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Tom Flanagan, professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former federal Conservative campaign manager

"The son she never knew …

She never even got to hold him."

Michelle Wright, He Would Be Sixteen

Only a psychopath would be unmoved by Michelle Wright's song about adoption. It touches me deeply, because I've been on both sides of the equation. And yet I try to reason about it, even as I remember the joy and the sorrow.

Women who gave up babies for adoption between the 1940s and the 1980s are now lining up to sue somebody. They may be accompanied by the fathers who weren't consulted, as well as by the babies who grew to adulthood not knowing their natural parents.

They'll be joining a lot of others who have sought justice for old wrongs – Japanese who were relocated during the Second World War and Ukrainians who were sent to camps in the First World War, Sikhs and Chinese who were not mistreated in Canada but were wronged by being kept out, sexually abused boys of the Mount Cashel Orphanage, handicapped girls who were sterilized under Alberta's eugenics law, Indian children who attended residential schools, addicted smokers suing the tobacco companies who sold them the product they craved.

The list is long and may get longer as descendants of other groups ponder their ancient wrongs – African slaves brought to Canada against their will, Acadians deported from Nova Scotia, potato-famine Irish who died in the fever sheds of Quebec City … Canada must be a cruel country to have committed so many crimes. I would regret immigrating here, if I could think of a better place to live.

Those seeking redress of historical grievances typically want some combination of three things: an apology for past wrongs, public recognition of their suffering and (often but not always) financial compensation. How to react to such claims? Those seeking elected office will inevitably treat them as political issues, ideal for mobilizing new support groups, but is there a more philosophical approach?

Illumination comes from the writings of American economist Thomas Sowell, himself a descendant of slaves. Mr. Sowell argues forcefully that there is no Archimedean standpoint of "cosmic justice"; or if there is, it is known only to God and not to men. As human beings, we live inside societies that exist at a certain time and place, with their own conceptions of justice that will often seem absurd to future generations. When we try to judge the past by a presumed standard of cosmic justice, we fall prey to what historians call "presentism," mistaking our own contemporary views for universal standards.

Three practical conclusions follow from Mr. Sowell's insights.

First, financial compensation should only be offered when the laws of the past as they then existed were broken. Sexual abuse is and always was a crime, but persuading unwed mothers to surrender their babies for adoption was a widely accepted social policy.

Second, financial compensation may be owed to victims of personal injury, but not to their heirs. Pain and suffering are terrible things, but they end with the victims' death. Paying money to ethnic kinfolk does nothing for the victims' suffering. It is part of the tragic legacy of history from which we can learn but which we cannot erase.

Third, recognition of what we now see as past wrongs can be in order, but apologies ring false unless they are made by those who actually committed the injustice. You apologize to people when you've been mean or thoughtless, but what good does it do for those who run contemporary governments to apologize for the actions of people in past centuries who acted in good faith under the law as it then was?

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a campaign manager for conservative parties.