What is the Wrong in Retaining Benefits from Wrongdoing? How Recent Attempts to Formulate a Plausible Rationale for the ‘Beneficiary Pays Principle’ Have Failed

Abstract

Many moral and political theorists have recently argued that the fact that an agent has innocently benefited from wrongdoing or injustice can ground special moral duties to help out the victims or simply give up the benefits. This idea is often referred to as the ‘Beneficiary Pays Principle’ (BPP). This article critically assesses three recent attempts at providing a rationale for the BPP and argues that there are profound problems with each of them. It argues that even if we accept plausible versions of the different normative ideas these accounts appeal to, we have no reason to accept the BPP.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Note that this would only hold at least up to the point where he has no longer benefited from the wrong.

  2. 2.

    See e.g. Christian Barry and R. E. Goodin, ‘Benefiting from the wrongdoing of others’, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 31 (2014), pp. 363–376; Christian Barry and David Wiens, ‘Benefiting from wrongdoing and sustaining wrongful harm’, Journal of Moral Philosophy, 13 (2016), pp. 530–552; Daniel Butt, ‘On benefiting from injustice’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 37 (2007), pp. 129–152; Daniel Butt, Rectifying international injustice: Principles of compensation and restitution between nations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Daniel Butt, ‘“A doctrine quite new and altogether untenable”: Defending the beneficiary pays principle’, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 31 (2014), pp. 336–348; Robert. E. Goodin, ‘Disgorging the fruits of historical wrongdoing’, American Political Science Review, 107 (2013), pp. 478–491; Bashshar Haydar and Gerhard Øverland, ‘The normative implications of benefiting from injustice’, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 31 (2014), pp. 349–362; Tom Parr, ‘The moral taintedness of benefiting from injustice’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 19 (2016), pp. 985–997. An earlier defence of the same view is found in Judith Jarvis Thomson, ‘Preferential hiring’, Philosophy & Public affairs, 2 (1973), pp. 364–384.

  3. 3.

    I will refer to this idea as the ‘beneficiary pays principle’ (BPP).

  4. 4.

    For BPP and climate justice, see e.g. Axel Gosseries, ‘Historical emissions and free-riding’, Ethical Perspectives, 11 (2004), pp. 36–60; Holly Lawford-Smith, ‘Benefiting from failures to address climate change’, Journal of Applied Philosophy 31 (2014), pp. 392–404; Edward Page, ‘Give it up for climate change: A defence of the beneficiary pays principle’, International Theory, 4 (2012), pp. 300–330; Henry Shue, ‘Global Environment and International Inequality’, International Affairs, 75 (1999), pp. 531–545.

  5. 5.

    A recent study by Matthew Lindauer and Christian Barry, suggests that this belief is quite common. See Matthew Lindauer and Christian Barry, ‘Moral judgment and the duties of innocent beneficiaries of injustice’, Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 8 (2017), pp. 671–686.

  6. 6.

    Note that the wrong involved in keeping property from its rightful owner need not be explained by any version of the BPP. Returning stolen property to its rightful owner is a duty that plausibly relies on rationales that are unconnected to the BPP and obtains even if no one benefits from the theft or from return of stolen property. I owe thanks to an anonymous referee for pointing this out to me.

  7. 7.

    For a survey of the types of justifications that have been proposed in favor of the BPP, see Christian Barry and Robert Kirby, ‘Scepticism about beneficiary pays: A critique’, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 34 (2017) pp. 285–300, at pp. 285–286.

  8. 8.

    Barry and Wiens, ‘Benefiting from wrongdoing and sustaining wrongful harm’, pp. 530–552.

  9. 9.

    Parr, ‘The moral taintedness of benefiting from injustice’, pp. 985–997.

  10. 10.

    In ‘The normative implications of benefiting from injustice’ Haydar and Øverland also argued that our judgement that beneficiaries owe something more to victims of injustice than mere bystanders seems to be much stronger when the benefit is intentionally realized by the wrong, than in cases where the realization of the benefit is accidental. While they showed that there is a clear difference in our intuitions between such cases, they did not provide any rationale for why we should accept that there is a moral difference. Parr’s account is interesting partly because it provides such a rationale.

  11. 11.

    Butt’s arguments have been the subject of quite a lot of attention already. An excellent critical discussion is found in Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, ‘Affirmative action, historical injustice, and the concept of beneficiaries’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 25 (2017), pp. 72–90. There are arguably points of overlap between his account and mine. However, my main challenge against Butt is quite distinct. Furthermore, to the extent that my account touches on some of the same themes as Lippert-Rasmussen’s, I make important elaborations to what has already been argued. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pointing this out to me.

  12. 12.

    Butt, ‘On benefiting from injustice’, p. 143.

  13. 13.

    Butt, ‘On benefiting from injustice’, p. 143.

  14. 14.

    Butt does not use words such as ‘incoherent’; however, the idea that our attitude that we can go about keeping our benefits from wrongs is in conflict with (or ‘undermines’) our commitment to the belief that the act was in fact wrong, seems to indicate that the error Butt claims to have identified involves some form of incoherence.

  15. 15.

    Butt’s argumentative methodology seems to take the form of a transcendental argument. Standardly, transcendental arguments hold that given that we accept that one thing Y is the case, we must also accept that another thing X is the case: X follows logically from Y. See e.g. Stern, Robert, ‘Transcendental arguments’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

  16. 16.

    Arguably, there is some conceptual similarity with the kind of incoherence Butt claims is present in the attitudes of the beneficiary and the notion of being a hypocrite. Therefore, the claim may implicitly be that we are being hypocrites if we think an act is wrong, but are unwilling to ‘mitigate its effects on the grounds that it has benefited us’. I mention this because perhaps it indicates what is at stake about making the error Butt thinks many beneficiaries of injustice make. However, nothing I am going to argue depends on the accuracy of this interpretation.

  17. 17.

    The point here is not that this causal connection is not important per se. It certainly has great practical importance. For instance, the fact that things are as they are is a result of what has happened in the past. This seemingly has the practical implication that if we wanted to set course for a different future than the one we are currently headed towards, this would be possible by changing something about the present.

  18. 18.

    If we shift the focus to the reasons Peter would want to live in a counterfactual world, it is quite easy to see why he has a reason to compensate you. If Peter wanted to live in a counterfactual world because in that world you would have been spared all the suffering associated with being the victim of my actions, then trying to mitigate that suffering by compensating you is a rational response to this reason. Importantly, however, this applies to everyone that can help alleviate the harm. It does not single out beneficiaries in any way.

  19. 19.

    See footnote 18.

  20. 20.

    This is a retelling of one of the cases Butt has appealed to in motivating his account. See Butt, ‘“A doctrine quite new and altogether untenable”: defending the beneficiary pays principle’, p. 340.

  21. 21.

    Barry and Kirby, ‘Scepticism about beneficiary pays: a critique’, p. 286.

  22. 22.

    Barry and Wiens, ‘Benefiting from wrongdoing and sustaining wrongful harm’, p. 547.

  23. 23.

    Barry and Wiens, ‘Benefiting from wrongdoing and sustaining wrongful harm’, p. 543.

  24. 24.

    This condition could also apply to claims we have to items or quantums of value that we have in virtue of other normative ideas than justified property rights. However, I assume that it serves no purpose to simply say that we have a claim to items or quantums of value that have been realized by wrongs against us. This would seem to presuppose the validity of the BPP rather than to justify it.

  25. 25.

    Barry and Wiens, ‘Benefiting from wrongdoing and sustaining wrongful harm’, pp. 545–546. Another central example is called ‘no promotion’ in which a company systematically favours men over women for promotion. The distinction between these cases is unimportant for my purposes. Whatever I say about the missed interview case applies also to ‘no promotion’.

  26. 26.

    Barry and Wiens, ‘Benefiting from wrongdoing and sustaining wrongful harm’, p. 546. For the purposes of my discussion here, I will not question the idea that each person has such general claims against their fellows.

  27. 27.

    Note that this claim does in fact make some small concessions to the relevance of the BPP. However, one should keep in mind that this concession depends upon accepting Barry and Wiens’s assumptions both that we have general claims against our fellows, and that we have the specific general claim they sketch in this case. I have accepted these claims only for the sake of argument, because I believe I can show that even so, their view largely collapses. I owe thanks to an anonymous referee for urging me to clarify this point.

  28. 28.

    For instance, suppose that shortly after Brent is hired, the company discovers that it is in financial trouble and must cut costs. Therefore, they stop all new hiring. If Brent quits his job, the company will not seek to replace him.

  29. 29.

    In the present example it may be possible to redo the hiring process. However, in most cases of interest for BPP proponents (that is, in most cases of wrongdoing), we simply cannot replay events in a fair way that undoes the injustice. Instead we may rely on some form of compensation for what has happened.

  30. 30.

    Thomas Pogge, ‘Severe poverty as a violation of negative duties’, Ethics & International Affairs 19 (2005), pp. 55–83, at p. 72; Barry and Wiens, ‘Benefiting from wrongdoing and sustaining wrongful harm’, p. 548.

  31. 31.

    Barry and Wiens, ‘Benefiting from wrongdoing and sustaining wrongful harm’, p. 549. Note that Barry and Wiens assume for the sake of argument that the consumers are in fact innocent. Naturally, that is not necessarily the case. For instance, by virtue of their membership in powerful states, such consumers may be collectively guilty of cooperating in the imposition of an unjust institutional order that harms the workers. See e.g. Pogge, ‘Severe poverty as a violation of negative duties’, p. 71. As Pogge argues, members of affluent states may owe repair because they are responsible for imposing an unjust institutional order on the world’s poor. To the extent that buying the cheap clothes is part of what contributes to the imposition, consumers are clearly not innocent. Moreover, it is not access to cheap clothes that makes the consumers in question members of powerful nations that could change the global institutional order.

  32. 32.

    However, see footnote 31.

  33. 33.

    Goodin, ‘Disgorging the fruits of historical wrongdoing’, p. 487.

  34. 34.

    Goodin ‘Disgorging the fruits of historical wrongdoing’, p. 482. It is worth mentioning that since this account focuses on duties to disgorge benefits, it is not clear that it explains why or if beneficiaries have reasons to give their benefits to the victims of the wrongs they have benefited from, rather than for some other worthy cause.

  35. 35.

    Parr’s argument has also recently been endorsed in an article by Göran Duus-Otterström, ‘Benefiting from injustice and the common-source problem’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 20 (2017), pp. 1067–1081.

  36. 36.

    Parr, ‘The moral taintedness of benefiting from injustice’, p. 994. Plausibly, the meaning of ‘taint’ here is as suggested above, simply that entitlement over a benefit is weaker than entitlement over things would otherwise be, all else being equal. I mention this because that seems to me the most charitable interpretation. However, nothing I say rides on this interpretation.

  37. 37.

    This argument seems to amount to what Derek Parfit calls ‘reverse consequentialism’ since it holds that the impersonal badness of an act is decided (at least in part) by the intrinsic wrongness of the intention behind the act, rather than the amount of good or bad consequences the act yields. See On what matters: Volume three, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 350.

  38. 38.

    Parr, ‘The moral taintedness of benefiting from injustice’, p. 994.

  39. 39.

    Presumably provided that it is not the eye that C was born with that is up for redistribution. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pointing this out to me.

  40. 40.

    Parr, ‘The moral taintedness of benefiting from injustice’, p. 994.

  41. 41.

    Jeff McMahan ‘Humanitarian intervention, consent, and proportionality’, Ethics and humanity: Themes from the philosophy of Jonathan Glover, eds. N. A. Davis, R. Keshen, J. McMahan, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 44–71, at pp. 60–62. McMahan discusses the relevance of this idea for the case of military intervention.

  42. 42.

    See e.g. Derek Parfit, On what matters: Volume three, pp. 355–357.

  43. 43.

    This seems correct to me even if the intentions for the means of gifting the eye, are in fact immoral.

  44. 44.

    Naturally, there may be good reasons to reverse the sick child’s reception of benefits. If the child becomes in possession of stolen goods, then we may justify giving these benefits back to their legal owners by appealing to some idea of property rights. It is important to note, however, that we would not then be appealing to the impersonal badness of a grand plan being completed.

  45. 45.

    Note that if we only wanted to undo the completion of the immoral intention to steal an eye, we could not in this case succeed, because the rightful owner of the eye can no longer be found. This fact alone does not, of course, explain why we should undo the good intention of benefiting C as some sort of second best measure.

  46. 46.

    I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pressing me on this point.

  47. 47.

    Here ‘Eye theft*’ is equivalent to ‘Eye theft’, but the wording has been altered in order to highlight the structural difference between ‘Eye theft*’ and ‘Eye theft 2’.

  48. 48.

    See Robert Huseby, ‘The beneficiary pays principle and luck egalitarianism’, Journal of Social Philosophy, 47 (2016), pp. 332–349; Carl Knight, ‘Benefiting from injustice and brute luck’, Social Theory and Practice, 39 (2013), pp. 581–598 and Lippert-Rasmussen, ‘Affirmative action, historical injustice, and the concept of beneficiaries’.

  49. 49.

    I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pressing me on this point.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Robert Huseby, Bashshar Haydar, Göran Duus Otterström and the anonymous referees of Res Publica for valuable comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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Lindstad, S. What is the Wrong in Retaining Benefits from Wrongdoing? How Recent Attempts to Formulate a Plausible Rationale for the ‘Beneficiary Pays Principle’ Have Failed. Res Publica 26, 25–43 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11158-019-09420-9

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Keywords

  • Beneficiary pays
  • Remedial duties
  • Distributing responsibility
  • Innocently benefiting from injustice
  • Climate justice
  • Historical injustices
  • Reparations