Write two letters: A thought experiment on blaming our predecessors

This thought experiment comes from an apocryphal involving Stalin and Khrushchev. The story is as follows:

Stalin knows his time is running short, so he hands his would be successor, Khrushchev, two letters. Stalin tells Khrushchev only to open each letter when he is stuck in a situation where there is no solution.

Whilst Khruschev is in power, he ends up in such a situation and opens the first letter. It says “blame everything on me”. Khruschev blames the situation on Stalin and it works. Some time passes and Khruschev ends up in another situation where there is no solution and opens the second letter. It says “Write two letters”.

The point of this story, is that blaming our current problems on our predecessors can only work for so long. There will come a time when that excuse will no longer work. People will eventually have enough and say “enough! What are you going to do!?” M. Shields (1982) in the Washington Post mentioned that most governments and politicians seem to have been given the first letter. And in contemporary politics most of us will be able to point to an example of this occuring.

The reason, I believe, blaming predecessors quickly tests our patience is that we expect governments to solve problems, regardless of who is originally responsible. This implies we delegate to governments intergenerational responsibility. Intergenerational responsibility usually refers to moral obligations the present generations have to future generations. However, in this case the moral obligations of the present generations are inherited from past generations.

Applying this moral standard to individuals can run into trouble. An immediate reaction to this would be a ‘Sins of the father’ objection, where it is unfair to impose obligations to children based on wrongdoing by their parents. The reason we don’t apply the same standard to governments and politicians, is that they enter public life with the promise of making our lives better and representing our interests.

The Khruschev story is directed specifically at situations where things are going badly, implying those currently in power are not doing things well. However, our intuitions about the intergenerational moral responsibility of governments extend to fixing past problems, even if they are doing well in other areas. If a government decided to do everything whilst in power brilliantly, but would make no effort to address problems that were the fault of the previous government, no one would be impressed.

To force this point, I would like to put forward this thought experiment:

You own a company. Your CEO created a myriad of problems for your company and quit without resolving any of them. You are currently interviewing for a new CEO. The applicant says this in the interview:

“I can show that I am a brilliant CEO. I will never make any mistakes like the previous CEO did. In fact, I will do things far better than the other applicants. However, I will only address current issues that arise whilst I am CEO. I will not do any work to repair problems created by the previous CEO.”

I think most of us would be quick to show this applicant the door. Although governments are not private companies (or at least shouldn’t be), in both situations there is an expectation to right the wrongs of the past, even though they were not the one’s at fault. A good example of this in Australia was in 2008 when former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd officially apologised to Indigenous Australians on behalf of the government. The apology was for what is called the Stolen Generations, where Indigenous children were taken from their parents to be raised in white households throughout 1905-1967.

Although our expectations for governments to right past wrongs extend far beyond apologies, this example demonstrates how governments accept responsibility. This is even though many of their members would not have been directly involved in those wrongs.

If you are interested in political philosophy, I have recently published a book called “Contrasting Identities: Navigating Identity Politics Conversations” It is available on Amazon Kindle and/or as a hard copy through Amazon. See links below to purchase:

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Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I am currently completing my honours degree in Philosophy.

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