Each of us has two parents. Each of them has two. So we have four grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great great grandparents, and so on. So we’d only have to go back ten generations to meet our thousand ancestors who walked the Earth at the same time Napoleon did, or our million ancestors who shared the planet with Shakespeare. Okay, not quite, since at this rate we’d have more ancestors at the time of Henry II than there were people at the time of Henry II. So obviously some of our ancestors had ancestors in common.

Still, let’s confine ourselves to the twenty generations since the time of Shakespeare, and ask ourselves the following question. Of those million people, what are the chances that not one of them was conceived through rape? Or more upsetting yet, through incest?

All right, so we’re all the products of rape. What follows from this? Well, for one thing, much as we disapprove of any rape giving rise to the next generation, it’s hard not to be thankful for the rapes that gave rise to us.

Hard yes but not impossible, you say, because you’d much rather have been the product of a consensual union, right? No you wouldn’t, because the product of that consensual union wouldn’t have been you. You’re the product of that conception, and that conception was the product of rape. Live with it! Or, to be more hip, own it!

But surely this is just a conceptual trick. The quality of life of most African Americans is orders-of-magnitude better than that of the descendants of those who were left where they were in Africa. So African Americans should be grateful to the slavers who brought their ancestors to the Americas. Surely there’s something wrong with this reasoning. But what?

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

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1 reply

  1. Is “grateful” too vague a word here? Is there a difference between saying, “I am glad that X happened,” and saying, “It was a morally good act for A to have done Y which (eventually, and not desired by A) brought about X.”? Is that what you are getting at? That the consequences intended by whomever raped my (great)^x grandmother, or by whomever ventured up-country in West Africa to entice people into slavery, must trump whatever unintended consequences resulted, however felicitous they may have turned out to be. (And yes, I accept an action cannot be judged solely by its intent, or by its consequences. Means vs ends and all that. And with West African slave trade, the conditions of transport were morally relevant, not just the fact of enslavement itself. What we call rape has evolved over the centuries, too.)

    We can claim to bask happily in the unintended consequences without being obliged to excuse the actors in the past for having set in motion the events that produced them. But can we? I doubt that any or us, those unique products of conception, would turn back the clock if we could to prevent that long-ago rape, or to undo the decision by some of the progeny of that product to sail (or fly) to the New World where we find ourselves today. If we did either of those corrections, we *wouldn’t* find ourselves here today. So when push comes to shove, I suppose we do, indeed, excuse those long-ago transgressions to which we owe our very existence.

    You have elsewhere posed the challenge, “Do the Jews of the world have The Third Reich to thank for the creation of the State of Israel?” Perhaps because The Holocaust was the first event I recall learning about as a young boy — Eichmann’s trial was a topic of conversation at home — that showed me humankind was capable of great organized evil, I don’t have a way to answer that even today. Maybe if I hadn’t been born when I was but “I” was not to be conceived until 2450 or so, I’d have a better answer.


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