Transcript

Historical obligations

Janna Thompson
j.thompson@latrobe.edu.au

Audio

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 11.9MB].

iTunes

Visit this channel at La Trobe on iTunesU.

Transcript

Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University Podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith, and joining me today is Associate Professor Janna Thompson from the Philosophy Program. Thank you for joining me, Janna.

Janna Thompson:

Yes, thank you.

Matt Smith:

Now, you're here today to talk to me about taking responsibility for the past. Can you tell me, what would you define as an historical obligation?

Janna Thompson:

Well, I think of historical obligation as being obligations in respect to things that were done before we were born or came of age as citizens. That is, things that other people, past people, in our community have done.

John Howard, when he was Prime Minister, the reason he gave for not apologizing to Aboriginal communities for past injustices to Aborigines, he said that he didn't think that people living now should have to take responsibility for what people in the past did. He didn't think that it made sense for a nation to apologize if a deed had been done by past people in the nation.

Matt Smith:

That was a very interesting kind of example because John Howard was very representative of a lot of Australians at that time. Is that kind of common with other countries as well?

Janna Thompson:

Well, I think there always is the question about what we have responsibility for. I mean, obviously none of us were responsible for the injustices that were done to Aborigines in past generations. And I think there's a very common idea of responsibility which philosophers have too; that in order to have any kind of responsibility, you have to have had some sort of causal role in the deed in question. You have to, maybe, play a role in the society. So, I assume Howard meant by his statement that we're really only collectively responsible as members of the nation for things that happened at least during our lifetime or presumably for the policies and the leaders that we voted for.

Matt Smith:

Now, the most that Howard would say is that he regret what happened.

Janna Thompson:

Bad things happened in the past. I'm sorry that they did, but you can't apologize for them because we didn't have any responsibility.

Matt Smith:

He's very careful not to say that he was sorry for the nation.

Janna Thompson:

Yes. I think that maybe that motivated him that he didn't want to be faced by all sorts of demands for money, for reparation. But I thought, the question he brought up was interesting. Why should we take responsibility for things that were done in our nation's past? I thought that was a good question that had to be answered whatever his particular motivations were.

Matt Smith:

Can you tell me a bit about that? Do you think we should be historically obligated to apologize for things like that?

Janna Thompson:

Well, the way I started to tackle it was to think about treaties. Nations make treaties, and they assume that these treaties obligate not just them but also future people, also future citizens. Treaties are intergenerational.

So, I began to think about responsibility in intergenerational terms. Why should people living now think that they have any kind of responsibility in respect to people of the past? I thought that maybe this is best explained by thinking of what we can demand that our successors, the people of the future, and our nation should do as a result of our deeds, our promises, or our failures to keep promises or other things that we do.

I decided this is the best way of looking at it, a bit of forward looking and backward looking. What can we morally demand of our successors? And if we think about that, then we can understand what we are obligated to do in respect to the deeds of past people.

Matt Smith:

Now, Australia isn't the only one who have had to tackle the problems of historical obligations. What other examples around the world can you tell me about?

Janna Thompson:

Well, in my book "Taking Responsibility for the Past", I discussed two cases. Obviously, the Australian one, about taking responsibility for the injustices that were done to aboriginal communities and aboriginal individuals in the past, but I also talked about slavery. Particularly the American case, about whether reparations are owed to the descendants of slaves for the injustice of slavery during the 19th century and earlier.

Matt Smith:

In a case like that where, in Australia, it was pretty clear cut to some people that we'd taken land from the Aboriginals. In the case of slavery, what sort of historical obligations are there?

Janna Thompson:

Well, I think that's a good question because it's not quite clear what modern-day descendants of slaves can reasonably claim. Some people say, well, certainly, the American President ought to apologize on behalf of the nation for slavery. Some people have argued that other kinds of reparations are owed. For example, the people who were slaves, haven't been slaves, they would presumably earn the wage for what they did. So, maybe what their descendants are owed are they what they should have earned plus interest, and didn't because they were slaves.

I think that attempts to work out what people would have had if slavery hadn't occurred is, first of all, impossible and leads to, I think, a lot of nonsense because a lot of American black people wouldn't ever have existed at all if slavery hadn't occurred.

But I think that descendants of slaves are owed something. First of all, because I think families are intergenerational entities as well and that injustice of slavery was not something that just affected the individuals who were enslaved but it affected their family lines and continues to do so today. That slavery is certainly part of the reason why there are so great inequalities between black people and white people in United States. And, so I think, what is owed is simply programs that undo this inequality.

Matt Smith:

If some sort of compensation was given for something like that, would it have much of a difference there because these are injustices that had been done to people hundred of years ago? How much of the difference does that sort of apology make? Is it anything more than a symbolic gesture?

Janna Thompson:

First of all, is apology a mere symbolic gesture? It certainly is a symbolic gesture. Most people thought that Rudd's apology was a fairly good performance. Not only a good speech but the whole environment that surrounded it was good. The fact that there were a lot of Aboriginal people in the audience at Parliament. The fact that the apology was supported by the leader of the opposition. The fact that the Parliament was adjourned so that the Parliamentarians could talk to the people who attended. The fact that people like, say in Melbourne, went to Federation Square, for example, so they can watch the apology in public. I think all of these suggest that as a symbolic gesture, this is a pretty good one. It did mean a lot to people. Of course, there were people who would have, like Howard, think that apology was a bad idea. But nevertheless, I think a lot of Australians by this time did think it was a good idea, and I think that symbolic gestures can have a lot of meaning.

As for the question of what more should be done, I think that more should be done and I think that Rudd promised to do more to undo the disadvantages that aboriginal communities suffer. How well that promise has been kept, I think, is debatable. But certainly I think that more than the symbolic gesture was needed and I think people realize that.

Matt Smith:

So how far into the past do we need to look to right wrongs?

Janna Thompson:

I don't think there's any particular temporal cutoff point but I think that there are certainly examples that you can give where historical injustices are no longer salient. The Normans invaded England in 1066, was it, and did all sorts of bad things to the Saxons. But first of all, these communities really, as such, don't even exist anymore; and secondly, all the effects of these injustices have been overwritten by other events that have happened through time. I think you can say that this injustice is no longer salient. Now, I think what one thing that makes the difference is the survival of communities to whom the injustices are done.

I think there are questions when communities survive. Like when America got its independence from Britain, to what extent where the treaties that the British had made in the colonies still relevant to the Americans now that they were an independent country? I think that's all very contextual. You have to look at each case.

Another thing that I think makes historical happenings still relevant is if there are particularly continuing bad effects of these historical injustices. Like the people who were done an injustice to, are still as a result, in a bad position in their society. I think that makes historical injustice still very relevant.

Matt Smith:

But in a situation like that, even if the current population aren't in a bad situation, past wrongs were done. In what case does it make those past wrongs not wrong?

Janna Thompson:

Well, I think that it doesn't make them not wrong. What it means though that it might not be particularly relevant to make reparation for them. But I think, it's still important for people of a society to remember the wrongs that were done in the past. What if these wrongs have to be righted? They may not be, but I think that a society should remember the injustices that were done.

Matt Smith:

Where does wrongs from war come into it and how do you decide which side is at the wrong?

Janna Thompson:

Well, I think that is a good question. I've never dealt in my book with war reparations although I think that some of the things that I've said are relevant to them. I think that because people tend to believe that their wars are just, they are going to be very disgruntled if they are forced to pay huge amount of reparations to those who regard themselves as the victors.

What's relevant and what I have to say about that is I think that what you do in reparation ought to have a forward-looking aspect. You ought to be thinking about how communities can relate in a just way to each other in the future. You should not demand things that are going to lead to further enmity, to further injustices. I think reparations shouldn't be thought as simply something to do to make up for the past but something to do that makes it possible for communities to live together, to cooperate and to regard themselves as justly treated.

Matt Smith:

Do you know any examples of apologies that are owed you?

Janna Thompson:

Well, I think it would help if the President of the United States gave an apology for slavery. I think that would be something that should be done. I think that that issue is still very salient.

Matt Smith:

Once Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the aboriginal people, do you think that's the end of the story or that there's still work to be done?

Janna Thompson:

I think that implicit in the meaning of an apology is always the idea that you are going to mend your behaviour in the future, that you are going to ensure that bad things not happen again. I think that's certainly implicit to the extent that political apologies are genuine.

Of course, also, there is the question of reparation and I think a lot of people believe that it's not enough to apologize. That other measures are to be done to at least ensure that aborigines are able to participate fully in Australian society and that they aren't as seriously disadvantaged as they are now.

Matt Smith:

Now, the reparations, I just want to ask. One person, 150 to 200 years ago, can potentially have at least 50 descendants. How do you decide who gets what in that sort of situation and who's entitled to what? Or is it more of a symbolic reparation?

Janna Thompson:

There are some accounts of reparation that say that reparation ought to undo the injustice, that people ought to get what they would have had if the injustice had not been done.

Now as I said before, I don't think that notion of reparation makes sense in the historical case. How can you work out what people would have had if the injustice had not been done? Particularly, since many people wouldn't even exist at all if the injustice hadn't been done. Because something, for example, like slavery determines who's going to be born in the next generations. So I think reparations has to be forward-looking in the respect that you have to be thinking about people living now and their relations to each other and what will make their relationships more just.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time for the La Trobe University podcast today. And if you have any questions, comments or feedback, you can send it to podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Dr. Janna Thompson, thank you for your time.

Janna Thompson:

Thank you.

No results found. Try searching again:

Search for ...

Find an expert

Search our experts database.