New research in the Journal of Political Philosophy:

Are you morally obligated not to benefit from an injustice, even though you yourself had no control over it? Professor Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen challenges a common line of reasoning on duties ascribed to innocent beneficiaries of injustices such as slavery, greenhouse gas emissions, colonialism, and sexism.

Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen. Photo: Lars Kruse, AU
Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen. Photo: Lars Kruse, AU

Many believe that people in high-income countries have innocently benefited from unjust pre-1980 greenhouse gas emissions. Such people are ‘innocent beneficiaries’ in that they have had no influence on these emissions, yet are still in an advantageous position because of them. It is often argued that they have a duty to renounce some of the benefits they enjoy as a result, for instance by shouldering a greater part of the burden of climate change. Similar views can be found regarding innocent beneficiaries of colonialism, slavery and sexism. In short, many subscribe to the view that you have a duty not to benefit from injustice, even if you are innocent and could not have prevented the injustice from happening.

In an article in the Journal of Political Philosophy, Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen challenges this idea. He shows that the four best explanations of this duty given by research literature prove too much, as it were. The explanations imply that victims of historic injustices have a moral obligation not to decline a transfer of benefits from the innocent beneficiaries ‘back’ to themselves. In other words, if innocent beneficiaries have a duty to renounce benefits, victims have a duty to not to decline these ‘reimbursements’. Yet, no one thinks victims have a duty to accept such attempts at righting past wrongs. Assuming this is so, the best explanations of the duty not to benefit innocently from injustice all fail. 

For instance, consider the view that there is a duty not to benefit innocently from injustice, because in benefiting innocently from something you condemn as unjust, you undermine your own supposed condemnation. One could just as well argue that when victims of historic injustice decline a ‘reimbursement’ of the benefits they were deprived of, they undermine their condemnation of the injustice.  

Lippert-Rasmussen concludes that we must either reject the view that there is a duty not to benefit innocently from injustice or alternatively propose a novel explanation of this duty. He also notes that the option to reject it leaves other lines of reasoning open, for instance that innocent beneficiaries of historic injustice have duties on other grounds to shoulder a greater part of the costs of climate change etc., one such ground being that they are typically better off than victims of historic injustice. 

Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen is the director of the Centre for the Experimental-Philosophical Study of Discrimination (CEPDISC) – a centre of excellence funded by the Danish National Research Foundation.


The research results – more information:


Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen