Race and the history of slavery in the US is a highly sensitive topic (here in America). Recently, a news story came out about a town - Charleston, SC - that has officially apologized for its key role in slavery. According to the numbers, roughly 40% of all African slaves taken to the US were brought to Charleston. A lot of people are upset about this, and the main idea seems to be that no living persons are connected to and/or responsible for slavery (either directly or indirectly), and so no apologies should be made. The argument can probably be more formalized as follows: P1 - People should only apologize for those things which they are either directly or indirectly responsible for. (The 'responsible' party, here, being the causal antecedent of slavery) P1.2 - People should only receive apologies for those things in which they were either directly or indirectly affected by. P2 - No person alive today is either directly or indirectly responsible for slavery. C - There should therefore be no apologies made for slavery. How would you judge this type of response? The issue seems to be one of moral responsibility, and I guess that a further, possibly more difficult question can be posed - What is the status of our moral agency regarding actions committed by our ancestors?

Both in the law and in morality we have a notion of corporate responsibility. In the case of the law, "corporate" will include corporations and that's a good place to start. Suppose it comes to light that fifty years ago, Corporation X ignored environmental requirements and polluted the water in some town. As a result, people were harmed, including children who are now living adults.. Suppose a team of journalists uncover what happened. The authorities decide to take Corporation X to court. The law would not look kindly on the argument that there are literally no members of the Corporate board or management from fifty years ago who are still alive today, and therefore Corporation X can't be found liable. But it's not just the law. If we allowed this argument to succeed, Corporation X, which continues to do business and thrive today, would get off scot free. Many people, perhaps most, would think that this is unjust.

Someone could reply with a version of the argument you've outlined, but in the context, it would beg an important question. What the example of Corporation X suggests is that moral responsibility isn't restricted to individual human agents. The example suggests that our everyday understanding of morality includes the possibility of group responsibility, and that group responsibility isn't simply the sum of the individual responsibility of individual members of the group.

Someone might reply that we don't have a good philosophical account of group responsibility. That may or may not be true; it's a question outside my own area, though you can read a summary of the state of the discussion here:


However, even if we don't have a good theory, it's not clear what follows. Many philosophers would say that our considered moral judgments are data that moral theorizing has to take account of. This doesn't mean that moral theory has to accept all of our judgments. After all, a good scientific theory doesn't have to account for every data point. But if we have a well-developed practice of assigning collective responsibility, and if the practice produces results that we generally find plausible, then the moral theorist would need a strong argument to overturn the practice.

The theoretical questions here are interesting and deep; we've barely scratched the surface. But leaving theory aside, we can also make a couple of points about the actual case. It's plausible that many people living today have been indirectly harmed by slavery. That bears on your premise P1. And even though no one alive today is causally responsible for slavery, people alive today both benefit from the history of slavery and either know or should know that they do. Whether or not this underwrites an argument that the city of Charleston, considered as a corporate "person," is obliged to apologize for slavery, it provides at least the seeds of an argument for saying that there could be a point in doing just that, and that benefits might flow from doing it. The benefits wouldn't have to be material to be genuine. They might take the form of increased mutual understanding and respect. That could be worth more than getting the metaphysics right.

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