Humanitarianism, Collectivism, and the Model of Impossible Responsibility

One class of claim made by social justice activists and academics goes like this: Because person A benefits from the history of some unjust system, structure, or social construction S, A is complicit in the relevant injustice and thus owes B something in virtue of the unjust benefit. What is owed can take different forms: reparations, allyship, apology, and awareness are just a few. And the benefit and the history can take different forms as well: concrete inherited wealth, “privilege,” freedom from discrimination, disparate impact, and so on. Critics of social justice often reply to such claims by questioning the historical account, the appropriateness or dignity of the proposed repayment, or the conceptual coherence of the benefit. Such objections can be very powerful. However, they may not be necessary. The logic behind these obligations is highly questionable, and intuitions about them are by no means widely held; prominent arguments for their existence do little to demonstrate why the injustice of an unwanted history generates an obligation that the mere benefit itself would not.

Robbins on Beneficiaries and Humanitarians

A great example of this kind of discourse comes in a new book by Bruce Robbins, The Beneficiary. Robbins, a professor of the humanities in Columbia’s English and comparative literature department and a minor figure in culture-wars lore due to his role in the Sokal affair, offers a literary analysis of the “figure” of the beneficiary, framed by a background vision of the sort of “systemic relations of core and periphery” outlined by dependency theory; the book builds, as far as I can tell, from an essay written in late 2016. In the introduction, Robbins lays out his emphasis on “a somewhat more rarefied feeling” than “empathy or abstract fairness” – the idea “that your fate is causally linked, however obscurely, with the fates of distant and sometimes suffering others. . . . The idea that I am causally responsible for someone’s suffering appeals to something in me that is stronger than fairness or empathy.”

This is a deft sleight of hand. What Robbins and similarly-minded writers are concerned with is not suffering but inequality: in his own words, “that the United States or the ‘developed’ world enjoys a disproportionate share of the world’s resources.” But if what’s morally problematic is material inequality, then someone with more is by definition responsible for an injustice committed against someone with less. In such a case, however, it would be wrong to say, as Robbins also does, “that charity is no solution and that, if you do want to make yourself feel better by means of philanthropic giving, you would do well to supplement it with some reasoned form of political engagement.” For charity from those with more toward those with less seems a thoroughly apt (if potentially insufficient) solution to inequality, rendering the diagnosis that one gives charitably “to make [one]self feel better” rather peculiar.

Robbins addresses effective altruism and the humanitarian ethics of Peter Singer directly in the first chapter. The discussion is not quite illuminating. Robbins argues, against nearly all other commentators, that “humanitarianism . . . is not demanding enough” as a basis for ethical thought and action in the age of globalization. He formulates the problem he sees in two different ways: first, humanitarianism treats effects, not causes; second, humanitarianism treats sins of omission, not sins of commission. The classic example of a student who decides to work in finance and donate his money to charity is only compelling, for Robbins, for those who don’t ask “how much damage to the world might be caused by the money-making activities on Wall Street that are intended to fuel their subsequent charity.” This shows a poor understanding of the utilitarian calculus at work here. If an effective altruist turns down a finance job, chances are that job will be taken up by someone with no interest in philanthropy. Robbins treats the situation instead as one in which Wall Street will stop functioning as it does if effective altruists stop working there. But they would simply be replaced by non-altruists. The choice Robbins is judging is not one that is available to the people he’s criticizing.

Robbins acknowledges that “collective responsibility is of course a vexed subject.” But he fails to show any appreciation of why. In the introduction he characterizes opposition to his ideas as coming from “feel[ing], . . . with some justification, that if people alive today are to be held responsible for terrible deeds putatively committed by their very distant ancestors, the chain of causality is being stretched too thin.” This is complete nonsense. The problem isn’t that the chain of causality is being stretched thin; it’s that it’s pointing backwards in time. It is a basic and almost universally accepted notion of ethics that “ought implies can” – that is, that for any event E, if it was not within my power to bring about not-E, I cannot be blamed for E; E is not my wrong. The dispositive consideration here is not ideological or substantively ethical; it’s just the impossibility of time travel. Similarly, the reason effective altruists don’t make a habit of asking “Would it be better for me to work on Wall Street or for Wall Street to no longer exist?” is that it is generally not in their power to cause Wall Street not to exist. One good model for this is the economic notion of opportunity cost. There is no choice available to any given effective altruist for which the opportunity cost is the nonexistence of Wall Street, or the nonoccurrence of some historic injustice, or the ending of some systemic inequality. Robbins believes, mystifyingly, that it is ethical to pretend such choices exist. But the causality isn’t thin; it’s not there at all.

In this sense, Robbins is clearly correct to say that his theory of right and wrong is more demanding than the utilitarian humanitarianism of Peter Singer. But it’s more demanding because it asks of individuals the literally impossible. The role of “collective responsibility” is simply to obscure this fact: it encourages individuals to act as though they can control the actions of others, too: other individuals in the same class or nation or identity group as them, conglomerates, industries, whole societies. Since Robbins offered a diagnosis of charitable giving, perhaps a counter-diagnosis is in order here: This model of impossible responsibility appeals to utopian aesthetes with an outsize notion of their own influence and a discomfort with the unavoidable fact that ethical decision-making requires evaluating tradeoffs. The background psychology seems furthermore attuned not to rational choice but to contagion. By working on Wall Street, one would have gotten an injustice on them somehow, been infected by it; ditto for being descended from certain people, living in a certain country, etc. It is an ethics of cooties.

Butt on Injustice and Appropriate Compensators

Daniel Butt, a political theorist at Oxford, has made a better stab at this sort of thing. Rather than suggesting, ridiculously, that one can be causally responsible for something that happened in the past or outside their control, Butt suggests instead – in papers about topics like “benefiting from injustice,” “repairing historical wrongs,” “overlapping generations and historical injustice,” “inheriting rights to reparation,” and “the beneficiary pays principle” – that one can have a distinct obligation deriving from events for which one was not causally responsible. However, Butt’s formulation cannot serve Robbins’s purposes. It does not convincingly demonstrate that the injustice of a benefit is especially important. Humanitarian ethics provide a better account of the relevant obligations and are strictly more demanding as well.

In “On Benefiting from Injustice” Butt presents a thought experiment meant to demonstrate that one’s benefit from an injustice outside their control can obligate them to compensate the wronged in some way. He asks us to consider a remote island, of which four people (A, B, C, D) each possess a quarter. All basic needs – food, clothing, shelter – can be met by the island’s single crop (“the extremely versatile Polychrestos plant”), of which one must produce 200 kilos in a year to support oneself. A is very industrious and produces 700 kilos in a year; the others produce the minimum 200. One year, D hatches a plan which they think will result in their own crop doubling at the expense of B and C’s crops. In fact, what happens is that B’s crop doubles at the expense of C and D’s crops, which end up yielding nothing. D commits suicide, leaving A with 700 kilos, B with 400 kilos, and C with none.

Butt thinks it’s intuitive that B should give half their crop to C. He writes: “If the events which cause agent C to fall below the morally relevant threshold confer benefits upon agent B, then the fact of the receipt of these benefits, however involuntary, establishes a morally relevant connection between C and B, which may give rise to remedial obligations on the part of B.” It is crucial for him that it is B, not A, who should compensate C. Under a strict “capacity approach,” where the person with the most ought to compensate the person with the least at least until they’ve reached the morally relevant threshold, the obligation would be A’s. This is, Butt thinks, a disproof of the capacity approach, and a sign that “benefiting from injustice constitutes a . . . form of morally relevant connection.” The fact that the same event brought B’s crop to 400 and C’s crop to zero, and that this event was unjust, links B and C and gives B this distinct obligation.

It’s true that the capacity approach doesn’t seem able to handle Butt’s intuition here. But what’s driving the intuition is the fact that A is hardworking, not the fact that B has benefited from injustice. Imagine first that instead of the events on the island resulting from D’s scheming, they resulted from some sort of unpredictable natural disaster. In this case, many would continue to think A’s 700 kilos were deserved in a way B’s 400 kilos were not, and thus that B would be the most appropriate person to compensate C. In other words, even if the unequal distribution of benefits was unjust only insofar as it was unequal (and not because it resulted from an unjust act on some individual’s part), we could still think there was a link between the lucky party and the unlucky party such that the former ought to compensate the latter.

Imagine second that the events are just as they were in the original thought experiment, but that A’s high yield resulted from some sort of unpredictable natural disaster rather than hard work. In this case, many would think that A did not deserve their high yield and that they would move into B’s spot as the appropriate compensator. In other words, even if the unequal distribution of benefits resulted from an unjust act on some individual’s part, we could still think the responsibility to compensate the victim rested elsewhere if another individual in the vicinity had benefited in some unrelated (even victimless) way by mere luck.

If readers who share Butt’s intuitions share these intuitions as well, then it’s plausible that unequal distributions of benefits from injustice are not morally different from unequal distributions of benefits from luck. This would mean, among other things, that the concepts behind run-of-the-mill societal mechanisms of risk pooling and insurance are sufficient to deal with the intuitions behind Butt’s thought experiment. Such concepts might still militate in favor of conclusions amenable to social justice types. But they would do so without recourse to complex collectivities and baroque assignments of blame. In other words, they would do so without overturning the individualist humanitarian ethics of someone like Singer.


In this light it’s easy to see why Singerite humanitarianism is more demanding than a view that cordons off injustice from luck. For the humanitarian ethos finds more obligations, not fewer: it finds them in cases of luck and injustice. It is precisely the blindness to causes that Robbins decried that gives humanitarianism its uncompromising universality. A less universal theory ipso facto imposes less stringent requirements on moral agents.

It may be the case, as Robbins wrote, that the idea of benefiting from injustice carries some great psychological force that is simply absent from the idea of benefiting from unequally distributed luck. However, if I’m right about the reactions we should have to the modified island cases, the source of this great force is not in our moral psychology, but in some other part of the brain – perhaps, as I suggested, the part that evaluates contagion and infection. The actually right thing is to “give what we can” regardless of history or ideology. The best theory of such giving needn’t be formulated in the specific terms effective altruists use – among other things, it needn’t be a utilitarian theory – but it certainly won’t make room for the sort of mumbo jumbo entertained by the school of collective responsibility and historically transferred debt.

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  1. There is somehow this idea that those who have done well “owe” society (“giving back” is thrown around a lot). It is part of this injustice idea. And Wall Street is mentioned as the bad guy often. But what does wall street do? It enables my retirement portfolio to be liquid. It allows capital to be raised so that business can function. To take another example, one can generally only make money by offering something that others need (not counting the mafia or corrupt gov officials) and in that sense by working I have already “given back”. By working hard and saving, I can put my kids through college, help my friends, and never need government assistance. This is also “giving back”. I think the entire premise of such claims of people owing things is thus false.

    1. I suppose the response would be to say your ability to contribute is in large part a function of factors beyond your control, just as poor person’s failure thereof is beyond his control. This falls for the most part out of the fit between one’s innate characteristics and the environment. The market for the most part distributes benefits on the basis of contributions, so the claim here is simply that the poor are in some sense unable to accrue more benefits. To the extent that you believe others are worthy of moral consideration, the argument would be that you can improve the conditions of people who can’t do so themselves without despoiling your own welfare.

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