Distributive Justice

Distributive Justice

Dennis Bradford

388 Posts



What principle of distributive justice should we use?

Not to be confused with the question of retributive justice [punishment], the question of distributive or economic justice is simple: Who should get what?

This is the question that is behind concern about the growing economic gap in countries like the U.S. between Haves and Have-Nots, in other words, the issue about the fairness of fewer and fewer people having more and more wealth.

It’s also a question very much on the minds of those concerned with nation building in countries such as Iraq and Libya.

What do you think?  How do you justify your position?  What’s the way forward? 

Philosophers have disagreed about which principle ought to be used. Here’s a half dozen alternatives [adapted from Social Ethics edited by Mappes & Sembaty]:

Distributive justice principle 1: Award each individual an equal share.

Distributive justice principle 2: Award each individual on the basis of what that individual needs.

Distributive justice principle 3: Award each individual on the basis of that individual’s talent.

Distributive justice principle 4: Award each individual on the basis of that individual’s effort.

Distributive justice principle 5: Award each individual on the basis of that individual’s actual productive contribution.

Distributive justice principle 6: Award each individual on the basis of that individual’s actual productive contribution to everyone’s good.

Are you able to detect problems with each of these? If you particularly like one of them, how would you respond to objections against it?

What is in question here are only those goods that are in limited supply such as food. There’s no need to ration goods that are unlimited such as friendship.

If we use food as an example, using the first principle would result in some people having too much food and others having too little. What’s fair about that?

If we were to use the second principle, who determines what the needs of an individual actually are? What you think a human being needs depends upon your more fundamental conception of what a human being is, and there are competing conceptions.

If we were to use the third principle, why should potential (talent, ability) be rewarded at all? Shouldn’t there at least be a requirement that potential be used? If not, how could potential even be recognized?

If we were to use the fourth principle, why should effort rather than output count? After all, merely trying hard doesn’t necessarily involve any actual production.

If we were to use the fifth principle, what do we do with individuals who are unable, through no fault of their own, to make an actual productive contribution? For example, are the mentally retarded or physically disabled less worthy as human beings than everyone else?

If we were to use the sixth principle, in addition to the problems with the fifth principle, there is the additional problem of determining whether or not something actually contributes to everyone’s good.

It is not difficult to understand why there is a lot of disagreement about which principle of distributive justice to use.

Are you able to think of how to solve this problem? The purpose of this post is to encourage you to think about it.

In particular, I encourage you to think harder about your own unexamined assumptions. We all have them.  While they are not easy to examine, they are worth examining.

For example, do you understand what an individual is? Notice that each of the six principles listed depends upon the individual / other distinction. What is the nature of an individual human being? What are the boundaries of an individual?

In particular what are you? What is your nature? Where, exactly, do you end and others begin?

My not-so-hidden agenda is to wean you off attachment to your own view. Simply by loosening your attachment to views at least enough to examine them, you are beginning to detach from them.

Excellent! Why?

The best and only way to begin to decide how to distribute scarce goods starts with all of us detaching from our own views. No nonattachment, no progress.

The bad news?  As long as we stay fanatically attached to our own views, we just perpetuate conflicts.

The good news?  If we were to lead more examined lives, conflicts might not even be necessary.  Furthermore, even if they were, they would be much less serious (in the way that conflicts between friends are far less serious than conflicts between enemies).

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