Inheriting Ill-Gotten Gains

Suppose that a bank robber fleeing from police drops a bag of cash on your door step. Are you allowed to keep it? It seems not. You may be innocent of any wrongdoing, and yet you still have to return the money to its rightful owners.

Suppose your mother robs a bank, promptly dies and leaves her wealth, including the stolen money to you. Again, it seems the bank can recover that money. It didn’t rightly belong to your mother, and so he could not rightly pass it on to you.

For practical reasons, we might cut off the period of recovery, so if the bank discovers that your mother robbed them only after you have died and left the money to your children, we might say that it’s been too long or there too many steps between the wrongdoing and the beneficiary. But in principle, it doesn’t seem to matter; this may be easier to see if we talk about a tangible good, say a painting, instead of a liquid asset like cash. Paintings stolen by the Nazis during WWII that can be definitively traced to a last rightful owner are still returned to that owner’s lawful heirs, even if those heirs are multiple generations removed.

Suppose now that your mother kidnaps an incredible artist, forces him to create valuable works of arts, which she then sells. Let’s ask the same questions:
Can the artist recover from your mother the value of the artworks? That seems like the minimum that he is owed.
Can the artist recover from you if your mother dies and leaves you the proceeds? It seems yes (to see this, consider again the case where the paintings themselves are inherited).

We can also look at the other side: suppose the artist died before he could recover from your mother, could the artists children or rightful heirs recover the paintings or the revenue from their sale from your mother? It seems yes: your mother owes the painter, and that credit passes to the painter’s heirs.

Perhaps you can see where this is going. A person kidnapped, forced to labor; a kidnapper, who benefits from the forced labor; the descendants of each, who are still connected in a credit/debt relationship.

This is an argument for a type of reparations for slavery, and I think that it works. Note that it is specific in its application: a specific heir has a claim against another specific heir. The same argument does not seem to support a more general form of reparations, though some of the reasoning may play a part in such an argument.

I’m fairly confident that it wouldn’t work in practice for a number of reasons. But in principle it does: the heirs of the slaver benefit from the theft of the slave’s labor, and the slave’s heirs are deprived of benefit that should have been a part of their inheritance.

Under many conceptions of property rights, this type of reparations for slavery is justified.


All 100 millionaires and billionaires are cheats and thieves.

I’ve already given the solution to wealth disparity on these boards:

The constitution needs to be amended.

Currently, I think 10 million a year cap is fine. That’s a current percentage of GDP. Whatever that current percentage is, should be the constitutional amendment.

This creates what I call a “co-op economy”. What this means is that once you make more than 10 million a year, you pay it out until ALL of your employees also earn 10 million a year. Then people have the power to donate (with a tax write off) or gather together in large groups for one big project. Say you want to take a loan to build a billion dollar building… you may need 1000 people to do this! That not only makes money real value (cash) and not loans, it forces better communication for better outcomes and is way more democratic.

I already solved all this.


You can’t retroactively change the rules… slavery was not illegal during the time of slavery.
No crime was committed and so at no point was anything obtained unlawfully.

You might make the sale of alcohol illegal tomorrow… or change the age of consent to 32.
But you don’t then go back retroactively and punish anyone who broke those laws before they were made.
If minimum wage laws go up and apply retroactively, then a lot of people stole money from their employees…
There is no end to what you might justify by such means.
We can of course physically do such things if we decide to… but I have yet to hear a compelling reason why we SHOULD.

In fact most of the negative consequences of historical bullshit vanish if we simply enact programs to the effect of taking care of our own.
You know, helping people fallen or born into hard times, for whatever reason, to pick themselves back up and to live dignified lives.
No need to assign blame and guilt in some untenable fashion… when we can just agree to help each other out as needed and become good friends and neighbors instead.

This is a general problem, not a specific one. Here I’m talking about a specific one: if X unjustly deprives Y of a specific thing of value, then Y’s heirs have a claim against X’s heirs.

Was slavery unjust during the time of slavery? It seems like we changed the laws because they were unjust, and so justice also requires that we address the specific wrongs done under the protection of those unjust laws.

But if it’s really only law you care about, then of course we can retroactively change the rules. If today’s law says you’re liable for yesterday’s wrongs, then that’s what the law says. If you object to that law, you must be appealing to something other than the law, in which case let’s jump ahead have this conversation on that level.

As I say, “under many conceptions of property rights, this type of reparations for slavery is justified.” More specifically, under the conceptions of property rights compatible with a modern market economy, slavery was a wrong that can be righted by specific transfers from the descendants of slavers to the descendants of slaves.

You are clearly not an American! In America, we tell our neighbors to go fuck themselves, because if God and the Founding Fathers wanted them not to suffer they would have been born in a wealthy suburb of a midwest city like a good Christian!

In seriousness though, I agree there are better ways to solve this problem (UBI!), and that’s part of why I’m not arguing for reparations more generally. But if someone steals something I value from me, then I want that thing back even if my friends and neighbors will make sure I don’t starve.

Carleas wrote: This is a general problem, not a specific one. Here I’m talking about a specific one: if X unjustly deprives Y of a specific thing of value, then Y’s heirs have a claim against X’s heirs.

Carleas, that was weak.

We know for a fact that these Individual people are all stealing from us. What is reparations for that? Like I stated: amend the constitution

The key word is “specific”, by which I mean that a named individual X deprived a named individual Y of an precisely identified thing of value, and we can trace X’s and Y’s heirs to named individuals living today.

What you’re talking about is general: X has done many shady things and benefited, Y has been on the receiving end of many shady things and suffered, there seems to be a connection between them but it’s not clear-cut. I’m not denying that this happens, or is a problem, or is something we can remedy. I’m just not talking about it here.

No, we have actual names. There might be 100 million of them, but they really exist as tangible people that can be recorded and sought out.

It should be obvious to anyone that we live in a welfare state for the ultra rich. There are real names here on both sides. This is not a hypothetical, it’s not a “generalization”

It cannot be “righted” by anything… the people involved are all fucking dead

What’s more, slaves did not own anything… not their own labor not even their own life.
You can’t steal something from someone who doesn’t own anything…

We can just decide they owned stuff now, retroactively… but we can do that with anything.
We could decide that I own your house… and with force, it could be made true.

But… why SHOULD we?

Then move out and let the Native Americans have their land back you bastard… :stuck_out_tongue:

Look dude, I’m trying to slow walk you to the ultimate conclusion to all of this moral posturing that’s everywhere these days.

We don’t owe each other shit… we can murder, maim and rape each other and call it justice, if we like.
Morality is merely a social contract we negotiate between ourselves to help each other and work together because the alternative is a nightmarish prospect for most of us.
We do not, contrary to popular opinion and blind faith, have such a contract with every human being on the face of this planet… though some of us think it’d be cool if we did.

When one tribe conquers another, it’s not cruel… it’s the conclusion of natural competition.
When they decide to let members of the other tribe live, if only as slaves… it is a downright bargain, because the alternative is often total eradication.

To pretend that we have some transcendent “morality” on our side is nothing short of delusional, religious fervour.
We got nothing but a hope and a prayer that we might be able to negotiate a contract with other people that permits us to live with each other in peace or better yet work together for mutual benefit.

So you might notice that asking me to pay for the crimes of my ancestors, who’s only sin was that they beat your ancestors and let them live so you can whine about it, carries no weight.
There was no moral code you can claim was violated… no wrongdoing that needs rectifying.
Now you and I can sign the contract that our ancestors never did and you may of course propose whatever you like as the condition
But I don’t see why I should agree to be in your debt… that’s not mutually beneficial.

If the contract says we help each other as needed… that seems much more fair.
Sure, right now, due to our respective histories, you need it. But once you’re ok… if I’m ever in trouble I trust you’ll return the favor… that’s what makes it worth it.
Without that agreement… you can die in a ditch for all I care… because that’s the same way you’d leave me.

I think I’m still not making myself clear. Maybe instead of specific, I should say “individualized”. You’re talking about a policy that taxes the very rich, without reference to their individual actions, and uses those taxes in a way that benefits everyone, regardless of their individual harms. That’s a general policy, even if we know that Jeff Bezos will pay some taxes and Ecmandu will receive some money.

That’s what I mean by a ‘general’ here. It’s not mediated by reference to a specific act. You’re talking about all Xs who fit criteria C, I’m talking about one specific X who’s compensating a specific individual. The application of what I’m talking about would be individualized.

Isn’t this too broad, though? Do you agree that if you steal my painting and I die before I get it back, you don’t thereby gain legitimate ownership of it? Do you further agree that my heirs can reclaim the painting?

I think you meant this as a joke, but it absolutely follows from the argument I’m making and I don’t see that as a problem with my argument.

I mostly agree with your take on morality, but I think more follows from it than you do:

First, if in order to reject the argument I’m making, we need to appeal to moral nihilism, I think that’s a strong endorsement of my position. All claims of the form, “You should do X” are vulnerable to nihilistic dismissals of any moral obligations, so if we need to appeal to that nuclear option here, then our claim is as well-established as a moral claim can be.

But I don’t think you’re really appealing to the nuclear option, you’re invoking it to frame the discussion differently. A broader version of what I read you to be saying is that, if nothing matters at bottom, then whatever uneasy truce we have today is actually morally right, in which case arguments to change the uneasy truce have no moral force, they can only be rent-seeking on the part of whoever would benefit. And I think this is also basically true, but I think we can still make a strong moral claim within that framing:
Moral principles are a useful part of a social contract, and rent-seekers can appeal to them to justify their demands in light of the ostensible social contract, and that poses an actual problem for the broader uneasy truce.

We have, as part of our uneasy truce, principles around how property works and how it can be alienated. We want these principles to be natural, necessary, because if they’re contingent (e.g. if they’re principles now but weren’t at some time in the past), then they’re less reliable; we will have less reason to honor them with respect to other people’s property, because we have less reason to expect that they will honor them with respect to ours.

But if they are natural, necessary, they precede the existing social contract. As part of our social agreement, we pretend that our principles are written into the fabric of reality, because that makes them reliable. But if that’s so, then they applied even before the current agreement existed, and so to be consistent retroactively say that some then-sanctioned behaviors were unjust.

The other consideration around the social contract framing is that we need significant buy-in, and people will just reject the uneasy truce if they don’t perceive it to be fair. It’s all well and good to say that the previous uneasy truce made actions legitimate, but the present uneasy truce may need to undo those actions to get the required buy-in. “Everyone keeps what they have” seems like a fair deal, but it depends on what led to who has what. If I steal your things and then say, “Everyone keeps what they have”, you would be reasonably expected to reject that arrangement, even if you think “everyone keeps what they have” is a good principle.

So, you’re right that you may reject a social contract that includes you losing money, but if you care about property rights now, and you want them to be strongly enforced and valued by all other members of the social contract, it would be in your interest to enforce the consequences of such rights into the past to legitimize them by reducing contingency.

To nuance the claim, I would phrase it differently: your ancestor took something of value from my ancestor, and so your ancestor’s estate owes my ancestor’s estate. You can’t be saddled with your ancestor’s debt, but if you inherited that value from your ancestor’s estate that was not your ancestor’s to give you, then you don’t get to keep it, it belongs to my ancestor’s estate and then to her heirs. You aren’t paying, you’re losing out on your inheritance. (This is the ‘robber drops a bag of cash’ hypothetical I opened with.)

A corollary of this is that the argument I’m making wouldn’t apply to people who didn’t inherit any such ill-gotten gains because they didn’t inherit anything.

Mad, the social contract that this society has with black people is broken af.
We can call the police and expect to be helped. Black people don’t call the police because there’s a good chance they’ll end up dead.

That’s a good point, Phoneutria. The social contract approach seems to create a strong argument for more general forms of reparations.

I think we can make a distinction between rewriting the social contract, which is what general reparations would do, and operating within what is ostensibly the existing social contract, which I think my specific/individualistic form of reparations is doing.

And yet, social contracts are prevy to God’s Covenant, even to the present.
Who is entitled to inherit and on what basis, are still determined up in moral, rather than ethical considerations.
How can territorial inheritance claims be demarked from their morally justified vindication?

Slaves’ rights to reparations are just as convincing than those that stem from the war reparations of Japanese interneees, because the duration of internment do not come even close to that of human slavery.
The politization of benefits is a lot easier of the former, and slavery may be less arguable, since it was a systemic wrong, that derived from less specific territorial deprivation.

Temporal deprivation can be argued on basis of other signifiers.

It is notable that the implication to vindicate a morally justified reparation from an ethical one may not imply no mutual overlap, but it could be safely said , that there are cases where moral , rather then ethical considerations are more relevant.

Those people are still alive though.

this vid


I’m challenging your assumption that anything was “stolen” or “taken” when in fact it was won in a very high stakes game of tribal warfare.

Honestly slavery was one of lower stakes of the game played by tribes in competition… we’ve done and continue to do worse to each other.
Had our ancestors lost that game they might have been the slaves and if you go far enough back some of them did and some of them were.
I do not begrudge them playing to win in a game like that… I imagine we would too, in their shoes.
This is the horror that underlines the need for us to stop playing that fucking game… it makes monsters and victims of all of us eventually.
But let’s not pretend our ancestors were playing any other game, that they cheated or things would be different had the other tribe won.

Allow me to illustrate with a thought experiment… let’s assume, that the descendants of slaves somehow had managed to secure for themselves a very comfortable life.
Let’s assume they had managed to secure for themselves an even more comfortable life than the descendants of the slave owners.
Are they still owed?

By your logic the answer is yes… there is a debt, thing was “stolen” by the rules of today, thing must be returned.
It doesn’t matter whether or not this retroactive transfer of wealth is helping or hurting people alive today, what matters is we adhere to your misguided moral principles.
I do not need to appeal to moral nihilism to reject this. I simply do not give a damn… nor am I required to.

What’s more, I reject your utilitarian argument for adopting Idealism.
I somehow doubt we’d instill much confidence in the stability of our contracts by doing so… when we are doing so to explicitly undo past agreements.

I’d much rather reach a new agreement to help each other as needed, from here on out, for mutual benefit… and go from there.
Which means I don’t I think we should give money and aid to people who don’t need it… but instead focus on the people who do.
So what if a child is born into abject poverty because his parents were drug addicts who pissed their money away, OD’ed and left him nothing but nightmares.
That child is a no less a victim for it… and that kid needs help more than Barack Obama does, regardless of who did what to their respective ancestors.

As you may have noticed, I have no use for your score board of grudges.
Not only do I get to keep my moral obligations… I am in fact morally obligated to reject this idealistic precept.

You’ll get no argument from me…

But that game of monopoly did not start 400 years ago… It started 200.000 years ago and has been going on ever since.
Gonna take a wild stab and say beating the tribal war drums with a victim and victimizer race probably not the best strategy toward solidarity.
Just more racism… but hey what do I know… maybe it’ll work out.

it definitely doesn’t work
but neither does dismissing their pain



The Indian reparations based on old territorial gains were justified, in spite of no living beneficiaries.

Attitudal changes effected by displaced roles may conflate political alliances.

Thay may be the exceptional sliding reason that justifications are withheld for more than generally accepted criteria.

Beneficiaries at times over react, in terms analogous to centuries of intoxication, and when they go cold turkey, a long repressed coil kicks up,
tipping up the necessary covers which had held back betting on high risk values.
That re: Native Americans who may feel some trepidation over the usual non betting recurrent reverse discrimination.
Of course it’s an axiomatic reaction, that becomes visible from both sides of a previous one way mirror.

So I guess as a preliminary question, do you think we’d be justified in enslaving people today? Take some examples: Can republicans enslave democrats? Can China enslave the Uyghers? Can we enslave the remaining uncontacted tribes? and why or why not, under the tribal warfare framing?

I get that we’re ultimately animals, and our moral systems are a kind of uneasy truce. But that seems like a reason to follow our moral systems, to take seriously what they imply, because that’s what’s kept us from killing each other and that’s a good thing. So we take it as settled that slavery is wrong today. And I think we have to take seriously the idea that morality as it applies today should apply to the past, and further that practical applications of that morality, like requiring people to compensate the people they wrong (note that “tort” law is literally the law of wrongs), should also apply to those deeds.

Even if it was just tribal warfare, it’s still true to say that the slavers took the slave’s labor by force. If that happened today, it would require compensation.

What do you think of the case of Japanese internment in the US, where survivors were paid reparations for their internment many years later? That might be a useful test, because it is a case of something that was legal at the time (indeed, Korematsu, the case where the US Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Japanese internment, is still technically the law of the land in the US) but we still deemed to warrant compensation much later. Was that the right thing to do?

To put it more generally: if X is wrong today and would warrant compensation, and we can convincingly demonstrate that a specific person A did X in the past to another specific person B, the successors in interest of B still have a claim for compensation against person A.

I don’t follow this argument. If a poor person steals from a rich person, they still have to give it back, even if the poor person is hurt and the rich person will have a comfortable life without it. Is that not the existing social contract? If so, I don’t see why present circumstances matter. What matters is that we know that a wrong was done that warranted compensation, and that claim for compensation survives death (which is true if my heirs can reclaim the painting someone stole from me).

What agreements are you referring to here?

This sounds to me like an argument against general reparations, and I’m not defending that here. It doesn’t apply, I assume, to a case where someone steals my painting: it’s my painting, I get it back, and “help each other as needed” is just irrelevant to who owns the painting. It doesn’t apply, I assume, to the bank robber robbing the bank: it’s the bank’s money, the bank gets it back, and we don’t see that as punishing the robbers or settling grudges.

I’m not saying we should punish the descendants of slavers for slavery. I’m not saying we should reward the descendants of slaves for the suffering of the ancestors. Even if the outcome is similar in practice, that isn’t what I’m advocating. Rather, where someone had something of value taken from them without consent, we have a rule that they should get it back, or get back compensation of equivalent value. Not as a windfall or a punishment, but to return the ill-gotten gains of one to the person from who they were taken.

This right to compensation survives death (my heirs get my painting), and it isn’t broken by the taker giving the thing of value to someone else (I get my painting back even if the robber drops it on your porch). These are descriptions of the current social contract, not moral arguments. But from them it follows that specific descendants of slaves have a claim against the descendants of specific slave owners, to the extent that the inheritance of the latter included an amount in excess of what was owed.

And note also the burden of proof that this entails: I’m assuming that the descendant of the slave can show who enslaved their ancestor, how much value was extracted through slavery, who the slavers heirs are, and how much value those heirs inherited from the slaver. I am assuming these things are reasonably well established (i.e. established to the extent we would require the facts to be established for my to reclaim my painting). This is the best argument for why it would apply to slavery and not to e.g. the Norman Invasion: we can’t establish the specific facts for the latter. Indeed, I’d expect that in most cases we wouldn’t be able to establish the facts for the former either.

Why does this matter? At the time of Japanese internment, and technically even today (but probably only because it hasn’t been challenged again), the internments were legal.