Benefiting from Wrongdoing and Sustaining Wrongful Harm

In: Journal of Moral Philosophy
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  • 1 Australian National University
  • 2 University of California, San Diego

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Some moral theorists argue that innocent beneficiaries of wrongdoing may have special remedial duties to address the hardships suffered by the victims of the wrongdoing. These arguments generally aim to simply motivate the idea that being a beneficiary can provide an independent ground for charging agents with remedial duties to the victims of wrongdoing. Consequently, they have neglected contexts in which it is implausible to charge beneficiaries with remedial duties to the victims of wrongdoing, thereby failing to explore the limits of the benefiting relation in detail. Our aim in this article is to identify a criterion to distinguish contexts in which innocent beneficiaries plausibly bear remedial duties to the victims of wrongdoing from those in which they do not. We argue that innocent beneficiaries incur special duties to the victims of wrongdoing (qua beneficiary) if and only if receiving and retaining the benefits sustains wrongful harm. We develop this criterion by identifying and explicating two general modes of sustaining wrongful harm. We also show that our criterion offers a general explanation for why some innocent beneficiaries incur a special duty to the victims of wrongdoing while others do not. By sustaining wrongful harm, beneficiaries-with-duties contribute to wrongful harm, and we ordinarily have relatively stringent moral requirements against contributing to wrongful harm. On our account, innocently benefiting from wrongdoing per se does not generate duties to the victims of wrongdoing. Rather, beneficiaries acquire such duties because their receipt and retention of the benefits of wrongdoing contribute to the persistence of the wrongful harm suffered by the victim. We conclude by showing that our proposed criterion also illuminates why there can be reasonable disagreement about whether beneficiaries have a duty to victims in some social contexts.

  • 1

    Daniel Butt, ‘On Benefiting from Injustice,’ Canadian Journal of Philosophy 37 (2007), pp. 129–152; Robert Goodin, ‘Disgorging the Fruits of Historical Wrongdoing,’ American Political Science Review 107 (2013), pp. 478–491; Judith Thomson, ‘Preferential Hiring,’ Philosophy & Public Affairs 2 (1973), pp. 364–384; Holly Lawford-Smith, ‘Benefiting from Failures to Address Climate Change,’ Journal of Applied Philosophy.

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  • 9

    Butt, ‘On Benefiting from Injustice,’ pp. 129–152; Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms (Cambridge: Polity and Malden ma: Blackwell, 2002).

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  • 10

    Norbert Anwander, ‘Contributing and Benefiting: Two Grounds for the Duties to Victims of Injustice,’ Ethics & International Affairs 19 (2005), pp. 39–45; Robert K. Fullinwider, ‘Preferential Hiring and Compensation,’ Social Theory & Practice 3 (1975), pp. 307–320. In an interesting recent paper Carl Knight, ‘Benefiting from Injustice and Brute Luck,’ Social Theory & Practice 39 (2013), pp. 581–598 suggests that benefiting-based duties can be explained away by luck egalitarianism. His idea is that special obligations assigned to those with good brute luck can explain judgments about cases where beneficiaries of injustice have remedial duties to victims. There are two significant challenges for Knight’s account. First, it cannot explain the directed nature of beneficiaries’ duties. On his account, someone who benefits from good brute luck has a duty to redistribute those benefits to anyone with bad brute luck, not only to the victim of the wrongdoing that resulted in the benefits received. Second, Knight doesn’t provide a criterion of distinction; his account treats all cases of benefiting from wrongdoing as benefiting-with-duty cases (even in Terrorist Bombing, Bill and Susan benefit from good brute luck). Insofar as one thinks that benefiting-related duties are directed and that there are benefiting-without-duty cases, Knight’s account will be unpersuasive.

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  • 14

    Elise Bant, The Change of Position Defence (Oxford: Hart, 2009).

  • 24

    Butt, ‘On Benefiting from Injustice,’ p. 40–1 (adapting an example employed by Fullinwider, ‘Preferential Hiring and Compensation,’ pp. 316–317.

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  • 30

    Thomas Pogge, ‘Severe Poverty as a Violation of Negative Duties,’ Ethics & International Affairs 19 (2005), pp. 55–83; Anwander, ‘Contributing and Benefiting,’ pp. 39–45.

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  • 31

    Pogge, ‘Severe Poverty as a Violation of Negative Duties,’ p. 72.

  • 32

    Pogge, ‘Severe Poverty as a Violation of Negative Duties,’ p. 71.

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