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Distributive Justice

Original text: Distributive Justice

Summarized: 7 minute read

1. Scope and Role of Distributive Principles

Distributive principles vary in numerous dimensions, including what is considered relevant to distributive justice, who should receive the benefits of distributive justice, and how the benefits and burdens of economic activity should be distributed.

The distribution of economic benefits and burdens in a society was traditionally seen as fixed, either by nature or by a deity. As governments made and changed laws and policies affecting the distribution of economic benefits and burdens in their societies, distributive justice became a live topic.

Many writers on distributive justice have tended to advocate and defend their particular principles by describing or considering ideal societies operating under them. This has led to a misunderstanding that distributive justice theory is only relevant to ideal societies. Philosophical principles are most usefully thought of as providing moral guidance for the choices that each society faces right now. The different theories may recommend different changes to our current practices, but they are all speaking to what should be done in our society.

Theorists of distributive justice tend to emphasize the differences between their theories, but it is impossible to ignore distributive justice at every moment of a society’s existence. Often governments try to justify inaction in the face of calls to change some government policy in light of some distributive justice concern by claiming that there are “disagreements/lack of consensus” about the issue. This is a confusion about the nature of the choices always facing each society.

When economists recommend a policy change, they are often employing a moral principle along with their positive economic theory. This has the effect of creating misconceptions about the roles of positive economics and distributive justice in government decision-making.

The raising of interest rates is thought by economists to have the dual effects of suppressing inflation and employment. Distributive justice theories aim to supply normative guidance on economic policies, structures, or institutions.

2. Strict Egalitarianism

The principle of strict equality says that every person should have the same level of material goods and services. However, there are several problems with this principle, including the construction of appropriate indices for measurement and the specification of time frames.

The index problem arises because the strict equality principle states that everyone should have the same level of material goods and services. However, requiring the same bundle of goods will make virtually everyone worse off than they would be under an alternative allocation.

Money is an imperfect index for the value of material goods and services. The Human Development Index and Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index are more accurate indices for measuring the effect of governments’ policies on the population’s well-being.

Many distributive principles specify a pattern of distribution that must be achieved, but they also need to specify when the pattern must be achieved.

Due to the structure of the family, strict equality principles may require more similar distributions than they first appear, because the requirement to give people equal starts may necessitate redistribution to parents who due to bad luck, bad management, or simply their own choices, have been unsuccessful.

3. The Difference Principle

The wealth of an economy can be influenced by many factors, including technological advancement and changes in policy. The dominant economic view is that wealth is most readily increased in systems where those who are more productive earn greater incomes.

Rawls’ principles do not permit sacrifices to basic liberties in order to generate greater equality of opportunity or a higher level of material goods, even for the worst off.

The Difference Principle is a moral principle that advocates equal respect for persons. It materially collapses to a form of strict equality under empirical conditions where differences in income have no effect on the work incentive of people.

There have been numerous criticisms of Rawls’ proposed Difference Principle from the perspectives of all the other theories of distributive justice outlined here. The main criticism is that the Difference Principle permits inequalities that do not benefit the least advantaged.

Cohen (1992) argues that the Difference Principle should not be interpreted as sanctioning greater incomes for the talented, if the talent is already more fulfilling than other employment options.

Rawls’ response to the criticism that the Difference Principle is too narrow emphasizes the importance of relative position not as a value in itself but because of its effect on other relations. However, this response does not recognize that significant differences in economic position can also result in economic power.

The utilitarian objection to the Difference Principle is that it does not maximize utility. Libertarians object that the Difference Principle involves unacceptable infringements on liberty, property rights, or self-ownership, and the Difference Principle mostly ignores claims that people deserve certain economic benefits in light of their actions.

4. Equality of Opportunity and Luck Egalitarianism

Equality of opportunity is a principle that is often combined with other principles to ensure that people have equal opportunity to achieve greater or lesser amounts of goods. The best interpretation of this principle has been a significant focus of research.

Brian Barry gave an interesting reconstruction of the reasoning which led John Rawls to his Equal Opportunity and Difference Principles. Rawls claimed that a society lacking formal equality of opportunity treats people unfairly.

Rawls and Barry argued that formal equality of opportunity does not guarantee equal opportunity for all, because many factors beyond a person’s control affect their lifetime economic prospects.

Following Rawls’ line of reasoning, a society with a more substantial equality of opportunity principle will still not be providing equality of opportunity for all, because people are born into more or less nurturing families and social circumstances, and because they are more or less fortunate in the distribution of natural talents.

Barry explores a number of avenues in response to Rawls’ challenge, including questioning whether economic distribution is really analogous to a race.

Ronald Dworkin argued that the Difference Principle fails to take into account the needs of the severely ill and disabled, and that just economic distributions should be more responsive to the consequences of people’s choices.

Dworkin proposed a thought experiment to model fair distribution of resources, where people are given the same purchasing power and are allowed to use their resources as they see fit.

In Dworkin’s proposal we see his attitudes to ‘ambitions’ and ‘endowments’ which have become a central feature of luck egalitarianism. Dworkin proposes a hypothetical compensation scheme in which people can buy insurance against being disadvantaged in the natural distribution of talents.

Dworkin’s early proposals were very hypothetical and it was difficult to see what they meant in practice. Later luck egalitarians have tried to tease out the practical implications of their theories in more detail, though much of the debate still remains at the theoretical level.

Theorists believe egalitarian justice is not just about compensating for bad brute luck, but also about equal respect for people and the conditions which will allow for equal social standing or equal political participation.

5. Welfare-Based Principles

Welfare-based principles are motivated by the idea that what is of primary moral importance is the level of welfare of people. Philosophers focus on a small subset of the available welfare functions, and utilitarianism is used to illustrate most of the main characteristics of welfare-based principles.

Jeremy Bentham argued that the experience of pleasure was the only thing with intrinsic value, and that all other things had instrumental value insofar as they contributed to the experience of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Modern philosophers argue that intrinsic value consists in preference-satisfaction.

The first complaint against utilitarianism is that it fails to take seriously the distinctness of persons. Utilitarianism takes the principle of maximization of preference-satisfaction, which is commonly taken as prudent for individuals, and applies it to an entity, society, unlike individuals.

Utilitarians have responded to criticism that their theory recommends inegalitarian distributions based on race by denying the empirical claim that such a distribution would be necessary, or by focusing on the long run and re-educating the majority to reduce racist preferences.

Critics of utilitarianism have responded that this reliance on empirical conditions turning out a particular way undermines the plausibility of utilitarianism as a moral theory. Utilitarians respond that commonsense moral judgments are best understood as providing us with ‘rules of thumb’.

Some utilitarians have drawn on institutional theory or game theory in defence, or in modification, of utilitarianism. They argue that morally intuitive institutions such as constitutional rights, human rights and various property rights would be endorsed by this modified utilitarianism.

Utilitarians face a greater problem than this theoretical one in determining what material distribution, or institutional structure, is prescribed by their theory. Advocates for similar utilitarian theoretical principles frequently recommend very different distributions or structures to implement the principles.

There is an explanation for why utilitarianism seems less determinate in its policy (including structural) recommendations. Utilitarians must examine in great detail all the policies on offer, and each different set of assumptions will yield a different answer, and there is no obvious way to arbitrate between the different sets of assumptions.

6. Desert-Based Principles

Another complaint against welfarism is that it ignores and cannot make sense of claims that people deserve certain economic benefits in light of their actions. Contemporary desert theorists propose different desert-bases for economic distribution, which differ primarily according to what they identify as the basis for deserving.

According to the contemporary desert theorist, people earn income by providing goods and services desired by others. Desert-based principles tie income to socially productive activity, and specify which activities will or will not count as socially productive and hence as deserving of remuneration.

For desert theorists, a well-designed institutional structure will make it so that many of the entitlements people have are deserved. However, entitlements and just deserts are not conceptually the same and regularly come apart.

Payments designed to give people incentives are a form of entitlement that should not be confused with desert-payments. While it is possible for the same payment to be both deserved and an incentive, desert-payments provide distinct rationales for income and should not be conflated.

Under most welfare-based principles, people’s level of economic benefits depends on factors beyond their control. However, desert theorists emphasize the responsibility of people in choosing to engage in more or less productive activities.

7. Libertarian Principles

Most contemporary versions of the principles discussed so far allow some role for the market as a means of achieving the desired distributive pattern. Libertarians, however, see the market as just insofar as the exchanges permitted in the market satisfy the conditions of just acquisition and exchange.

Nozick’s Entitlement Theory includes reference to the principles of justice in acquisition and transfer. The principle of justice in acquisition is more complicated and more controversial than the principle of justice in transfer, and is meant to govern the gaining of exclusive property rights over the material world.

Nozick’s weaker version of Locke’s Proviso states that an exclusive acquisition of the external world is just if there is ‘enough and as good left in common for others’. However, this proviso fails to consider the position others may have achieved under alternative distributions.

Egalitarian leaning theorists have opposed Nozick’s form of libertarianism, but some have nevertheless been attracted to the normative strength and implications of self-ownership.

A strong commitment to self-ownership would seem to protect against a scenario where people are forced to give their efforts or labor to others. However, Nozick’s libertarianism permits and protects particularly strong ownership rights over unequal amounts of the external world. Contemporary left libertarians believe that self-ownership and equality can be rendered compatible, so long as the Lockean Proviso is given a proper and sufficient egalitarian reading. They therefore accept some form of egalitarian ownership over natural resources, but differ on the form this takes.

Libertarians must have a strategy for dealing with unjust holdings, and this strategy must be based on historical principles.

Nozick does not attempt to provide a principle of rectification for past injustices, and thus his historical theory cannot be used to evaluate the justice of actual societies.

Unfortunately, Nozick’s entitlement theory cannot be used to evaluate the justice of current economic distributions, because the details of many injustices are unavailable, and even if they were available, the counterfactual causal chains could not be reliably determined.

Classical libertarians advocate a system of exclusive property rights, with the role of the government restricted to the protection of these property rights. The strongest critique of this system comes from Nozick’s theory itself.

Nozick argues that people have the right to own whatever they make because they own themselves and their talents. He argues that taxation of the income from selling these talents violates these rights and violates Immanuel Kant’s maxim to treat people as ends in themselves.

Libertarians argue that exclusive property rights are required to maximize freedom and liberty, but this claim is false because countries with less exclusionary property rights do not seem to enjoy more freedoms or liberties than countries with more exclusionary property rights.

8. Feminist Principles

There is no one feminist conception of distributive justice, as feminists defend positions across the political spectrum. They are often described as falling under the broad classification of liberalism, which is the product of the liberal democracies that have emerged over the last two centuries.

John Stuart Mill argued that the principles associated with the developing liberalism of his time required equal political status for women. He believed that government regulation should not prevent women from competing on equal terms with men in educational, professional, marketplace and political institutions.

The liberal feminist position is a conservative one, in that it requires the proper inclusion for women of the rights, protections, and opportunities previously secured for men, rather than a fundamental change from the traditional liberal position.

The feminist critics of liberalism recognize that liberal theories of distributive justice correctly identify the government as one potential source of oppression against individuals, but argue that liberal theories are unable to address the oppression which surfaces in the so-called private sphere of government non-interference.

While the political effects of personal freedom pose a serious challenge to contemporary liberal theories of distributive justice, the feminist critiques of liberalism are somewhat puzzling because they leave intact the various ideals of liberty and equality which inspire liberal theories of justice.

9. Methodology and Empirical Beliefs about Distributive Justice

The method of reflective equilibrium is a way to evaluate, revise and choose between normative principles. It is also a way to address the necessary intersection between philosophical and political processes.

A final methodological issue is the role counterexamples play in debates about distributive justice. Given that distributive justice is about what to do now, rather than what to think, alternate distributive theories must compete as comprehensive systems which take into account the practical constraints we face.

Distributive justice requires that we consider how a distributive principle might be applied in practice. If a distributive principle is uncertain or indeterminate, it is not a serious candidate for consideration.

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