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taking responsibility Arrow vol 2 no 3 contents
About borderlands Volume 2 Number 3, 2003



Normative tensions and reparative justice

Janna Thompson, Taking Responsibility for the Past: Reparation and Historical Injustice, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002.

Catherine Mills
University of New South Wales


1. Janna Thompson’s Taking Responsibility for the Past is an impressive attempt to provide a justification for historical obligations and entitlements through the framework of reparative justice. The book is structured in two parts, the first of which focuses on claims to historical obligation between nations as political agents. Here, a nation is defined as a "self-governing society or community with the power to make laws for itself (at least concerning its domestic affairs) and to make agreements with other such societies" (5). The second part of the book focuses on the legitimacy of claims to reparation for injustices in the past made by non-political agents, particularly claims made on the basis of familial heritage. What is unique about Thompson’s account of historical responsibility is that she rejects accounts based on historical title, as well as accounts based on the idea that entitlements depend on the existing needs of individuals and the priority of ironing out existing inequities. Instead, she emphasizes intergenerational obligation and entitlement as the cornerstone of political association and familial heritage and thus moves some way toward sketching out a ‘diachronic’ theory of political community and historical responsibility.

2. In setting out her initial theorization of historical obligation, Thompson argues that political communities must be seen as transgenerational, since it is precisely this characteristic of nations that establishes the weight of historical obligations. This is particularly clear in the case of treaties and other formal agreements. Within this context, treaties are said to have the same moral force as promises in that they entitle those to whom a promise is made to trust that it will be kept. Moreover, by their nature, treaties are binding not only for those who make them, but also for their successors. To the extent that this is true, we are beholden to accepting responsibility for the obligations deriving from commitments made by our predecessors. This is because, according to the moral rule of ‘treating like cases alike’, it is only in the context of accepting the binding obligations set by our predecessors that we can impose morally binding obligations on our successors. Without this condition, the legitimacy of any commitment between nations would be severely weakened. Thus treaties can be seen as promises made that still hold for the next generation, and to the extent that we expect our successors to uphold the agreements that our generation makes now, we are committed to fulfilling those made by our predecessors. The nature of treaty agreements also means that it is an internal condition of treaties that violations or failures to fulfill a commitment require reparation. Violation or disregard of those treaties amounts to a failure to live up to the obligations established by the agreement and therefore opens the way for claims for reparation, even when the violation was not ours, but that of our predecessors.

3. This, however, only establishes the historically binding nature of treaties and other legally enforced commitments such that reparation is required for breaking those. It does not establish the legitimacy of claims for reparation for violations that do not entail breaking treaties. Hence, Thompson goes on to show that her account of intergenerational commitment provides the theoretical resources for an account of the ways in which other violations or injustices apart from treaty-breaking also give rise to responsibilities. She argues that this is because such injustices are acts of disrespect, while the fundamental condition of agreements between nations is that of mutual respect. Making commitments to another, she claims, is closely related to mutual respect. "Those who make commitments are supposed to respect each other and be worthy of respect …The commitment we are imposing on ourselves and our successors is, above all, a commitment to maintaining relations of respect" (34).

4. For Thompson, this implies that other violations may involve the same obligation to reparation as breaking formal agreements, since these injustices destroy relations of respect. This also allows that the failure or refusal to make agreements with a nation may itself be a violation insofar as it denies that that nation is worthy of respect. Thus the British refusal to make agreements with the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia was itself a wrong. Even so, this does not mean that reparation is always necessary; there are in fact important limits on valid claims to reparation. This is particularly because what is required to achieve reparation may not be identical with what is claimed, and further, because the passage of time tends to erode demands for reparation, especially if respectful relations between nations have already been re-established, regardless of formal reparation for past injustices.

5. Importantly, since Thompson is only concerned with relations between nations as political agents in the foregoing arguments, she is also beholden to provide an account of the legitimacy of claims made on the basis of other kinds of relationships. Taking American slavery as her paradigmatic example, she seeks to establish the legitimacy of these claims to reparation by similar means as the claims of nations. She rejects the notion that black Americans do constitute a nation, but goes on to show that they might nevertheless be entitled to reparation for injustices done to their forebears in slavery. The difficulty to overcome in establishing the legitimacy of such claims is that as descendents of victims of injustice, it appears that they make claims to reparation on the basis of harm done to them as individuals, not because they belong to a particular group or political association. But the harm of slavery is not precisely a harm done to them, but to their forebears.

6. To overcome this difficulty, Thompson emphasizes the transgenerational interests and entitlements that adhere to the institution of the family: in particular, she defends a right to inheritance, not only of property but also of culture. On the basis of this, she argues that policies such as that of the removal of aboriginal children from their families and communities in Australia constitutes an injustice to family lines, since it prevents the fulfillment of the transmission of cultural and familial values from parents and relatives to their offspring. Importantly, this means that the harm caused by policies of child removal is not only a harm to the individuals involved. Rather, the prevention of transmission of cultural values amounts to harm against the relationship between parents and children, to familial relations per se, and the heritage maintained in them. This opens the way to claims for reparation even if the individuals that suffered under slavery or child removal policies are not those making the claim.

7. While this may prove to be the most contentious argument of the book, establishing the legitimacy of claims to reparation on the basis of injustices to family lines is also of particular value. Specifically, in the Australian context, it provides justification for claims to reparation of the ‘stolen generation’ without having to settle controversial claims about whether these policies were genocidal in nature or not. The harm done by removal of aboriginal children requires reparation simply because these policies constituted an injustice against family lines. Whether this claim is sufficient ought at least to be a topic of much debate.

8. Despite the potential value of these arguments, there are some aspects of Thompson’s book where certain philosophical weaknesses show through. As should be clear from this outline, much of the weight of Thompson’s argument in relation to obligations between nations rests on the nature of promises as binding, since they are based on and maintained within a general situation of mutual respect. While she does not give much account of what promises entail, she relies on the assumption that promises entitle those to whom the promise is made to trust that it will be kept. She emphasizes the binding force of the commitment made in promising and in this, her model of the promise seems reasonable. Yet the force of the promise that underpins her model of intergenerational commitment needs further specification, as there are aspects of this that may well weaken the argument as it stands.

9. Certainly, it seems accurate to say that what assures the efficacy and hence binding–ness of a promise is not the intentions of those making the promise but the act itself as she argues. Yet, there are other ways in which the particular context in which the promise or commitment is made may undermine the efficacy or historical hold of it. After all, avoiding the interpretative difficulties raised in intentionality by focusing on the act itself does not avoid the problem of historical interpretation altogether. In short, there is a larger question of historical hermeneutics beneath the distinction between acts and intentions that Thompson does not adequately address. One might also ask whether it is entirely legitimate to figure legal agreements such as treaties upon the speech act of the promise. While treaties and other legal agreements certainly entail a form of promise-making commitment, this is not all that they entail. In particular, such an analogy fails to recognize the specific force of law that attends certain agreements, which cannot simply be reduced to the performative force of promising.

10. Not altogether dissimilarly, while Thompson recognizes the inevitability of discursive conflict over particular interpretations of history she does not give a great deal of elaboration to the implications of this. In particular, she argues "a history that connects earlier and later injustices is not merely a chronicle of events. It is a narrative that makes sense of events … People are caused to suffer not merely by the events themselves but by the ideas they get into their heads about these events" (82). Even so, she maintains that the lack of an objective history has not prevented progress from being made toward reparation, as the experience of Maori dialogue with the Pakeha shows. While that is true as far as it goes, the question that is not addressed here is how certain wrongs get established as wrongs in the first place.

11. Thompson assumes that all claims to the reparation of a historical wrong can in fact be heard within the political sphere. However, this avoids problems such as the hegemonic foreclosure of the recognition of certain wrongs as wrongs. Given that Thompson recognizes that history is not simply a progression of events, but is in fact constituted in narration, there is a particular importance in asking how those narratives are formulated, by whom and through what authority some narrations are ratified as intelligible portrayals of history and others are not. In short, in what discursive mode must a particular narration of a wrong be given if it is to be taken as a wrong? While an account of the narrative basis of historical identity is not tangential to Thompson’s concerns, the particular account that she does give remains somewhat sketchy and as such, does not give especially strong ground to the claims that she makes about the moral identity of nations, and the need to re-establish relations of respect for that identity.

12. For those more attuned to the ethos of normative philosophy - and more convinced by its presuppositions - these concerns about the theorization of historical narration and the nature of promising upon which Thompson’s account of historical responsibility is based may not appear to be especially damaging to her argument. However, they do give rise to a number of tensions and minor contradictions throughout the book that could do with further resolution. For instance, while Thompson rejects intentionality in her account of the obligations and entitlements of nations, it re-appears in her justification for a right of inheritance, without any explanation as to why these circumstances allow this conceptual difference. These criticisms notwithstanding, on the whole the particular account of reparative justice that Thompson gives lends cogent weight to moral arguments for the importance of recognizing the responsibilities we bear both from our predecessors and to our successors.


Catherine Mills lectures in Philosophy at the University of New South Wales. She specializes in contemporary European political philosophy, feminist theory and ethics. She is working on a book on biopolitics, subjectivity and violence and has recently published in The Journal of Political Philosophy, Australian Feminist Studies, Contretemps (forthcoming), and Borderlands e-journal. Email:

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