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Cases involving compensation can easily become complicated. Consider these issues:
- What if Mary dies? Should Bill return the truck to her partner or her family?
- What if Bill dies and his children, who did nothing to Mary, have the truck? What are they morally obliged to do?
- Does it matter how many years have gone by since the truck was stolen?
- What if the value of the truck changes over time after it is stolen? Imagine that someone stole a painting and it has increased in value. Does that increase the amount of compensation owed to the original owner? Trucks, on the other hand, tend to lose value. Does that mean that less compensation is owed?
- What if Bill's son or daughter sold the truck and the money is now spread throughout the family in ways that are difficult or impossible to trace?
- What if Mary's family has done quite well since the truck was stolen and Bill's family is rather poor?
- What if Mary's family has done quite well in part because the truck was stolen?
- What if much of the relevant information is lost and its original value cannot be determined?
- What if stealing a truck was not illegal when Bill did it but has become illegal since that time?
- What if we also believe that stealing the truck should have been illegal in the first place even though it was not?
It is clear that the rights and wrongs of compensation can become very complicated. What begins as a simple common sense moral (and legal) notion becomes a tangle of different cases and questions.
It is important to distinguish three different questions about
compensation: The first is whether compensation is morally required.
The second is whether compensation is morally permissible
or allowable. The third is whether compensation is the
best thing to do.
Compensation might be morally permissible when it is not morally required, but presumably it is always permissible when it is required. If it is permissible but not required, we can then ask whether it is the best thing to do. These questions arise in the American debate over affirmative action and it is important to keep them separate when considering different arguments.