Obligations to Past Generations (OPG) (27th Feb 2019)


“...past injuries took place in the past and the matter ended there. The slain are truly slain.” (Max Horkheimer)




Are obligations to future and past generations the same problem i.e. symmetrical and thus open to the same arguments?



Perhaps not.




"First, how can currently living people be understood to be negatively affected by historical injustices? Second, can the ongoing effect of past wrongs become legitimate when circumstances change? And, thirdly, we need to address the question of the moral status of deceased persons and dead victims of injustice in particular."



In the above quote and a fair bit of the literature the OPG problem is often cast in terms of OFG (or current Gs) suffering harms due to an accumulated pattern of past generational activity. A simple link between the moral character and requirements of past and present activities.



(This has been claimed on behalf of the cases of slavery, and of genocide of native americans, and the treatment of Australian aborigines.)



But it is a sort of dilution of the issue i.e. if OFG was about what we now owe to people in the future


OPG becomes (in the above quote etc) a matter of what we now owe to people affected by patterned past actions


and thereby to judge the morality of the actions of past generations and change how the past would have otherwise worked out.




In that sense it is our moral obligations to past generations to identify, praise or condemn, compensate or let run, their doings.


...Though, this still seems to be a  variant of OFG in that we are indicating what PGs owed to FGs but failed to perform.


But inasmuch as we explore  moral interactions back and forth between PG and FG, it may be better to talk about 'inter-generational justice' rather than purely OPG.




So we will play with this looser sense of OPG for a moment so that we may consider the 'ontology' of OPG type arguments




The group as basic rights-bearer.


I am uneasy with arguments that suggest ethnic and other groups who because of the mal-effects of accumulated historical injustices of past generations deserve compensation today



I am not clear that I have (compensatory) responsibility for consequences of actions of (long) past others on identifiable groups


even if it is possible to work out (regression analysis?):


i) the counter-factual situation you WOULD HAVE BEEN IN TODAY had not the ancestors been treated in the way they were...


such that


ii) we can compensate for the difference between how I am and how I would have been


Are not current conditions - if none of the previously discriminatory conditions now apply - sufficient restitution? Us not doing what used to be done, on the grounds of moral maturity is a case of OPG? (our obligation not to repeat (moral) history)




Why site matters at the level of the group (which the OPG argument tends to) - the joys of identitarian politics!



Why not at the level of the individual - children making claims against their parents for insufficient care that has blighted their lives




And in some sense does not the welfare system (social services) do that...except that it is, from its perspective, (re)producing current patterns of justice


What do you think?



This is a kind of negative version of OPG - I have OPG insofar as they are to be shown as being in the wrong - their past patterns of behaviours/culture deserve to be morally upbraided not just because they did harm...


but that it was also unjustifiable


and this last bit seems salient...


what the past group did unjustifiably in their own terms may be morally different from where that was not the case.


Here we have the side constraint of 'morally could do no other' even if they could have done a currently appropriate moral act...


which would have been immoral or at least unjustifiable in their terms e.g. not hanging drawing and quartering a regicide.


Another e.g.

Police prosecuting homosexuals in the 1950s - justifiable

Police acting as agent provocateurs in cottages in 1950s - unjustifiable



Perhaps we have an OPG to take account of the moral currency of a PG



If as a result of unjust actions by PGs, today I suffer more than I would have done had they acted only in line with their moral options of their community


...even if I now judge their range of moral actions to be wrong, do I deserve compensation - do I have a greater claim against that PG? Do I condemn them more...


 and if they acted morally in their community, though trans-generationally harmful to me, are they blameworthy?


Or are they wholly in the right.





But as we shall see this does not quite get at the Q I am thinking of - namely whether we owe respect or restitution to past people despite, or because of value-change.



And this intuition may be a way into the (a)symmetry problem - are not OFG and OPG asking the same thing.




....whereas in the case of OFG I engage in actions to change the future opportunity structure for the sake of those living in the future....


I cannot change the opportunity structure of the past as past and thus I cannot change the values and injustices of the past and the consequent suffering ceteris paribus.



What I can do is to compensate for past wrongs, those who suffered and are still living


But that is simple OPW - obligs for past wrongs and we do that all the time.


In 1938 the nazis stole our art collection and now the inheritor administration ought to return the art even if it is now 'state-owned etc in a gallery. And we also think it right to return it to subsequent generations of the family (if the original owner is now dead) (but not to say, his best friend)


Of course this raises issues as to why non-original owners have entitlements even if they are family - the owner may have intended to sell the (later) nazi-stolen art rather than hand it on,


so what reason have we to presume the later family have rights-claims over the art.






 if an 'x' is unwarrantably taken from its rightful owner, then no other possessor is entitled to have it


and ought to return it or compensate the true owner


but if the owner is dead, why should the (later) family have it?




In a way, an utterly different (present) State has determined that they have obligations to a past generation in terms of property stolen by an utterly despicable regime


because even if the original owner is dead, the (im)moral lies not in the merely restitution of property


...but of acting rightly as a State that condemns the previous regime and signals that stealing is wrong as a current universal principle



even if the current state or its people had nothing to do with the appropriating regime?




Even if it is great art that deserves to be seen by the public? ...and will thus improve their welfare function rather than lowering it by a) depriving them of seeing the art-work and b) by using innocent tax payers money for restitution




Do we have an obligation to correct the sins of the past?


Does a successor state which condemns morally its predecessor? i.e. that it is the successor state AND has a stated moral attitude to the earlier Nazi state bring about moral obligations to PGs?




In OFG I can shape future prospects but, in the case of OPG, present people do not mess-up the past.



So perhaps OPG and OFG are not symmetrical and moreover the kinds of cases and forms of OPG are rather different from those of OFG.



And here we perhaps need to try to offer some definition of what a strong version of OPG may be getting at:



OPG wishes to consider whether:


i) future (or present) people have some obligations, qua expected moral consideration, to act or conduct themselves in some way towards (past) others whose life-world, by dint of temporal separation, is not contiguous with that of the future or present persons.




ii) to ignore such obligations will justly invite opprobrium or even penalty or compensation.




If you like this is the argument from irrelevancy - that at some point my OPG due to separation e.g. culture/needs change, drifts - becomes morally irrelevant to my generation.



The problem of promises and bequests.


19th C Do-gooders granting the use of parks to the townspeople in perpetuity. But the appointed guardians are the local authority


and they sell the land for housing 100 years later.



But if you keep on doing this you will fall into the classic kantian objection...


that the structure of trust will break down if you can, albeit for seeming good reasons, abrogate upon promises, obligations, agreements.



" it is important for people that others can bind themselves by promises or contracts to the effect that they will carry out certain actions after the promisee’s death, and that when others have done so, that they can be confident that the promise will be kept. For the practice of such promises, trust is of special importance, for the promisee will not be able to determine whether the promise was kept. Thus, the practice of such promises is particularly dependent upon the protection of the value of people having confidence in promises being kept. At the same time, if such promises have often not been kept, this is likely to undermine the confidence in promises being kept generally. The right of the deceased person that the promise given will be kept is in part based on, among others, these reasons. Although the right and the person who is the bearer of the right have ceased to exist, the moral reasons for honoring the right are still valid and the duty of the person who gave the promise continues to be binding on the basis of these reasons."



But the kantian argument still works to guarantee the stability of the present - that trust etc continues so that we may also benefit...


But what I have in mind is OPG without present or future benefit


Where we act purely for the sake of past generations without benefit to us.


We do not defile the dead but would it morally matter if we did?


We have said that we (can) have OPGs for the sake of the current generation




But what meaning can we give to OPG for purely their sakes and where we have little incentive to engage in OPG


Do we really have obligations to the memorialise PGs - Remembrance Day?


Their life-world, beliefs, hopes, dreams are utterly different from ours - are just not relevant and we are just faking being moral? It is all a bit mawkish? Morally smug?



Can we in any sense symbolically compensate PGs


"Symbolic compensation as understood here is that we can recognize past people as victims of injustices without presupposing that they can be current bearers of interests or rights."



A family continues to be shamed by the (untrue but widely believed) claim that their great grandfather was a war coward


Actually it turns out he was not...and upon this public opprobrium does a volte-face


His reputation but also that of the family is re-instated





What about pardoning gay men who were prosecuted before the 1967 Homosexual law reform?


Society were wholly morally committed to not permitting sexual acts between men and the law was just as well as being bound to ancient history and religious faith as well as some degree of biological support.


The law and prosecutions were just THEN.


How can we pardon those men NOW - they did what they did, they were guilty; there were no impermissable steps in the justice process.


Ought we to apologise for the British empire and for slavery?


What moral sense can we make of this?