I was conversing with my partner on this question a few hours ago. The conversation got me curious on the question, "does a state have a moral obligation towards people that suffered from its actions in the past?." In particular, we came across the question of whether the UK's colonial past resulted in any moral obligations regarding its current immigration policy, and whether the "guilt" incurred by its leadership in colonial times was inherited by today's government. We also weren't clear about the question whether such a moral obligation could apply to an institution (like the sovereign state), or has to be eventually traced back to an individual (or a group of individuals). In this context we also touched upon the notion of guilt by association, which would seem to be required to justify holding today's leaders responsible for the actions of their predecessors.

Please note that I am not a philosophy student and I would appreciate any help any of you can provide.

Qualifications: I do not intend to problematise the word crimes here. Let's just accept the assumption that there are things that the state can do which are considered a crime by all. My main contention here is with the question of whether the state can have moral obligations or not (in this case for the crimes it has committed).

  • Are you and your interlocutor committed to the word "crimes"? That particular locution may be half the source of your confusion...
    – virmaior
    Jan 29, 2015 at 1:18
  • I do not intend to problematise the word crimes here. Let's just accept the assumption that there are things that the state can do and be considered as a crime by all. My main contention is with the moral obligations of a state, in that whether it has moral obligations or not (in this case for the supposed crimes it has committed. Another example is in admitting would-be immigrants into its borders: Does a state have a moral obligation to admit would be non-refugees immigrants?)
    – JayLee
    Jan 29, 2015 at 1:30
  • "Considered as a crime" does not necessarily mean it was illegal at the time, or that only one sort of law was in effect. Also, general opinion does not imply legality. Also, do colonies have an obligation to return property to the colonial head state? Also, certain crimes are conventionally considered justified. Apart from these sorts of concerns, if neither a state nor a party can be indicted, perhaps its offending properties can be dissolved: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_rem_jurisdiction
    – dwn
    Jan 29, 2015 at 2:59
  • @JayLee How can a state commit a crime considering crimes generally are violations of the laws of state? It's impossible to answer your question unless you can clarify that. Are you trying to refer to say "international law" or something like that to call these crimes?
    – virmaior
    Jan 29, 2015 at 3:48
  • There are usu. international laws made during colonization 'legalizing' the process. For instance, in India, it was imperative to get the Mughal rulers in agreement. Were the Mughals India's proper heads? Should they also share reparations? And what does this have to do with today's immigrants in the UK? That's not to say one should assume the opposite, it just seems difficult to argue coherently.
    – dwn
    Jan 29, 2015 at 4:12

2 Answers 2


Its a tricky question without any obvious answer. Some side questions that would have to be answered first:

  • Is a state an entity which is governed by morals, or is it only the individuals within that state which have morals?
  • Who defines "crimes" at the state level? This rapidly becomes "Is there a 'natural law' governing states?"
  • What does it mean to have a "moral obligation?" Its easy to say "moral obligation for its crimes," but the real meaning is something along the lines of "moral obligation to make reparations to the greater society for its crimes" or something very long like that. Precision can be important.

Most of those are definition questions, but the first question, whether states can have morals, at all is a strong philosophical question. I believe the most common answer is yes. One rationale would be wartime homicides by soldiers. If the state can have morals, then one is not obliged to find it morally acceptable to kill members of another state in wartime. Another rationale would stem from the appearance of a state as more than the sum of its parts.

The counter argument would be that states do not have morals because they do not have freewill, only the individuals that make up the state have freewill. This rapidly becomes a debate capturing the essence of "freewill," which is a major topic in philosophy.

  • Thanks for your answer. It is indeed a hard question. Here are some clarifications: (1) I do not believe the state is a personal entity, in that it does not have the capacity to think and reason like us humans. But it seems to me that this sort of thinking can become a form of escapism for the state to take any responsibility at all. (2) I guess my contention is not on the definition of 'crimes'. Let's just say that we all agree that there are things that the state does that we can all categorically label as crimes. Second part of this question; I don't believe so. (cont..)
    – JayLee
    Jan 29, 2015 at 1:23
  • (cont...) The state is a construction that bears no 'natural rights'. (3) I am unconvinced with the existence of morality not because I am immoral but simply because I think the word 'morality' can be thrown about and be used as a justification for anything (as long as the justification appeals to logic).
    – JayLee
    Jan 29, 2015 at 1:24
  • 1
    @JayLee: Your 3rd point is particularly interesting, given the topic. If the existence of morality is in question, it substantially limits the moral obligations of a state.
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 29, 2015 at 2:55

First, I use two perspectives to answer the question in relation to domestic crimes and the states obligation. Second, I provide an answer to whether the state is obligated for its international wrongs over time and then discuss a few more of the questions that have arisen on this page.

First, Thomas Hobbes argues that to escape the state of nature (chaos and killing) people have agreed to give up their liberty and view of morality in order to have the state's security. Thus, Hobbes would say that a state cannot commit a crime because the state is the sovereign and the states is always morally right and just.

Locke would argue that we give up our liberty to exact retribution for crimes for an impartial justice system. If the state commits a crime we have the right and duty to punish the rulers and their servants because the states only purpose is to uphold impartial justice. (Locke believes the state of nature is that people are social and trustworthy).

These are two different perspectives, conservatism and one of the founders of liberalism.

To understand what Rawls thinks you may use his original position and reflective equilibrium to decipher proper behavior (for a quick view on these two principles http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Rawls#The_Original_Position). However, in this case who the state is, is not so clear.

[The original vagueness of the question made it a bit difficult for me to answer. First, I was not sure what was meant by a state's crimes? I assumed the inquisitor meant domestic crimes, which I discussed above through Hobbes' and Locke's positions and will leave posted. Second, it was not clear what was meant by moral obligations? After clarifying these points, thank you, I provided the second response.]

Regarding whether the present state is responsible for its past actions: One element that seems to always constitutes a state as the same over time is its debt. As such, I do not see why that debt cannot take many forms, such as owing others for acts of thievery, mass murder, and cultural destruction.

Who is to blame? A modern state is both a collection of institutions and rules that extend beyond the power of individuals in society and the individuals in society that legitimate state power and actions. If the state is both, it seems both would be to blame for colonization, genocide, or social welfare. State institutions should take on that debt. However, individuals only share the burden of responsibility in accordance with their personal relationship to power. When individuals who committed past crimes are no longer alive, no individuals share direct responsibility, but because the state and many individuals in the society continue to benefit from the past actions (pilfered lands that help make new investments) they owe in accordance. (my father steals your home and moves it across the river, I take it apart to build myself a home with a different shape and then my father dies. This scenario does not negate the fact that the property was stolen and belongs to you or those you had wished would inherit it).

Who is to repay? Practically, to condemn everyone in a country is likely not going to solve problems and likely to inflame more. For instance, the way the victors treated Germany after the first world war did not help, and likely fostered, many of the sentiments that propagated the next world war. With that said, individual responsibility is essential for liberalism, civility, and good governance. And punishment is necessary for commitments to these and other endeavors.

Who is morally responsible? In a sense, morality is the judgement of good and bad, and while good and bad may be contextual to culture and time, those who are interested in liberalism would likely agree that culture and private property are good and their destruction is bad. Therefore, states who do bad things (institutions and the people involved in lending the state legitimacy or who benefited from its bad actions) are obligated to make reparations. If good and bad change, the moral obligation disappears (e.g. nobody owes Louis the 16th, even though many bad french (the poor) stole from the good (the king))

  • Thanks for your answer and questions. What I meant by 'a state's crime' is a crime that is committed by a state internationally, take for example Nazi Germany. Does the present German government have a responsibility to make reparations for its crimes to the Jewish people? (I know that they did by giving them lands, but I am appealing to a normative question on whether they should.)
    – JayLee
    Jan 29, 2015 at 1:17
  • One element that always constitutes a state as the same over time is its debt. As such, I do not see why that debt cannot take many forms, such as those owed for acts of thievery, murder, cultural destruction, and genocide.
    – alfonso
    Jan 29, 2015 at 21:58

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