Doubtless few would disagree that those who wrongfully harm others owe something to those they harm. This ‘debt’ can be conceptualized as compensation, punishment, the "re-balancing" of the moral relationship between the harmer and the harmed, or as an instrument of rehabilitation or forgiveness.
But what about those who benefit from a wrongful harm without engaging in it? Do they owe something to those they harm? This seems like a central question in what we might call ‘historical justice’.
(Incidentally, I was led to think about this issue in connection with post-war justice: If nation A wages an aggressive and unjust war against nation B, and nation B triumphs in the war, who in nation A owes a debt to nation B? A’s political leaders? A’s military personnel? All the citizens of A?)
Here I’d like to consider some cases and put forth a possible principle for discussion.
THE SWISS BANK CASE: As many of you know, Swiss banks have been made to pay compensation to Jewish families for receiving property stolen from Jews by the Nazis. I imagine most of us think this is a just course of action, even if those bank officials who actually received and deposited the property a half century ago are not the ones in charge of the banks now. The banks benefitted from, and likely continue to benefit from, the additional capital, etc., that they enjoyed thanks to these illicit deposits.
MY NEIGHBOR’S MIRACLE BRAIN DRUG: My neighbor is a brilliant neurochemist who one days lets slip that he has developed an amazing drug that when administered to a child below the age of one virtually guarantees that the child will grow to have a 200 IQ. I steal the drug from my neighbor’s house and administer it to my newborn son, who later wins multiple Nobel Prizes. Does my son owe my neighbor (or my neighbor’s family or descendants) something for my injustice? I’m inclined to say he does not.
Now if you agree with the verdicts I’ve offered in these two cases, why are these the right verdicts? It seems to me that the difference is that my son was a wholly innocent beneficiary of my injustice, whereas the Swiss bankers almost certainly were not. The Swiss banks had an opportunity, at a discrete moment in time, to decide whether to accept the property that the Nazis acquired from European Jews through wrongful means. Furthermore, the Swiss banks likely had suspicions about the origins of the property, suspicions they could have confirmed with relatively modest investigation. In contrast, my infant son doesn’t even know that he’s receiving the miracle brain drug, nor is he in any meaningful position to decline it. This suggests that whether a beneficiary of another’s wrongful harm owes something to the party harmed can be determined by the following principle:
If A wrongfully harms B, and C benefits from A’s wrongly harming B, then C owes a debt to B, only if:
(1) C has reason to believe that C was benefitted by A’s wrongly harming B (or C could come to believe this with modest investigation)
(2) it was within C’s power to choose not to be benefitted by A’s wrongly harming B.
I’d like to think that this principle works in the relatively easy cases of individuals harming individuals, but I have doubts about its applicability to larger-scale injustice, such as aggressive war, ensalvement, etc. For instance:
THE OIL WAR CASE: I am a citizen of nation R, which has unjustly invaded nation S, thereby acquiring S’s extensive oil resources. I depend on oil to fuel my car so that I can drive to work and I know I benefit from the cheap oil R now enjoys. I am not a political or military leader, a member of the economic elite, or a member of R’s armed forces. In fact, I vocally opposed R’s invading S in the first place. But the tide of the war turns and S ultimately defeats R. Do I owe a debt to nation S, however modest, for the cheap oil I had temporarily?
I must admit to not knowing what to say about such a case. According to the above principle, I would owe a debt of some sort to nation S. Arguably, I’ve not committed an injustice against S, but I am not an innocent beneficiary of nation R’s injustice either.
But I’m less confident about the verdict in the Oil War Case than in either the Swiss Bank Case or the Miracle Drug Case. Does it matter that I opposed R’s injustice at the outset? Would it matter if the benefit were not oil, something that I could refrain from using, albeit at significant loss to my own income and well-being, but something more essential, like food or clean water? And in cases where the above two conditions are not met, are those who’ve suffered the relevant harm simply out of luck — what should take priority? The claims of the wrongfully harmed or the claims of the innocently benefitted?