What Is It to Take Responsibility for the Slavery Past?
July 1 marks the celebration of Ketikoti. 160 years ago, in 1863, slavery was officially abolished in Suriname. It became fully effective only a decade later. This year, Ketikoti—the name of this day means, roughly, “chains have been broken"—started a full year of remembrance in the Netherlands, former coloniser and close ally of Suriname. Although it is only one chapter in the horrific tales of colonialism, something is beginning to happen when it comes to this chapter: the Dutch state seems to be taking responsibility. Last year, Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologised for the country’s slavery past on behalf of the government. He specifically referred to this anniversary, saying (my translation): “I long thought it was not quite possible to take responsibility in a meaningful way for something that took place so long ago, for which none of us was present. For a long time, I actually thought: the slavery past is history that lies behind us. But I was wrong.”
Reactions were mixed. Public polls had suggested that large parts of society viewed their state’s role in the slavery past as serious, but there was no majority supporting apologies. Many people wondered what it means for them, or indeed whether it is possible, to take responsibility for historical wrongdoings. In countries with histories of being colonised, apologies were welcomed as acknowledgement and concurrently criticised as unambitious. Some made it clear—and Rutte recognised—that these apologies could only start a process.
During the recent celebrations this year, King Willem-Alexander unexpectedly followed suit and apologised, particularly expanding on his family’s involvement. In contrast to what earlier polls might suggest, his words were mostly welcomed. Thus, the process of what seems to be taking responsibility has kickstarted again. But is it even conceptually possible, and what could it mean, to take responsibility for the slavery past, for us and for the state? How can we shed light on Rutte’s words?
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Two preliminaries before we start. First, I’m not (nor is my family) from Suriname or another country afflicted by colonialism. I’m not negatively affected by racialisation or historical patterns of disadvantage, and I have no authority to speak for people who are. Further, I’m not Dutch. I’ve immigrated voluntarily for work, cycle everywhere, and speak Dutch. I’m writing this as someone gladly living in the Netherlands; it will become clear later why this matters. Thus, Rutte’s words interest me due to my choice of living in this country in combination with my academic work.
Second, my focus here is on taking responsibility, particularly for the slavery past. This is connected to combatting current injustices and discrimination, some of which clearly result from historical oppression and colonialism. Plausibly, rectifying negative ramifications is also part of taking responsibility. But, in principle, these two issues are distinct, since only some of the people who could offer remedies are the ones who should take responsibility.
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Taking responsibility for our own behaviour and its consequences is hard enough, especially in close personal relationships (Mason 2019). We don’t always know whether we’re at fault, when apologising is appropriate, or how we should deal with the fallout. Things are even more puzzling when we look at others: We seem to, at least sometimes, take responsibility for what our dogs, children, or friends do. Of course, we are legally liable for actions of our dogs or young children, and we cannot escape the law’s mandate. For various reasons, including restitution and social cohesion, we are required to compensate.
But that’s not always why we take responsibility for others’ actions. We sometimes do so of our own accord. Imagine expressing regret to your best friend’s partner when cheated on, apologising for your spouse’s drunk behaviour, or atoning for disastrous decisions of your family. Is it intelligible to take responsibility in these cases? You haven’t, after all, done anything wrong! It’s not that you can take responsibility on their behalf—their own coming to terms is still in order—you’re rather acting for their sake (Edlich and Vandieken 2022). (This is an important difference from our starting case. Rutte and the king can, in virtue of their offices, apologise on behalf of the Netherlands. More on this later.) But it still seems that you’re affected by these others’ wrongdoing. Something “overflows” to you; the bad action somehow concerns you, perhaps differently than others, such that you might take responsibility. Does this make sense conceptually?
We can give an explanation in terms of your “practical identity.” Put simply, a practical identity is a description of ourselves in terms of something we value (Korsgaard 1996). Practical identities give us our quite idiosyncratic reasons to think and behave in certain ways. We have many practical identities operating at several levels, in different contexts, and to various strengths. You might be a parent, writer, biker, or, for instance, a friend. If you properly value the friendship, it might constitute one of your practical identities, or part of your compound practical identity. Some (but not all) things concerning your friend(ship) will then give you reasons to act in specific ways. You are, as it were, normatively “entangled” with them (Goetze 2021). Explicating this fact makes it seem surprisingly trivial. Your friend is moving house today? You could help! They picked striped socks today? Never mind.
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Equipped with this insight, let’s look at how practical identities undergird some social practices. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam ran the first near-comprehensive Vermeer exhibition this year, visited in masses. You cannot escape Rembrandt or Van Gogh when roaming the city. Their splendid art is worth preserving, for sure. Who should do this? Why the Netherlands, if that’s the answer? Many Dutch people seem proud of their artistic forebearers; similar observations abound. Many people cheer fervently when their national teams win at a sporting event, inquire into their family histories, or explore intricacies of loved hobbies. These practices are perfectly intelligible when viewed in this light: Being Dutch, a member of a certain family, or a sports fan all constitute (parts of) practical identities. Self-identifying with and valuing these categories, implicitly or explicitly, provides reasons to care and act in specific ways.
if you’re proud of great things your national ancestors did, you should also lament their horrific deeds—not least because the two are occasionally, if not regularly, connected. Neither merits personal credit or condemnation, certainly; the fact that it wasn’t your doing bars that. Identifying with your nation, however, why not feel contrition about a wrongdoing your ancestors have committed when you are simultaneously proud of their achievements?
Some of the memberships we subsume ourselves under are more normatively significant than others (Telech 2022). In other words, being a citizen provides more and weightier reasons than being a striped-socks-wearer. You might have reasons to vote, for example, or support the preservation of cultural heritage. While we can choose, develop, or change our practical identities mostly freely—after all, they pertain to features, memberships, or activities we value—we cannot just pick the reasons they provide. If you don’t find art interesting, you can cheer for sports instead. Rescinding citizenship or family membership is harder, but you could choose (or unconsciously come) to cherish the affiliation less, promoting other things instead. We all know people espousing affiliations to varying intensities; the same practical identities have different meanings for different people. As someone who identifies as a citizen or family member, however, you cannot determine the reasons this practical identity supplies. Sure, you have some freedom in choosing which action to engage in as a way of acting upon these reasons. You might be mistaken or fail to act on them. But it’s simply inconsistent to act as if you could pick reasons springing from your practical identity like selecting groceries at the supermarket.
Therefore, our practical identities require—if they truly are identities—a certain consistency. Implications of this requirement are familiar from our actions: Taking responsibility for achievements by feeling pride (Wonderly 2023), we should also take responsibility for failings by feeling guilt. The requirement applies equally to our practical identities, even (although in more complex ways) to deeper affiliations like national identity. If you support the preservation of your nation’s cultural heritage, this should probably hold across the board. And it applies to our attitudes regarding these identities: if you’re proud of great things your national ancestors did, you should also lament their horrific deeds—not least because the two are occasionally, if not regularly, connected. Neither merits personal credit or condemnation, certainly; the fact that it wasn’t your doing bars that. Identifying with your nation, however, why not feel contrition about a wrongdoing your ancestors have committed when you are simultaneously proud of their achievements? Doesn’t the thought “I didn’t do it” apply to both? Identifying with their nation or culture yields reasons to take responsibility for both the good and the bad, on pain of inconsistency.
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Why could we take responsibility for other’s actions? Here is the emerging picture. If you are connected to others or their action in the right way, and the action is significant enough in some respect, you can and should take responsibility. We have seen that our practical identities might supply this connection, and shown that some current social practices fit that account when it comes to accomplishments. Thus, the same might hold for wrongdoings such as the slavery past. Indeed, consistency seems to require that we take responsibility for the bad equally as for the good.
Feeling guilt or regret alone isn’t yet taking responsibility; [...] Apologising is an additional step because it gives a say to the wronged party to accept or reject the apology. Moreover, apologising signifies acknowledging what happened in a sense feelings alone don’t, independently of fault.
You might think this is too hasty: that it isn’t really taking responsibility. Indeed, there is a crucial complication. Feeling guilt or regret alone isn’t yet taking responsibility; the latter isn’t exhausted merely by having bad feelings. We seem to lack something. Perhaps feeling guilt or regret doesn’t amount to taking responsibility, but further acting on them might. We could justifiably question how genuine someone’s taking responsibility is if they profusely tell you how bad they feel about ruining your shirt without buying a replacement or behaving differently in the future. Restitution gets concern for you and your damage across. Apologising is an additional step because it gives a say to the wronged party to accept or reject the apology. Moreover, apologising signifies acknowledging what happened in a sense feelings alone don’t, independently of fault.
Clearly, the exact components necessary for taking responsibility differ according to its object in various contexts, and perhaps also vary with who is taking responsibility. I’ve identified some plausible candidates: acknowledgement, moral emotions, apology, compensation. But I haven’t specified necessary and sufficient conditions for each case of taking responsibility. What I have shown is that it makes sense conceptually to take responsibility for the actions of others, and that the reasons lie in our practical identities. Since it seems impossible to take responsibility successfully and comprehensively in one instant for something as significant as the slavery past, it must entail several components. The larger task of identifying its precise components must be left for another occasion.
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160 years after the abolition of slavery in Suriname, the Dutch state seems to have started taking responsibility. What’s the import for us? Taking responsibility for actions of others is often spurred by our practical identities. This observation doesn’t immediately pertain to an evaluation of current events, or to an onus anyone carries. But it reveals important aspects of taking responsibility, which is what Rutte believed to be possible. The arguments above suggest that nothing bars us today from appropriately taking responsibility for the slavery past, or from doing our part in the state’s effort to take responsibility. We don’t have to be wrongdoers ourselves. Promoting and identifying with the Netherlands gives us enough reasons to support some form of taking responsibility for the slavery past. Finding appropriate measures to do so must be discussed together; but there appears no easy way out from having that discussion.
[...] for the state, expressing regret and even apologising aren’t yet taking responsibility. [...] Apologising is a start.
There are also upshots regarding what it means for the state to take responsibility. While not explicitly argued for here, the foregoing suggests that the Netherlands can indeed, and have begun to, take responsibility. But our discussion sheds more light on what many have called for: for the state, expressing regret and even apologising aren’t yet taking responsibility. Context and gravity of wrongs matter, and slavery is clearly on one extreme of the scale of gravity. Now the real work starts: Implementing policies, finding ways to counteract ongoing injustices, and negotiating the right mode to deal with these issues as citizens and residents of affected countries. Apologising is a start. But it is a comma, in Rutte’s words, not a full stop.
Jan Willem Wieland and the editor of this blog were tremendously helpful in shaping this piece. I’m also grateful to Alexander Edlich, Gerben Meynen, Phil Robichaud, Tessa Supèr, and Emi Visser for detailed comments on earlier drafts, to colleagues at the VU for discussion, and to many people in Lund and Munich who listened to my ideas.
Edlich, Alexander, and Jonas Vandieken. 2022. "Acting on Behalf of Another." Canadian Journal of Philosophy 52 (5): 540-555. https://doi.org/10.1017/can.2022.47.
Goetze, Trystan S. 2021. "Moral Entanglement: Taking Responsibility and Vicarious Responsibility." The Monist 104 (2): 210-223. https://doi.org/10.1093/monist/onaa033.
Korsgaard, Christine M. 1996. The Sources of Normativity. Edited by Onora O’Neill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mason, Elinor. 2019. Ways to Be Blameworthy: Rightness, Wrongness, and Responsibility. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Telech, Daniel. 2022. "Relation-Regret and Associative Luck: On Rationally Regretting What Another Has Done." In Morality and Agency: Themes from Bernard Williams, edited by Andras Szigeti and Matthew Talbert, 233-264. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wonderly, Monique. 2023. "On Moral Pride as Taking Responsibility for the Good." Philosophy & Public Affairs 51 (3): 265-293. https://doi.org/10.1111/papa.12244.