Skip to main content

Perpetuation as perpetration: Wrongful benefit and responsibility for historical injustice

Abstract

Do those of us living in the present have an obligation to rectify injustices committed by others in the distant past? This article is an attempt to revisit the problem of historical injustice by bringing together recent work on structural injustice in relation to the problem of wrongful benefit. The problem of benefitting from injustice, I argue, provides firmer grounds of obligation in forward-looking accounts of responsibility for historical injustice specifically. I argue (1) that if the negative effects of historical injustice endure into the present, and (2) if we participate in structures that allow for its reproduction, then (3) our moral responsibility to set matters straight increases to the extent that we derive a benefit from the perpetuation of an unjust status quo. Finally, (4) a general moral obligation to make the world less unjust generates a motive for individuals to learn more about their place in a structure that reproduces the negative effects of historical injustice.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  • Abdel-Nour, F. (2003) National Responsibility. Political Theory 31(5): 693–719.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Abdel-Nour, F. (2018) Responsibility For Structural Injustice. Ethics & Global Politics 11(1): 13–21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Arendt, H. (1991) Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility. In L. May and S. Hoffman (eds.) Collective Responsibility: Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics (pp. 273–283). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Google Scholar 

  • Aristotle. (2004). Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by R. Crisp. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  • Barry, C. and Ferracioli, L. (2013) Young on Responsibility and Structural Injustice. Criminal Justice Ethics 32(3): 247–257.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bruyneel, K. (2016) Codename Geronimo: Settler Memory and the Production of American Statism’. Settler Colonial Studies 6(4): 349–364.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bruyneel, K. (2021) Settler Memory: The Disavowal of Indigeneity and the Politics of Race in the United States. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Butt, D. (2007) On Benefitting From Injustice. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 37(1): 129–152.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Butt, D. (2009) Rectifying International Injustice: Principles of Compensation and Restitution Between Nations. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Butt, D. (2014) ‘A Doctrine Quite New and Altogether Untenable’: Defending the Beneficiary Pays Principle. Journal of Applied Philosophy 31(4): 336–348.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Byskov, M.F. (2021) What Makes Epistemic Injustice an ‘Injustice’? Journal of Social Philosophy 52(1): 114–131.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Card, C. (2002) The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Filice, C. (1990) On the Obligation to Keep Informed about Distant Atrocities. Human Rights Quarterly 12(3): 397–414.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fricker, M. (2007) Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Goodhart, M. (2017) Interpreting Responsibility Politically. Journal of Political Philosophy 25(2): 173–195.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Goodin, R.E. (2013) Disgorging the Fruits of Historical Wrongdoing. The American Political Science Review 107(3): 478–491.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Goodin, R.E. and Barry, C. (2014) Benefiting from the Wrongdoing of Others. Journal of Applied Philosophy 31(4): 363–376.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gould, C. (2009) Varieties of Global Responsibility: Social Connection, Human Rights, and Transnational Solidarity. In A. Ferguson and M. Nagel (eds.) Dancing With Iris: The Philosophy of Iris Marion Young (pp. 199–211). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hay, C. (2011) The Obligation to Resist Oppression: The Obligation to Resist Oppression. Journal of Social Philosophy 42(1): 21–45.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Haydar, B. and Øverland, G. (2014) The Normative Implications of Benefiting from Injustice. Journal of Applied Philosophy 31(4): 349–362.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hayward, C.R. (2017) Responsibility and Ignorance: On Dismantling Structural Injustice. Journal of Politics 79(2): 396–408.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ivison, D. (2002) Postcolonial Liberalism. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ivison, D. (2006) Historical Injustice. In J.S. Dryzek, B. Honig and A. Phillips (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Political Theory (pp. 507–525). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jugov, T. and Ypi, L. (2019) Structural Injustice, Epistemic Opacity, and the Responsibilities of the Oppressed. Journal of Social Philosophy 50(1): 7–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Knight, C. (2013) Benefiting from Injustice and Brute Luck. Social Theory and Practice 39(4): 581–598.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Le Guin, U. (2017) The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas: A Story. New York: Harper Perennial.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lepora, C. and Goodin, R.E. (2015) On Complicity and Compromise. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lu, C. (2017) Justice and Reconciliation in World Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Malmqvist, E. (2013) Taking Advantage of Injustice. Social Theory and Practice 39(4): 557–580.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McCarthy, T. (2002) Vergangenheitsbewältigung in the USA: On the Politics of the Memory of Slavery. Political Theory 30(5): 623–648.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McCarthy, T. (2004) Coming to Terms with Our Past, Part II: On the Morality and Politics of Reparations for Slavery. Political Theory 32(6): 750–772.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McKeown, M. (2018) Iris Marion Young’s ‘Social Connection Model’ of Responsibility: Clarifying the Meaning of Connection. Journal of Social Philosophy 49(3): 484–502.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Miller, D. (2001) Distributing Responsibilities. Journal of Political Philosophy 9(4): 453–471.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Miller, D. (2007) National Responsibility and Global Justice. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Mills, C.W. (2013) Retrieving Rawls for Racial Justice? Critical Philosophy of Race 1(1): 1–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mills, C.W. (2007) White Ignorance. In S. Sullivan and N. Tuana (eds.) Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance (pp. 13–38). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Neuhäuser, C. (2014) Structural Injustice and the Distribution of Forward-Looking Responsibility. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 38(1): 232–251.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nozick, R. (1974) Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nussbaum, M. (2011) Foreword. In I.M. Young (ed.) Responsibility for Justice (pp. ix–xxv). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nuti, A. (2019) Injustice and the Reproduction of History. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Parr, T. (2016) The Moral Taintedness of Benefiting from Injustice. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 19(4): 985–997.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pasternak, A. (2014) Voluntary Benefits from Wrongdoing. Journal of Applied Philosophy 31(4): 377–391.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pasternak, A. (2017). Benefiting from Wrongdoing. In Lippert-Rasmussen, K., Brownlee, K., and Coady, D. (Eds.), A Companion to Applied Philosophy (pp. 411–423). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

  • Powers, M. and Faden, R. (2019) Structural Injustice: Power, Advantage, and Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Rawls, J. (2000) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sangiovanni, A. (2018) Structural Injustice and Individual Responsibility. Journal of Social Philosophy 49(3): 461–483.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schiff, J.L. (2014) Burdens of Political Responsibility: Narrative and the Cultivation of Responsiveness. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Sher, G. (1981) Ancient Wrongs and Modern Rights. Philosophy & Public Affairs 10(1): 3–17.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sher, G. (2005) In Praise of Blame. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Singer, P. (1972) Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Philosophy & Public Affairs 1(3): 229–243.

    Google Scholar 

  • Spinner-Halev, J. (2012) Enduring Injustice. Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Thompson, J. (2002) Taking Responsibility for the Past. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Thompson, J. (2009) Intergenerational Justice: Rights and Responsibilities in an Intergenerational Polity. New York: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Vernon, R. (2003) Against Restitution’. Political Studies 51(3): 542–557.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Waldron, J. (1992) Superseding Historic Injustice. Ethics 103(1): 4–28.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Weinrib, E.J. (2002) Corrective Justice in a Nutshell. The University of Toronto Law Journal 52(4): 349–356.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Williams, B. (1981) Moral Luck. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Young, I.M. (2006) Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model. Social Philosophy and Policy 23(1): 102–130.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Young, I.M. (2011) Responsibility for Justice. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Zheng, R. (2018) What is My Role in Changing the System? A New Model of Responsibility for Structural Injustice. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 21(4): 869–885.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zheng, R. (2019) What Kind of Responsibility Do We Have for Fighting Injustice? A Moral-Theoretic Perspective on the Social Connections Model. Critical Horizons 20(2): 109–126.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zimmerman, M.J. (1997) Moral Responsibility and Ignorance. Ethics 107(3): 410–426.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank the following individuals for providing thoughtful commentary on this manuscript at various stages of its development: Farid Abdel-Nour, Isabel Sobral Campos, Noam Chomsky, Carol Gould, John McMahon, Uday Mehta, Rosalind Petchesky, Joshua Sperber, Andrew Valls, and two anonymous reviewers for Contemporary Political Theory.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Petersen-Overton, K.J. Perpetuation as perpetration: Wrongful benefit and responsibility for historical injustice. Contemp Polit Theory (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-021-00530-9

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-021-00530-9

Keywords

  • historical injustice
  • structural injustice
  • enduring injustice
  • responsibility
  • wrongful benefit