Spatial and Temporal Boundaries

Consider a simple example of a change in a state’s territorial border. The state of Arcadia has within its border an oil field that leaks into an adjacent lake on neighboring Tasmania’s land. As a matter of course, Arcadia bears responsibility for this pollutant: it is required to take measures to reduce the damage, to compensate Tasmania for the damage wrought, and the like. It is equally obvious that this responsibility would expire if Arcadia’s border were redrawn so as to exclude the offensive site.[1]

A few features of this example are noteworthy. First, the example illustrates how a border change can affect responsibility by removing the object that serves as the responsibility-base. It also makes vivid the constructive and hence indispensable role played by the process or action by which the boundary is changed. Good reasons for retracting Arcadia’s border may have existed prior to the change, and these reasons are likely to have prompted the actions, peaceful or belligerent, for making the change. But the reasons themselves, no matter how compelling, are not self-executing. Arcadia’s responsibility for the pollutant would persist in face of such reasons unless and until the change in the border is actually made, say by treaty or a UN resolution. Certain events and certain parties have the normative power to affect a state’s boundary in the sense that the occurrence of these events or actions taken by these parties simply mean or count as a border change.13 Why do they mean this, and to whom do they so count? What are the sources and the scope of this power? Importantly, neither logic nor political practice mandates that these questions have a clear and uniform answer. There is room among states not just for border disputes but also for disputes about the proper means of settling them, without there being a supreme authority able to resolve all such disagreements. There is accordingly room for indeterminacy in the location of a state’s border, with different parties accepting different territorial versions of the same state. Note, next, the delicate balance between continuity and change in the Arcadia scenario. To say that Arcadia’s boundary has been redrawn implies a change substantial enough to relieve Arcadia of responsibility but not so substantial as to threaten the state’s continued identity. Though the region containing the pollutant is no longer part of Arcadia, the state of Arcadia does persist as a viable subject; so saying that it is no longer responsible for the pollutant is not an empty or a paradoxical claim. Finally, Arcadia’s territorial parts, either before or after the border change, need not be contiguous. Lack of contiguity does not render Hawaii and Alaska any less parts of the United States than, say, Nebraska.

The pollutant is an object, so a geographic border change is adequate for the purpose of removing it from the scope of Arcadia’s responsibility. Our interest, however, is not in objects but in events. Instead of the pollutant, consider along similar lines a past mischief committed by Arcadia against its neighboring state. Some time ago Arcadia invaded Tasmania, wreaking havoc on its people. After a heroic struggle, the Tasmanians managed to expel the invaders and regain their freedom. But emotions in Tasmania have since run high, hostility toward Arcadia persists, and occasional calls for retaliatory action are made. These reactive attitudes are the incidents of holding Arcadia responsible for the mischievous acts. Relieving Arcadia of that responsibility would accordingly render these attitudes no longer appropriate. In the case of the pollutant just discussed, redrawing Arcadia’s territorial boundary would accomplish such a feat. Can we analogously think of redrawing Arcadia’s temporal boundary so as to exclude the invasion? My suggestion is that revisionary practices do just that.

Analogizing the temporal case to the spatial must of course be defended, but before doing so we need some reassurance that the effort is worthwhile. We can gain the reassurance by considering how, when transferred to the temporal case, the features of a territorial border change I have highlighted would lay to rest the difficulties of coping with the past and account for the role that revisionary practices play in this regard. First and most importantly, by redrawing the wrongdoer’s temporal boundary, revisionary practices relieve the wrongdoer of responsibility for the wrongful act. In doing so, these practices render reactive attitudes, the ordinary incidents of responsibility, no longer appropriate. Second, these practices are constructive in the sense that the effects on the wrongdoer’s boundary and responsibility are brought about by the practices themselves, cumulatively or in some combination, rather than by any antecedent reasons for activating them. This explains the normative significance of these practices beyond their material and psychological effects. By engaging in revisionary practices, various parties exercise normative powers to modify the wrongdoer’s boundary. Where do these powers come from, and how do they relate to each other? Though roughly speaking the answer must rest on various parties’ special interests in the wrongful act, the third lesson the territorial analogy teaches is that these powers are contestable and vague, so the resulting boundary line may be indeterminate and ill defined. Consequently, the connection between different revisionary practices is loose: they may, but need not, be activated in harmony and converge. As in the territorial case, in the temporal case, too, different versions of the boundaries may coexist.14

The fourth feature of the territorial case illuminates the kind of change in the wrongdoer that the revisionary practices involve. Like redrawing a state’s boundary to exclude a chunk of land, excluding certain events from the ambit of its temporal boundary is a change significant enough to require the cessation of negative attitudes toward the offender, though not so extensive as to disrupt the offender’s identity. Finally, lack of contiguity in the territorial case corresponds to lack of continuity in the temporal case. Discontinuous events can be unified just as disconnected territories can. Conversely, just as dislodging a bit of land by a territorial border change might leave a gap, so might dislodging some events by changing the temporal boundary.15

  • [1] In light of the analogy to temporal boundaries that I wish to draw, two clarifications of thisexample are in order. First, the border change does not relieve Arcadia of obligations thataccrued before the change. The point is only that pursuant to the change, no new obligationswill accrue. Second, it is immaterial whether after Arcadia’s border changes, the pollutant isjoined to another state or winds up in some unowned territory. The latter possibility is lesslikely on a globe that is mostly divided among states, but this is a contingent, and indeed arelatively recent, situation.
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