Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen (2016) – Affirmative Action, Historical Injustice, and the Concept of Beneficiaries

By Joshua Wells 

In this session, 19 May 2016, we had the pleasure of discussing a very recent paper by Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen published in 2016. The paper was selected by Alex McLaughlin, who introduced the paper. Alex started by summarising the paper.  He explained that the paper is motivated by engaging with the argument that innocent beneficiaries of past injustice have a duty to benefit those who are not voluntary victims of this past injustice. This argument will be referred to as the Beneficiaries Pays Principle. The argument of Lippert-Rasmussen is that those who are convinced by the Beneficiary Pays principle are actually being convinced by luck egalitarian intuitions, moreover if you pick out cases where luck egalitarianism diverges from the Beneficiary Pays Principle, then the luck egalitarianism conclusions seem to be much more comfortable for our intuitions to accept.

Early in the article Lippert-Rasmussen engages with some arguments made by Daniel Butt. He argues that Butt has presented cases where the luck egalitarianism and Beneficiary Pays Principle move in the same direction. The starting point is his engagement with Butt’s intuitive argument:

‘Butt’s most discussed argument—call it the intuitive argument—rests on a desert-island example involving four farmers. A is hardworking and produces 700 units of resources, which suffices for comfortable living. B and C are laid back but just, and put in enough working hours so that they can each produce 200 units provided D does not intervene. Unfortunately, D is laid back and unjust. D unjustly tries to divert the water from B‘s and C‘s plots of land onto his own. D, however, is incompetent and ends up diverting water away from C‘s and his own land and onto B‘s. Consequently, B produces 400 units and C and D produce nothing.15 In despair, D hangs himself. C is now starving and someone should help him. A has more resources than B and can better afford doing so than B. However, Butt thinks it is counterintuitive to let the remedial duties fall on A on account of his greater capacity to help. Instead, he canvasses the following principle (henceforth the beneficiary principle):

The Beneficiary Principle is then formulated as follows:

If B benefits—however involuntarily—from an injustice being committed against C, then B has a compensatory obligation to C to pay C compensation up to the point where [B is] no longer [beneficiary] of the injustice in question’.

Lippert-Rasmussen complaint is that we can accept the conclusion of the Desert Case on luck-egalitarian grounds and that, therefore, this case fails to support the Beneficiary Principle. Instead we must look at cases where the luck-egalitarian gives a different answer to the proponent of the Beneficiary Principle. However prior to exploring different cases to test this, Rasmussen looks at Butt’s conceptual argument. The conceptual argument is that we cannot say something is unjust but are unwilling to rectify the injustice because we benefit from it.

Lippert-Rasmussen provides four response to Butt’s conceptual argument. Most of the conversation centred on Lippert- Rasmussen’s attack. The main point made was that Lippert-Rasmussen’s attack does not seem to focus on the core of the conceptual argument, but rather the edges of it. As a result, even if we accept the force of these points, Butt may be able to adjust his theory while keeping the main claim intact. An example is that Butt links duties to suffering. Lippert-Rasmussen objects to this saying that injustice need not involve suffering. Of course he is correct, however this does not undermine Butt’s case, Butt could easily adjust the creation of duties to a domain which is greater than suffering.

Most of the hour was spent exploring these four responses to Butt’s conceptual argument, therefore it would be unfair to judge the whole the paper based upon our decision. Yet it seems clear that Lippert-Rasmussen has not persuaded the group with his critique of Butt conceptual argument. Despite this the group did seem sympathetic to the idea of the paper, that being the concern with the intuitive argument of Butt’s, and disagreement seemed to mostly about how Lippert-Rasmussen reached the conclusion as oppose to the conclusions themselves.

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