Britain, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Tony Blair, Uncategorized

Should the British government apologise for the slave trade?

Should the British government apologise for the slave trade? First of all, whom should they apologies to? Anyone who’s suffered because of the slave trade; but they are all dead. Are they, though? Couldn’t it be that people still suffer to this day as a consequence of it? If so, those people deserve an apology. Furthermore, don’t people whose ancestry has suffered from the slave trade deserve an apology? They do if, and only if, what happened to their ancestors bothers them to this day – and in some cases it will.

Now the difficult question: why should the British government apologise for the slave trade? Because the British government recognises the slave trade as abhorrent. It does. And because the British government was involved in the slave trade; by, in the very least, allowing it. But certainly, one will want to say, this British government was not involved. Indeed, no member of this government was involved. And no one who voted for this government was involved. It was too long ago. So, there is no responsibility, just on the ground that they did not do it.

Two problems with this: first of all, if we have recognised, as we have, that anyone alive today, who suffers today as a result of the slave trade, deserves an apology, then should we not recognise that anyone alive today, who profits today as a result of the slave trade, should issue that apology? We probably should; and it is probably the case that there are people, today, still profiting from the slave trade – someone whose family got really rich through the slave trade, and who is still enjoying the wealth to this day. But even accepting this, it does not mean that the British government should apologise for them. That, surely, would be their individual responsibility if anyone’s, and so it should be themselves, and not the government, to issue an apology.

The second problem is more fundamental: isn’t the British government an historic continuity, such that there is only one thing, the institution by the name of “British government”, through history? If that was so, then Blair’s government, today’s British government, is directly responsible for the slave trade, on the ground that it was the agent who perpetrated the crime, if one accepts, as we should, that ‘The British government was involved in the slave trade”. In this proposition, ‘British government’ identifies an institution which is still in existence, in the shape of Blair’s government, rather than a set of people long dead that used to constitute those British governments that were involved with the slave trade.

That way, we would be treating the institution of the British government through history just in the way in which we treat a single person through their life. If, in my youth, I had committed a crime, then, today, I would still be responsible for that crime, because it was the same person who committed that crime, namely me. And the same argument would apply to the institution British government. And the fact that today that institution is constituted by Blair and his ministers, while hundreds of years ago it was constituted by someone else, would count as much as the fact that today I am constituted by a set of cells, while at the time of the crime committed in my youth I was constituted by an all-together different set of cells. And, just as in my case, the continuity, the fact that it is the same person, me, at both times, is guaranteed by some sort of identity, consciousness, and past, so with the institution of the British government there would be a sort of identity, consciousness, and past that would guarantee that we are still talking about the same thing.

But how could there be a continuity, if this government would never dare to allow such monstrosity, while the government of the time did? It doesn’t matter; because the fact that, in my old age, I have become the sort of citizen which would never commit the crime I committed in my youth, does not mean that I am no longer responsible for that crime. So, if the analogy stands, then Blair’s government is indeed directly responsible for the slave trade, just as it is responsible for everything that any British government has ever done, good or bad. But can we praise, for example, the Blair’s government with having won WWII? It sounds weird. Can we praise Blair’s government with universal suffrage? Weird, again. And even weirder it would be to praise or blame a government for policies it doesn’t agree with that were implemented by a previous government;

So this argument for the identity of all governments over time under the institution of the ‘British government’ does have some counter-intuitive consequences. But, let us remember it, if we don’t accept this argument, then it isn’t at all clear why should Blair’s government apologies for the slave trade. One might propose that identity through continuity is not necessary, and that it is sufficient to claim that Blair’s government is, today, the representative of previous British governments. More so, it could be supposed, than any other institution around. And so that it should apologies on behalf of those which it represents, namely previous British governments. But would that be enough? Would it be enough if Blair said that the British government apologies for what other British governments have done in the past? Maybe so; and still better than just saying how horrific the slave trade was. Indeed, it seems that any rational human being ought to think that the slave trade was horrendous, and that any rational human being ought to feel sorry for those involved. But it looks as though it would not be enough that the British government said that; because that’s short of an apology, and the relation between this British government with previous ones is tighter than the relation between any human being today and those human beings that were involved with the slave trade.

One final thing: if one was to dismiss those arguments, there would still be wrong reasons for not apologising: such as temporal relativism.

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7/7, 9/11, BBC, Britain, Ethics, intentions, Iraq, Islam, London, Philosophy, philosophy of action, Philosophy PhD, Political Philosophy, Politics, Radio4, Terrorism, Tony Blair, US Government

Blair, Responsibility, and Terrorism

Just heard PM’s interview on Radio4. An issue came up which already came up yesterday in the Commons; an issue of responsibility. Let us suppose that terrorism (or attacks against westerns, or whatever) has increased since, say, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Are the US and UK Government responsible for that, given that their invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq was deliberate and intentional? Blair has a good answer to that: look (as he always, annoyingly, starts his answers), we can’t be responsible for the actions of others. And this is true. Responsibility is not causally transitive. So even if it made sense to say that the decision of the UK Government to invade Iraq caused the terrorist’s decision to blow up tube trains in London (and it isn’t at all clear what it means for one’s action to cause another’s action, given that the former, supposedly, was not sufficient to bring about the latter, otherwise the latter would not be an action), that does not mean that the UK Government is responsible for those trains being blown up; it is only who blew them up that is responsible. So that the counterfactual ‘the London trains would have not been blown up if the Government had not invaded Iraq’, even if true, would not bring with it responsibility for the Government. But there are at least to replies to Blair’s answer which, unfortunately, John (who fancies himself a bit too much to be a good interviewer) did not put to the PM: firstly, responsibility comes in if the government could have prevented what happened (but if the counterfactual is true, wouldn’t not invading Iraq have been a way to prevent the attacks? I guess the issue is whether you can do counterfactuals with people’s intentions and actions; and still, even then, it’s not clear that they would carry any responsibility). Secondly, there is an issue of prediction: because it is the Government’s responsibility to try and predict threats, it the Government could have predicted the threat, then, even though it cannot be responsible for someone else’s action, it would still be responsible for not having predicted someone else’s actions, which resulted in the attacks. In this latter case, both who blew up the trains and the Government would be responsible for the people who died on 7/7, because both who blew up the trains and the Government could and should have prevented what happened.

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Disabilities, discrimination, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics

loo ethics

Should one use a disabled toilet if free? Why not? Just in case a disabled person arrives while you are in. But why should they not wait? Because they are disabled. So? It might be fair for them to wait while another disabled person uses it, but not for someone else. Why not? Because they are not disabled. And? They could have used other toilets. Why should they, if the disabled toilet is free? Just in case… ops, circular.

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