at the distributive patterns, it might seem to be mere luck. There are always these toy examples in philosophy papers wherein state A has ten units and B has twelve units, and there’s a tendency to attribute luck to the distributive patterns, rather than seeing them as a result of actual projects pursued by real agents pursuing their real interests.

This exchange that you have with this snapshot view of distributive justice is relevant to the Rawls-Nozick debate on justice. Rawls’s position is basically that you simply look at the current unjust state of affairs, realize that the just state of affairs is X, bring about X, and then you’re golden. There are replies that we shouldn’t set a historic conception of justice, or that justice is not some fixed state that has to be brought into being. Justice has to be brought about in the right way. A state of affairs that might look extremely unjust on its face could perhaps be vindicated by its history, if it were realized in the right way.

In Nozick’s view, there is no just goal that you could describe without analyzing the past. I thought that your response to the snapshot distributive justice seems to partly take Nozick’s line on this. It also appears that you acknowledge that certain outcomes are independent of the past. Is your disagreement with the snapshot view theory around the significance of history in determining what justice requires, or is it about the idealizations that the snapshot view theorists tend to engage in as a part of their method?

OT: I see myself as running towards the Nozick side of that dispute. You can’t judge by end states, you need to judge based on the actual historical processes that produce whatever state people are in today. Where I get off the boat with the Rawls-Nozick debate as it is typically framed is that I am not talking about Country A and Country B in the abstract past, present or future. I am discussing the relations between the United States and Haiti. These are not theoretical, they involve actual distributions and accumulations that have a real history. 

Rawls starts with an ideal history and theory of justice that is focused on the preferable end state. This is not how the world works. There were centuries of colonialism and wars over the parameters of that colonialism. Amilcar Cabral was fighting the Portuguese Empire at the exact same time as Rawls was writing A Theory of Justice. It was all happening simultaneously. 

The end state is also not abstract. The snapshot theorists also have a particular way of looking at things from a normative perspective, which I depart from. They suppose that poverty is the only thing we need to respond to—the discrete thing of primary moral importance—but we are dealing with a world with institutional and geopolitical features that caused the poverty, so we must consider poverty beyond just being the end state. It is partially because, for example, the United States has influence on minimum wages in Haiti that poverty is distributed between those countries in the way that it is. The United States military’s decisions on the placement of drone strikes in Somalia, and the number of troops in Afghanistan, shape how poverty is distributed in those regions. A couple GiveDirectly donations will not change that reality. 

To actually redistribute—not because of the abstract normative priority of certain factors or the end state distribution, but because of the actual causal environment—you must recognize concrete relations. The assumed role of a moral philosopher is to count how many units Country A has, and count how many units Country B has, and wag your finger if those numbers are too far apart. The question of what will actually change those numbers to other numbers is a question perhaps for economists, policymakers, and think tanks. If political philosophy only involves the condemnation of the difference in number of units, then I am not a political philosopher.  

LH: Teaching the ethics of climate change, I’ve been struck by the number of students that find entitlement-based views attractive and central to the project of climate justice. Many students identify those responsible for climate change and those who suffer disproportionately from it, and they reach for arguments about responsibility and corrective justice. We see the convergence of the broadly liberal egalitarian orientation towards climate justice, which is that the burden should be shared by everyone more or less equally according to their ability to shoulder the burden, but this produces a verdict that coincides with the view about responsibility and unjust enrichment. 

In this case, all signs are pointing to the same conclusion that it should be the Global North doing more. Students will talk about not simply the capacity to pay now, but they will argue that Global North countries bear a responsibility for polluting so much in the past and benefitting from those actions. Why do you think history is so appealing for people who often work in climate justice? Are you concerned that the broad appeal to history would result in an anti-egalitarian conclusion like the classic Nozickian argument? Or has history been so deeply unjust that it probably would never lead to anti-egalitarian conclusions? 

OT: It can very easily lead to anti-egalitarian conclusions. This is my deep suspicion at stopping at the history. Increasingly today people approach climate justice from the broader notions of political responsibility. This approach has several great features, but I am uneasy about it. The devil is in what you build, not in what you build on.

Focus on the past can shift the goal posts in ways that are politically destructive. The most obvious version is when a focus on the past becomes a staging point for symbolism—we are going to take up our share of this global load because our ancestors also contributed to an injustice, and by doing that we thereby achieve holiness, or even absolution. This frame is entirely silent on what actually happens as a result of your taking up this white man’s burden. 

It is not just the fact that we are acting, but we need to make a difference that helps the people who are made vulnerable by past misdeeds. We need money for green development, and from this premise technical questions begin to arise. Does that assistance come in the form of loans? What is the governance structure of the projects that are run with the money? Who is in a position to even propose projects in the first place? 

You get into all these details and then all of a sudden you have backed a solution that ends up being a form of greenwashing for major asset managers, who are using sovereign governments of Global South countries to de-risk their investments and forcing the middle classes of these countries to pay user fees for critical infrastructure. All of that was in pursuit of providing funding and help to the poor and downtrodden. There’s a focus on responding to the past rather than equally being weary about the present. This makes things worse, or fails to improve things in a meaningful way. I think history, even good history, is potentially ripe for misuse.

LH: Reading history you have the sense that every single regime has seemed permanent, has self-justified, has calcified, completely frozen in time. Yet the task of a historian is to draw out how all of that is contingent, even though it can seem totalizing. I think for all of us living in the world, this is an extremely valuable lesson. Doing good political philosophy also requires a better sense of the possible and the feasible than is currently accepted. How has your interest in history changed your perspective on philosophical work? 

OT: In a lot of ways, I think my interest in history is what brought me to philosophy. My perception of philosophy as an undergraduate was that it was very concerned with history. A lot of the people that we read in those early courses seemed to be very interested in understanding the world around them at a high scale of generality and tried to put things together. Going into graduate school, my impression of what philosophy entailed was something of a surprise. I think there is space to do philosophy in this way, and I prefer it.

It is one thing to be able to imagine things differently, but it is another thing to know as incontrovertible fact that they were different. What seems normal now was, in fact, produced, and what seemed normal before was also produced. 

  1. In a May 1975 speech at Portland State University, Toni Morrison stated, “It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.” Transcript available here.

  2. See Iris Marion Young (2011). Responsibility for Justice. Oxford University Press: New York.

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