Compensating for Impoverishing Injustices of the Distant Past

Politikon 32 (1):83-102 (2005)
Calls for compensation are heard in many countries all over the world. Spokespersons on behalf of formerly oppressed and dominated groups call for compensation for the deeply traumatic injustices their members have suffered in the past. Sometimes these injustices were suffered decades ago by members already deceased. How valid are such claims to compensation and should they be honoured as a matter of justice? The focus of this essay is on these issues of compensatory justice. I want to look at the issue from the perspective of the eradication of systematic poverty affecting particular groups—where injustices of the distant past can reliably be identified as one of the major contributory factors to people’s current poverty. In the paper I will examine the following issues: (1) What kind of injustices qualify to be remedied by means of compensatory justice? (2) Should there be a limit to how far back in history one should go to compensate for injustice? (3) How can an injustice from the distant past be reliably identified as a cause of current problems? (4) Who should be compensated? (5) Who is responsible for compensation? (6) What form should compensation take? (7) Is the concept of compensatory justice backward looking or forward looking? I will argue for a moral obligation to the effect that serious injustices, perpetrated long ago against a group of people and caused them to be poor, ought to be compensated by society in a variety of ways to the original victims (if still alive) and their descendants.
Keywords Injustice  Poverty  Compensation
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