Featured Philosopher: Jules Holroyd

I am very happy to welcome Dr. Jules Holroyd as the next featured philosop-her.  She is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Nottingham.  Her research is in moral psychology and social and political philosophy. In particular, she is interested in implicit bias, responsibility and blame, distributive justice, and feminist philosophy.  She has published work in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Philosophical Papers, The Journal of Social Philosophy, and Social Theory and Practice, amongst others.  She is currently working with philosophers and psychologists on a 3 year Leverhulme funded project on bias and blame. In future, she hopes to do more work on reparative justice and philosophy of race.

Her post follows.


 What Needs Repairing? Race and Reparations

Jules Holroyd

In this post I’ll present some of the recent work I’ve been doing on reparative justice. I’ll argue briefly that analytic philosophy’s contribution to arguments for reparative measures for transatlantic slavery has been impoverished by the failure to confront the way race is implicated in the wrong (indeed, the multiple wrongs); in particular, the failure to articulate the wrong in need of repair in terms of the production and entrenchment of racial hierarchy. Conceptualising the wrong in need of repair in these terms better enables a defence of reparative obligations of contemporary governments.

Philosophical arguments that engage with reparative obligations for the historical wrongs of transatlantic slavery have two tasks to undertake: firstly, to establish what grounds principles of reparation, and secondly to explain how, if at all, those principles entitle present individuals to reparation for historical wrongs. Some promising philosophical arguments focus on counterfactual claims about how things would have been, had the wrong not occurred (Darby, 2010), but had interactions rather proceeded justly (Butt, 2009). A development of this argument also articulates how things would have been had reparations been paid as due, in a timely fashion, identifying the failure to do so as a further wrong in need of repair (Butt, 2009). As such, these arguments turn on the simple principle that things should be as they would be, had moral standards been upheld. Present individuals are therefore doubly tied to those historical wrongs; firstly because (we feasibly assume) some individuals would be better off had transactions proceeded justly; secondly because those individuals are themselves wronged directly, by the ongoing harm of failure to repair. This principle has an appealing simplicity to it, and indeed is one implicit in the claims of CARICOM’s call for reparations.[1]

Other philosophical arguments turn on the idea of inheritance: some individuals did not inherit what they should have, whilst others inherited misappropriated property and property that was the fruit of forced labour (Boxill, 2003). The importance of familial lines – the idea that such intergenerational relationships are valuable and should be sustained – can help us to see what is important in inheritance, Thompson (2001) has argued. And it can help us to see that one of the wrongs of transatlantic slavery was that it was an ‘injustice destructive of family relationships’ (131), an attempt to wipe out family lines; wrongs which stand in need of repair.

Whilst these lines of argument are promising, the project of articulating and defending reparative obligations has, in analytic philosophy, been beset by the assumptions of ‘methodological individualism’. There are two key problematic assumptions: first, that progress can be made by modelling reparative claims on wrongs that occur between individuals. Second, that the wrongs at issue are violations of property rights. These assumptions are at work even when they are critically observed.

For example, Butt is attentive to wrongs perpetrated and obligations borne by states, but follows up arguments for holding states responsible with methodology infused with focus on individual wrongs: the wrong of automobile theft and non-return; the obligations grounded by benefiting from a manipulative and erroneously constructed driveway. Even when focusing more directly on wrongs perpetrated by states, the wrongs at issue are wrongful retention of material goods (works of art). Likewise, Waldron (1992) promisingly observes that ‘the world we know is characterised by patterns of injustice, by standing arrangements – rules, laws, regimes and other institutions – that operate unjustly day after day’ (14). But the suggestive turn to institutional wrongs is immediately followed with a focus on examples of car theft, re-assuming the framing of our thinking about these issues in terms of relations between wronged individuals and transgressions involving discrete material goods. These authors are not unique in this focus; but are notable for proceeding with individualistic assumptions even having identified as crucial to the debate the role of institutions’ and states’ role in perpetuating injustices.

Thompson’s (2001) emphasis on the importance of historical injustices to familial identity moves her focus away from individuals, and instead towards families across generations understood as a sort of community, bound by familial narrative (134). But my contention is that this focus is still too narrowly on individuals qua family members, rather than on structural wrongs.

What is wrong with the assumptions of methodological individualism? This methodology is pernicious in obscuring the uniquely racial aspects of the wrong and legacy of slavery. Firstly, modelling reparations on individual transactions obscures the extent to which institutions such as the state are capable of wrongs beyond those possible in individual relations. States can facilitate and enable wrongdoings that are not only different in scope but also in kind from those perpetrated by individuals. In particular, states have the power to create, maintain, and permit certain normative social structures,[2] including social hierarchies. These wrongs differ in kind from those modelled on property violations committed between individuals, in terms of the temporal endurance of the wrong (both the perpetration of the wrong and its effects may typically span greater lengths of time than those committed by individuals); and, implicated in such wrongs is the normative status of the state’s actions: states can also legitimise and make more likely wrongs perpetrated by other agencies (including individuals). The other concern is that the wrongs of transatlantic slavery cannot be captured by a model that focuses on the misappropriation of property or labour value. These assumptions of methodological individualism provide no room for articulating the wrong of transatlantic slavery as producing and entrenching racialised social hierarchies (wrongs articulated as such by, e.g. Brooks 2004, Davis 2000, Coleman ms.).

To the extent that the assumptions of methodological individualism are in play, the wrongs in need of repair cannot be conceptualised in terms of the production of social structures of racialised hierarchy. But this framing is much needed, not only on grounds of historical accuracy and attention to the substance of reparative claims being made;[3] but also to defend robustly reparations and engage legitimate concerns about reparative claims.

For example, one of the most persistent theoretical objections to claims of reparative justice – in particular those grounded in the counterfactual argument outlined above – is that present day individuals, including yourself, would not exist but for the past wrong; for that precise historical moment was needed in order that the conditions obtained under which you came into existence (the ‘non-identity problem’). How can you claim to be harmed, if you would not otherwise have existed!

By conceptualising (part of) the wrong of transatlantic slavery in terms of its production of racialised hierarchy, this objection can be more robustly addressed. For what matters is, in fact, not that particular individuals who now exist are disadvantaged, whilst other particular individuals are privileged; but rather that any individual racialised as black (the metaphysically possible individual who might have existed had A not been conceived at that exact time) would be disadvantaged qua individual racialised as black; and any individual racialised as white (the possible individuals who might have existed had B not been conceived at that precise moment) would be privileged by their race. The wrongs are suffered by individuals qua member of a racialised demographic group rather than simply qua individuals.[4]

Amongst reparations activists, different kinds of objections have been raised. Some concerns have been raised about claims for monetary compensation: these forms of repair are criticised for being ill-tuned to the scale of the wrongs[5] and, indeed, have been dubbed an ‘imperialist swindle’ (PARCOE). Moreover, the idea that reparations requires a commitment to the non-repetition of wrongful treatment also casts doubt on the adequacy of purely financial reparative measures in the absence of other steps to address persisting racial inequalities.[6]

Conceptualising the wrong to be repaired in terms of the production of racialised hierarchy affirms and engages these concerns. First, any reparative measures committed to non-repetition would have as a primary aim the ending of racialised hierarchy (cf. Darby, 2010). Second, this would have far reaching implications better attuned to the scale of the historical wrongs of transatlantic slavery. Third, this conceptualisation of the wrong to be repaired shows the inadequacy of apology or purely financial compensation whilst racist institutions persist. Finally, this framing of reparative claims and obligations indicates that it is wrong to see a tension between the fulfilment of reparative obligations and ‘forward-looking’ policies that aim to address racial inequalities.

Attuned to this aim, reparative policies would go beyond financial repair, but involve a suite of empirically informed measures addressing the lived experience of racial hierarchy, including educational reinvestment, ending informal segregation, positive action in employment, and the revision of resources that record national histories and collective memory.



The ideas in this post have been developed thanks to correspondance with Nathaniel Coleman and Federico Picinali.



Bernard R. Boxill (2003). A Lockean Argument for Black Reparations. Journal of Ethics 7 (1):63-91.

Roy L. Brooks, (2004) Atonement and Forgiveness, A New Model for Black Reparations, University of California Press.

Daniel Butt (2009). Rectifying International Injustice: Principles of Compensation and Restitution Between Nations. Oxford University Press.

Daniel Butt (2007). On Benefiting From Injustice. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 37 (1):129-152.

Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, (ms.) What is wrong with [R. M. Hare’s arguments against] slavery?

Derrick Darby (2010). Reparations and Racial Inequality. Philosophy Compass 5 (1):55-66.

Adrienne D. Davis, (2000) The Case for United States Reparations to African Americans, Human Rights Brief vol 7 (3) http://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/hrbrief/vol7/iss3/2

Cecil Gutzmore, ‘Preparation before slavery compensation’ http://www.voice-online.co.uk/article/preparation-slavery-compensation (accessed 14/07/2014)

Janna Thompson (2001). Historical Injustice and Reparation: Justifying Claims of Descendants. Ethics 112 (1):114-135.

Jeremy Waldron (1992). Superseding Historic Injustice. Ethics 103 (1):4-28.

Iris Marion Young (2011). Responsibility for Justice. OUP USA.

Caricom news network ‘Pan-African Reparations Coalition writes to CARICOM

http://www.caricomnews.net/index.php/caricom/caricom-news/caricom-features/3003-pan-african-reparations-coalition-writes-to-caricom (accessed 14/07/2014)




[1]    http://caricom.org/jsp/pressreleases/press_releases_2013/pres285_13.jsp

[2]    Iris Marion Young gives a really helpful analysis of structural injustices, which I’ll be drawing on more as I continue to think about these issues.

[3]    see text referenced in footnote 1, above. CARICOM identifies the claimants as those ‘disenfranchised and denigrated by the colonial legacy that racially profiles and oppresses them’.

[4]    This does not preclude that individuals may also be wronged in other ways, that ground other reparative claims, as individuals.

[5]    http://www.voice-online.co.uk/article/preparation-slavery-compensation

[6]    http://www.caricomnews.net/index.php/caricom/caricom-news/caricom-features/3003-pan-african-reparations-coalition-writes-to-caricom

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