A Closer Look at the Case for Reparations

A case for reparations for slavery always involves the idea of white privilege. Those that have urged society to give African Americans reparations for slavery and past disadvantages have also told us that whites have benefitted from an immense amount of amassed wealth.  Proponents argue that the present effects of past disadvantages should be solved by a rule of social justice that involves returning wealth stolen from years of free labor.  Furthermore, many of the ways in which supporters call for a giving back of wealth are vague and consist of demanding large amounts of money from the government, and ultimately the American people.  The politicians and common folk that believe in reparations for slavery seem to be in favor of a solution that basically aims at correcting history, although given, we do not live in a world (or country) of absolute equal opportunities in the present. After pondering this point of view, I have several observations that lead me to question its implications, and comment on the attitudes of those who are informing us of our moral duty to fix the wrongs of our forefathers.

One of my first observations about the argument for reparations is that an attempt at fixing the past would not stop at American slavery.  There is a long list of conquest of land and resources that spans all of history. In our particular country, some might argue that the Native Americans were the first to have the privilege of claiming the land in present day United States and to the south of us. Tribes were located in different areas and fought over hunting rights to specific territories themselves, some winning over others. A model of conquest ethics has been embraced time and time again throughout history.  Some countries like India have been invaded by multiple groups, like the British and Afghans, Persians and the Mongols.  This argument isn’t far removed from the context of reparations for slavery.  Take for instance Father Divine, who has argued that all nations and all peoples who have been involved must pay the African slaves and their descendants for all uncompensated labor. In other words, he is calling to fix an injustice of the past, by putting the burden on the descendants of the guilty. Not only is this complicated, but it also opens Pandora’s Box to compensating every possible oppressed people group in the past…which is just about every tribe and tongue imaginable in some form or another.

However, many supporters of reparations do choose to only focus on American history, specifically on the disadvantages of the African American community as a result of slavery, Jim Crow Laws or housing discrimination.  Although again, things do get complicated quickly when the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission asks “the West” for $ 777 trillion within five years, like in 1999.  It seems that some major taxation would have to take place in order to come up with this amount of money in such a short period of time.  Furthermore, I still wonder what supporters claiming to be beneficiaries of white privilege are going to do about it; after all, the burden falls on them.  Many proposals have called on the government to make direct payments. The problem of complicated genealogies may be a problem here, even for those who are proven descendants of slaves. What about those that are half white and half black? Should they be half punished and half compensated?  Howshua Amariel, a Chicago social activist, demanded that the federal government take radical measures in compensating African Americans: “For those blacks who wish to remain in America, they should receive reparations in the form of free education, free medical, free legal and free financial aid for 50 years with no taxes levied,” and “For those desiring to leave America, every black person would receive a million dollars or more, backed by gold, in reparation.”

It seems that many are waiting for society or the government to enforce their ideology, but may not be doing anything about it themselves.  Please don’t misunderstand me, I respect you completely if you hold this point of view and live in such a way as to demonstrate that you are committed to it. However there are many students who attend a top notch University, let’s say Stanford, Harvard or MIT, taking complete advantage of an opportunity that many others do not have, while still demanding the American government to do something about the discrepancy between white privilege and black disadvantage.  My challenge to these students would be to enforce their own moral code – not wait for society or the “system” to do so. They may want to give up their position in the university to a minority that did not have that opportunity.  My point is, in order to persuade others of your point of view, live it out! You or I may or may not agree with the philosophy of Diogenes of ancient Greece, but I’m sure we can both appreciate his authenticity in living out what he was urging society to do.

I would raise the argument that there is an alternative for correcting history, instead of finding out the people who are in possession of stolen goods and returning them the descendants of African American slaves.  An alternative would be to establish equal rights under the law, to truly be color blind, to treat people according to the content of their character, and not according to their skin color or their ancestors. But also to have compassion on people of all different skin colors.  After all, the white “race” is not the only people group to be racist; all people groups have the potential, and have been racist in the past. There are African American descendants of slaves who are racist and white descendants of good, just people that are racist. Furthermore, making right the wrongs of the past through demanding money is not just, but facilitates more injustice.  Acknowledging and repenting of the past, even of our fathers’ sins, and committing to create equal right under the law is one very viable solution to past discrimination and oppression of our fellow countrymen.

But, my friend, act according to your own conscience….and be completely committed to it.

Marx and Alienation of Workers

HUMN 221 – Group 3

For Marx, alienation of workers consists of alienation from the world, from the objects they create, from their own humanity, and from their fellow man. Probably the biggest problem for Marx was that workers did not reap the rewards of their own labor; those who owned the factors of production, or the bourgeoisie, did.

Furthermore, he noted that the more the worker produced for the capitalist system, the less he or she could produce for himself. For example, a farmer who produces more and more crops for market has less and less land on which to subsist.

The rich practically own the fruits of the workers’ labor. For example, if a worker works more productively, that productivity creates more profit for the rich, and the worker receives the same wage (at least in the environment Marx wrote about).

“It is true that for the rich, labor produces wonderful things-but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces, but for the worker hovels.”

John Locke and Gun Control

Group 5 Humn 221-09

John Locke’s ideas for a stable and fair society influenced the principles the United States was built upon. In reading “The Second Treatise of Civil Government” Locke emphasizes the natural right people have to protect themselves and their private property. Anyone who challenges this has declared “war” and the victim is able to use force to protect themselves. A big issue today is gun control in America with people debating how the constitutional right to own guns should be regulated if at all. An article called “Locke ‘N Load: John Locke and Your Second Amendment Rights” explains how John Locke’s philosophy can be applied to the right to own weapons in a civil society such as the United States. The article uses John Locke’s idea of preserving private property and health by any means when someone else tries to invade on that right. The post is saying we have a right to use weapons when our life or natural rights are being threatened.

Another article “Freedom and Gun Control” also uses Locke’s ideas to explain our right to bear arms. This article took into account the entire  issue of gun control and not just the idea of using lethal force when necessary. An important quote from this , “You can not privately own a nuclear weapon just because you happen to think that it’s good for your own self preservation. Thus, gun-control is justified to the extent that it’s for the good of the public.” Locke did emphasize the importance of self preservation, but his idea differed slightly when people came into a united society. The idea of a society is we have to abide by certain laws and regulations all for the good of the public. The importance of this is that overbearing weapons is not for the good of a society and same with weapons that are too dangerous. It is meant for the preservation of yourself  as well as society and when too many people accumulate weapons, violence increases.

Our group saw an important tie in of the ideas in the Second Treatise and some problems we face in a more modern world. It’s difficult to say how Locke would approach this situation because it is a right to protect oneself, but also necessary to keep the public safe. His principles underline an idea that it may be better to regulate this kind of power so community members feel protected rather than threatened.

John Locke: For or Against Austerity?

Humn 221-09 Group 1

This article  in the New York Times quickly covers the history of austerity in the West. At one point it suggests that John Locke and his political philosophy are still used as a basis for austerity policies. The argument is that Locke’s emphasis on the need for a limited government uninvolved in politics ends with the government not interacting at all in the economy.

The challenge, however, is that Locke never properly addresses any full economic topics. He does suggest in one chapter that taxation approved by the people is acceptable, but he does not explore the issue much farther. At the same time, it is possible to describe Locke’s philosophy as having a moral or ethical aspect to it. Locke sees certain actions as being “right,” or more acceptable or correct than others. These actions include recognizing the rights of individuals and the establishment of a government to protect these rights.

Thus, we quickly recognized the difficulty involved in using Locke and his philosophy as a basis for austerity. Austerity, certainly, can be used as a method for protecting personal property for those who own property, a concept that Locke seems to firmly believe in. However, austerity can also easily prevent those individuals in the lowest classes of society from gaining property and economic advancement, facets of life that Locke strongly supports. Based on our own discussion, which struggled to develop a solution that seemed to satisfy both sides of the argument, it seems almost impossible to satisfy all of Locke’s philosophy when arguing for or against austerity. Perhaps, the most important take away, then, should be that governing is not as simple as we would like to imagine or as Locke’s writing would sometimes make it seem. Many of the situations Locke describes and either vocally supports or opposes are generalities that can be hard to recognize in specific contemporary situations.

John Locke and Escaping Monarchy

HUMN 221-09, Group 3

(Sec. 159-160)

Locke’s Two Treatises of Government being a challenge to the legitimacy of monarchies, it is surprising the amount of power he is willing to invest in an “executor of the laws” in his vision of a better government. In Locke’s ideal government, a legislative body is responsible for creating laws, but an executive branch is given quite a bit of power. Locke even uses the term “moderated monarch[y].” He justifies the executive’s power to go around the legislature by saying that the legislators are not able to “foresee…all that may be useful to the community,” which seems to put the executor on the same sort of übermenschlich level that some of Locke’s pro-monarchy contemporaries, like Robert Filmer, did by citing the divine right of kings. Rather than creating an entirely new form of government, it could be argued that Locke is describing a parliamentary monarchy in which the king simply has a little less power than he did in 17th century Britain (which included a transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy), but replacing “monarch” with “executive”, “parliament” with “legislators”, and “power” with “prerogative.”

(Sec. 168)

Understanding the potential risks of giving one person this power, Locke tackles the problem of how to deal with abuse of prerogative. It is good that he accounted for this, but it is surprising nevertheless that Locke would be willing to create a system in which abuses could happen and be dealt with after the fact, rather than one in which abuses couldn’t happen at all.

John Locke: Who Shall Be Judge?

Locke asks the following question: what happens when the executive branch and the legislative branch are joined together against the people?  What happens when the executive and legislative branch step outside the realm of their given power and/or go against the well-being of the people?  Locke’s proposed solution, to appeal to heaven, is a surprising one.  Why ask us to turn to religion for help?  Rarely does Locke broach the topic of religion in this chapter, or the Treatise as a whole for that matter.  So, why bring it up now?  It seems unnecessary given the fact that his reasoning is based on the following statement: “between an executive power in being, with such a prerogative, and a legislative that depends upon his will for their convening, there can be no judge on earth.” What about the judicial branch, whose purpose is to literally judge?  Relying on a judicial branch to play mediator and protector of the people’s rights seems a more logical solution to such a problem and one more befitting the overall idea of the Second Treatise of Government.  

Living in a throwaway culture

HUMN 221-09 Group 4:

Every year, human beings around the world waste a large portion of our parents natural resources. The earth contains enough natural resources to sustain the life of the 7.125 billion people that live here. Instead of taking care of our planet, we destroy and abuse it because it is in our human nature to bite off more than we can chew, and we end up wasting our now depleting natural resources. Section 31 of John Locke’s The Second Treatise of Government explains how “nothing was made by God to spoil and destroy” which correlates to passage 22 of Pope Francis’s encyclical “Laudato Si'” and explains how these problems are related to us living in a “throwaway culture”.  

“Nothing was made by God to spoil and destroy” Locke stated. This insinuates the planet’s resources were created for us to use , not abuse. The earth is our home and should be treated with the upmost care and be a hospitable environment for every creature who inhabits it.  No living thing should take more than they need, doing so can result in heavy consequences.

Pope Francis states in passage 22 of the encyclical: “These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture…:”. This is connected to Locke’s statement in describing humans as wasteful. 

We are very quickly running out of resources, and although we have made continued advances in technology and man made alternatives, these can never match and never replace that of the original resources of the earth.

God’s Expectation of our Stewardship as Discussed by John Locke

HUMN 221-09 Group 6:

Two Treatises of Government, John Locke (Passage 32)

“But the chief matter of property being now not the fruits of the earth, and the beasts that subsist on it, but the earth itself; as that which takes in and carries with it all the rest; I think it is plain, that property in that too is acquired as the former. As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it from the common. Nor will it invalidate his right, to say every body else has an equal title to it; and therefore he cannot appropriate, he cannot inclose, without the consent of all his fellow-commoners, all mankind. God, when he gave the world in common to all mankind, commanded man also to labour, and the penury of his condition required it of him. God and his reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i.e. improve it for the benefit of life, and therein lay out something upon it that was his own, his labour. He that in obedience to this command of God, subdued, tilled and sowed any part of it, thereby annexed to it something that was his property, which another had no title to, nor could without injury take from him.”

In passage 32 of Two Treatises of Government, Locke stated, “God and his reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i.e. improve it for the benefit of life, and therein lay out something upon it that was his own, his labour.” We interpret this statement as God placing onto man the responsibility to till the earth for the betterment of humankind and that he (man) is entitled to the fruits of his labor in the process. The ownership of land however, is for everyone as God has given the whole of mankind the earth to till. In today’s throwaway culture, we have failed to meet the expectation quoted, “improve it for the benefit of life” because we haven’t kept resources bountiful for our future generations.


“These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. A serious consideration of this issue would be one way of counteracting the throwaway culture which affects the entire planet, but it must be said that only limited progress has been made in this regard.”

Pope Francis shared this belief in passage 22 of his encyclical because he stated that our culture is one of throwaway by which we’re prone to excess waste as opposed to recycling. This attitude is responsible for destroying our environment through waste pollution, resource depletion, and interrupting the ecosystem of the world. Life, in all its forms whether it be plants or animals, are thus a part of our stewardship. This correlates with John Locke’s belief that we are to till the earth for the improvement of life due to our failure to do so.

Locke, the Pope, and the Law

HUMN 221-09 Group 3:

ENCYCLICAL QUOTES: “where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves”.[13]

“The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19).”

genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.” (70)


Sect. 6. “But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions…”

A right to dominion doesn’t include a right to tyranny, whether that be God’s gift to people or a people’s choice of leader.

We are all part of God’s creation, so none of us has the right the absolute control over another. Personal autonomy is important to fulfilling God’s plan.

RELATIONSHIP OF PASSAGE TO WORK AS A WHOLE: John Locke stated that all people should be considered equal. There are a set of natural laws which citizens live by. Citizens begin taking only what they need, but eventually slow to hoard and collect more and more. This creates bartering, and leads to money, as well as creating estates and property. The purpose of government was to protect the citizens and work for their benefit.

WHAT DIFFICULT ISSUES DOES THIS PASSAGE TAKE FOR US: We all live under a system of laws in which we must follow. We exist under a social contract, consisting of an agreement to consent to appointed authorities, therefore forfeiting many of our rights under natural law. In today’s world it is unclear how to decline this social contract because nearly all habitable land is controlled by a government or person. We have the right to overthrow our government but our government also has substantial power. At times this government has the right to infringe upon life, health, liberty, and possessions.

HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO THE ENCYCLICAL: John Locke is going over the system of laws that exist in nature while the pope is describing a set of laws we are morally and religiously supposed to subject ourselves to. The pope said that we all have a relation to each other in a familial manner, relating to, “yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession” from the second treatise of government.

Like Locke, Francis calls on us to respect each other’s autonomy as we value our own by recalling our relation to each other as children of God.