Is There a Right to Forget? 531
opportunities, social positions, and basic social goods in the present political order is distorted and tainted by the failure of previous generations to live up to Rawls’ two principles of justice, then the present generation is obligated to identify and dismantle these inequalities before passing them on to the next generation. Remembering the past, and examining how present-day social positions and access to resources are shaped by this past, can be incorporated into a Rawlsian conception of justice. 26
Nozick’s theory of justice begins with the principle of just acquisition of resources. If the original acquisition is just, then all subsequent transfers of wealth and resources are just. However, if the original acquisition was achieved unjustly (e.g. robbery), then all subsequent transfers are tainted by that injustice. If this is the case, Nozick admits that some form of restitution is needed.27 Thus, remembering the past is also a component of Nozick’s theory of justice, since memory can help ensure that transfers and distributions of wealth and resources in the present reect just original acquisitions.
Other theories of justice could be examined here, but given that Hill’s cosmopolitanism rests on liberal principles, it is important to highlight how memory is an important component of these two prominent liberal theories. Given the importance of memory and inter-generational transfer of wealth and resources in both these theories of justice, the right to forget may actually violate the requirements of justice. If Hill still asserts such a right, at most it is an “imperfect” right. A “perfect right” to forget would carry with it an obligation for others to allow the forgetting to occur. But since identities and patterns of resource distribution are shaped by the past, there is a need to remember even if some would rather forget. Thus, the right to forget is at best an “imperfect right” that does not obligate others to allow the forgetting to occur. 28
III. Politically Problematic Consequences of the Right to Forget
Despite Hill’s powerful defense of autonomy and self-denition, difculties emerge when philosophy meets history. Given the historical legacies of in- equality that shape our present conditions, the right to forget where we came from is too easily connected to the evasion of responsibility for rectifying these inequalities and too easily misappropriated by those who argue that we should forget the injustices of the past. As a perfect right, forgetting could trump those who argue that we should “never forget.” However, as an imperfect right, survivors and descendants of historical injustices have every right to argue that we—individually and collectively—must remember the past lest we fail to learn from it, since they are not obligated to silently stand by while governments and some historians whitewash the past.
Forgetting the past by granting amnesty to perpetrators of crimes and
26 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1971). Rawls does not apply his principles of justice in this manner, but I think such an application is possible. 27 Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974). Andrew Valls argues that Nozick’s theory allows for the restitution of historical injustices committed against black Americans, in “The Libertarian Case for Afrmative Action,” Social Theory and Practice 25 (1999), pp. 299–323.
28 Here I borrow from J. S. Mill’s description of rights and duties. See Mill, in Mary Warnock (ed.), Utilitarianism and Other Writings (New York: Meridian, 1962), pp. 305–306.