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Objectivism focuses keenly on justice from what I have read. It also tends to de-emphasize mercy" as unfair and logically unjust. I'd like to ask a question pertaining to justice: in societies where slavery or institutionalized forcible racial-discrimination (i.e. racism backed up by legal violence) exists and is later abolished, what would be considered to be justice for people who were unfairly enslaved/discriminated against? I am thinking not only of America but also nations like South Africa which practiced apartheid for many years. What is fair and just here ? In South Africa a "forgive and forget" approach seems to have been successful but this seems at odds with Objectivism's "justice over mercy" thinking. How should the heinous crimes that all slavery/forcible discrimination entail be adequately and justly punished? Has this happened in the USA? In South Africa ? Please elucidate.

asked Feb 15 '13 at 15:06

Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image


An interesting question. "Justice" in the political/legal sense (as opposed to the personal sense) often has two aspects---punishment for the wrongdoer and compensation for the wronged.

In general, the punishment for a crime should be at least approximately proportionate to the heinousness of the crime. I do not know what punishment is proportionate to the crime of enslaving someone, but surely it will be very severe---perhaps not so severe as the punishment for murder, but very close.

In addition to criminal punishment of the slave-holder, the victim should also be compensated for the damage done to him. However, in a free society such compensation can only justly be taken from the individual who violated the victims rights. Any attempt to force innocents to pay to compensate the victim would itself be a rights violation, which a proper government should be barred from doing. Thus, the ex-slave should have a civil remedy against the slave holder and any others objectively liable for the harm that befell him (e.g., the captain of the slave ship, etc.), for example to recoup the monetary value of his forced labor and other damages.

However, those who have not engaged in rights violating behavior certainly do not deserve criminal punishment or civil liability. One must be very careful in considering this question to not fall into collectivist thinking. Thus, for example, we cannot punish all Americans merely because some other Americans were criminals. This is but one problem with ideas such as having the government pay "reparations" to decedents of slaves---such ideas punish all, not just those who have done wrong.

The quote from Ayn Rand in Ideas' answer rightly points out that individuals cannot be held responsible for the actions of others over which they had no control. For example, I have never owned a slave or supported slavery in any way. How then is it "just" to punish me for slavery? Obviously it is not.

I am fully aware that institutionalized slavery such as that practiced in the Americas would not have been possible without the sanction of law. Such laws were clearly evil, and did real and substantial harm to many people. However, I agree with Ideas that the remedy for such evil laws is to repeal the laws. Further, if it were possible to punish those actually responsible for enactment/enforcement of such laws, I believe that would be proper. However, as noted above, one cannot fall into the trap of collectivist thinking and declare all citizens of a nation guilty. The fact that governments were involved does not somehow alter the equation and make collective punishment acceptable. A government cannot act except through individuals, and it acts on individuals. Only individuals are moral agents. Those individuals who did wrong should have been punished, and those individuals who were wronged should have been recompensed by those who did the wrong.

In most countries (certainly in America) not a single person who was responsible for or was a victim of slavery is alive. Thus, the question of "punishment" or "justice" vis-a-vis slavery in such countries is moot. Because only those responsible should be punished and only those who were victims deserve compensation, and because no such individuals exist, no punishment or compensation can justly be meted out.

answered Mar 09 '13 at 23:03

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

The question concerns official policies of a government that made slavery legal prior to its abolition, and which enforced segregation (or apartheid) by rule of law even after ending slavery. The proper remedy is to reform such a government, which the U.S. did with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865. Slavery ended in South Africa even earlier, 1834, according to the Wikipedia article on "Slavery in South Africa."

I am not prepared to say much more than that about the history of South Africa, since I'm not very familiar with it. (Those who are interested can refer to an extensive set of articles on Wikipedia.) But I hasten to point out that mere passage of a Constitutional amendment is nowhere near the whole story of how slavery ended in the U.S. In an article titled, "Moral Inflation, Part III" (published in The Ayn Rand Letter, April 8, 1974), Ayn Rand discussed the reverse-discrimination case of a student named Marco DeFunis, in which preferential treatment in college admissions was given to "minorities," to the detriment of Mr. DeFunis, in the name of "recompense" for past racial discrimination against "minorities." Here is a key excerpt:

This country has no guilt to atone for in regard to its black citizens. Certainly, slavery was an enormous evil. But a country that fought a civil war to abolish slavery, has atoned for it on such a scale that to talk about racial quotas in addition, is grotesque. However, it is not for injustices committed by the government that the modern racists are demanding reparations, but for racial prejudice—i.e., for the personal views of private citizens. How can an individual be held responsible for the views of others, whom he has no power to control, who may be his intellectual enemies, whose views may be the opposite of his own? What can make him responsible for them? The answer we hear is: The fact that his skin is of the same color as theirs. If this is not an obliteration of morality, of intellectual integrity, of individual rights, of the freedom of man's mind (and, incidentally, of the First Amendment), you take it from here; I can't—it turns my stomach.

Some, particularly in the southern states (even today), may take issue with the characterization, "civil war to abolish slavery," pointing out that the Civil War began as a war to prevent states from seceding from the Union and allegedly had as much to do with economic issues as with slavery. But there should be little doubt that there were a great many abolitionists in the U.S. from the start, that efforts had been made from the beginning to mitigate if not eliminate slavery, such as policies of no slavery in the Northwest Territory and admission of new states in equal numbers of "slave states" and "free states." The Civil War certainly gave the North the most compelling moral issue it needed to finish the War and end slavery in the U.S. once and for all. Against such a backdrop, what could possibly be the justice in imposing additional penalties on Confederate states beyond loss of their slaves and often their entire plantations, and their struggle to rebuild as best they could from a war that was fought on their own soil (the only major war in American history since the Revolutionary War ever fought on American soil)? And what greater punishment could properly be imposed on state governments guilty of legally mandated segregation, beyond the Federal sanctions they still remain under to this day, to assure equal protection of individual rights for all of their citizens?

answered Feb 24 '13 at 20:16

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

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Asked: Feb 15 '13 at 15:06

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Last updated: Mar 09 '13 at 23:03