First published Sun Sep 22, 1996; substantive revision Mon Mar 5, 2007 Principles of distributive justice are normative principles designed to guide the allocation of the benefits and burdens of economic activity. After outlining the scope of this entry and the role of distributive principles, the first relatively simple principle of distributive justice examined is strict egalitarianism, which advocates the allocation of equal material goods to all members of society.
John Rawls’ alternative distributive principle, which he calls the Difference Principle, is then examined. The Difference Principle allows allocation that does not conform to strict equality so long as the inequality has the effect that the least advantaged in society are materially better off than they would be under strict equality. However, some have thought that Rawls’ Difference Principle is not sensitive to the responsibility people have for their economic choices.
Resource-based distributive principles, and principles based on what people deserve because of their work, endeavor to incorporate this idea of economic responsibility. Advocates of Welfare-based principles do not believe the primary distributive concern should be material goods and services. They argue that material goods and services have no intrinsic value and are valuable only in so far as they increase welfare. Hence, they argue, the distributive principles should be designed and assessed according to how they affect welfare.
Advocates of Libertarian principles, on the other hand, generally criticize any patterned distributive ideal, whether it is welfare or material goods that are the subjects of the pattern. They generally argue that such distributive principles conflict with more important moral demands such as those of liberty or respecting selfownership. Finally, feminist critiques of existing distributive principles note that they tend to ignore the particular circumstances of women, especially the fact that women often have primary responsibility for child-rearing.
Some feminists therefore are developing and/or modifying distributive principles to make them sensitive to the circumstances of women and to the fact that, on average, women spend less of their lifetimes in the market economy than men. 1. Scope and Role of Distributive Principles 2. Strict Egalitarianism 3. The Difference Principle http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/justice-distributive/ 14/12/2010 Distributive Justice (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Page 2 of 26 4. Resource-Based Principles 5. Welfare-Based Principles 6. Desert-Based Principles 7. Libertarian Principles 8. Feminist Principles 9.
Methodology and Empirical Beliefs about Distributive Justice Bibliography Strict Egalitarianism The Difference Principle Resource-Based Principles Welfare-Based Principles Desert-Based Principles Libertarian Principles Feminist Principles Methodology and Empirical Beliefs about Distributive Justice Further Theories and General Reference Extended Bibliography [Supplementary Document] Other Internet Resources Related Entries 1. Scope and Role of Distributive Principles Distributive principles may vary in numerous dimensions. They can vary in what is subject to distribution (income, wealth, opportunities, jobs, welfare, utility, etc.
); in the nature of the subjects of the distribution (natural persons, groups of persons, reference classes, etc. ); and on what basis distribution should be made (equality, maximization, according to individual characteristics, according to free transactions, etc. ). This entry will focus on principles of distributive justice designed to cover the distribution of the benefits and burdens of economic activity among individuals in a society.
Although principles of this kind have been the dominant source of Anglo-American debate about distributive justice over the last four decades, there are other important distributive justice questions,some of which are covered by other entries in the encyclopedia. These include questions of distributive justice at the global level rather than just at the national level (see justice: international), distributive justice across generations (see justice: intergenerational) and how the topic of distributive justice can be approached, not as a set of principles but as a virtue (see justice: as a virtue). Although the numerous proposed distributive principles vary along different dimensions, for simplicity, they are broadly grouped here.
It is important to keep in mind though that this involves oversimplication, particularly with respect to the criticisms of each of the groups of principles. The criticisms may not apply to every principle in the group. The issue of how we are to understand and respond to criticisms of distributive principles is discussed briefly in the section on methodology at the end (see Methodology). http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/justice-distributive/ 14/12/2010 Distributive Justice (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
There has never been, and never will be, a purely libertarian society or Rawlsian society, or any society whose distribution conforms to one of the proposed principles. Some are misled by this fact to believe that discussions of distributive justice are exercises in ideal theory, which is unfortunate because, in the end, distributive justice theory is a practical enterprise. Throughout most of history, people were born into, and largely stayed in a fairly rigid economic position. The distribution of economic benefits and burdens was seen as fixed, either by nature or by God.
Only when people realized that the distribution of economic benefits and burdens could be affected by government did distributive justice become a live topic. Now the topic is unavoidable. Governments continuously make and change laws affecting the distribution of economic benefits and burdens in their societies. Almost all changes, from the standard tax and industry laws through to divorce laws have some distributive effect, and, as a result, different societies have different distributions.
Every society then is always faced with a choice about whether to stay with the current laws and policies or to modify them. Distributive justice theory contributes practically by providing guidance for these unavoidable and constant choices. For instance, advocates of the difference principle are arguing that we should change our policies and laws to raise the position of the least advantaged in society. Others are arguing for changes to bring economic benefits and burdens more in accordance with what people deserve. Libertarians usually urge a reduction in government intervention in the economy. Sometimes a number of the theories will recommend the same change in policy; other times they will diverge.
Contrary to a popular misconception, economics alone cannot decide what policy changes we should make. Economics, at its best, can tell us the effects of pursuing different policies; it cannot, without the guidance of normative principles, recommend which policy to pursue. The arguments and principles discussed in the present entry aim to supply this kind of guidance. 2. Strict Egalitarianism One of the simplest principles of distributive justice is that of strict or radical equality. The principle says that every person should have the same level of material goods and services.
The principle is most commonly justified on the grounds that people are owed equal respect and that equality in material goods and services is the best way to give effect to this ideal. Even with this ostensibly simple principle some of the difficult specification problems of distributive principles can be seen. The two main problems are the construction of appropriate indices for measurement (the index problem), and the specification of time frames. Because there are numerous proposed solutions to these problems, the ‘principle of strict equality’ is not a single principle but a name for a group of closely related principles.
This range of possible specifications occurs with all the common principles of distributive justice. The index problem arises primarily because the goods to be distributed need to be http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/justice-distributive/ 14/12/2010 Distributive Justice (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Page 4 of 26 measured if they are going to be distributed according to some pattern (such as equality). The strict equality principle stated above says that there should be ‘the same level of material goods and services’. The problem is how to specify and measure levels.
One way of solving the index problem in the strict equality case is to specify that everyone should have the same bundle of material goods and services rather than the same level (so everyone would have 4 oranges, 6 apples, 1 bike, etc. ). The main problem with this solution is that there will be many other allocations of material goods and services which will make some people better off without making anybody else worse off. For instance, a person preferring apples to oranges will be better off if she swaps some of the oranges from her bundle for some of the apples belonging to a person preferring oranges to apples.
Indeed, it is likely that everybody will have something they would wish to trade in order to make themselves better off. As a consequence, requiring identical bundles will make virtually everybody materially worse off than they would be under an alternative allocation. So specifying that everybody must have the same bundle of goods does not seem to be a satisfactory way of solving the index problem. Some index for measuring the value of goods and services is required. Money is an index for the value of material goods and services.
It is an imperfect index and its pitfalls are well-documented in most economics textbooks. Moreover, once the goods to be allocated are extended beyond material ones to include opportunities, etc. it needs to be combined with other indices. (For instance, John Rawls’ index of primary goods — see Rawls 1971. ) Nevertheless, using money as index for the value of material goods and services is the most practical response so far suggested to the index problem and is widely used in the specification and implementation of distributive principles.
The second main specification problem involves time frames. Many distributive principles identify and require that a particular pattern of distribution be achieved. But they also need to specify when the pattern is required. One version of the principle of strict equality requires that all people should have the same wealth at some initial point, after which people are free to use their wealth in whatever way they choose. Principles specifying initial distributions after which the pattern need not be preserved are commonly called ‘starting-gate’ principles.
(See Ackerman 1980, 53-59,168-170,180-186; Alstott and Ackerman 1999) Because ‘starting-gate’ forms of the strict equality principle may lead in time to very inegalitarian wealth distributions they are not common. The most common form of strict equality principle specifies that income (measured in terms of money) should be equal in each time-frame, though even this may lead to significant disparities in wealth if variations in savings are permitted. Hence, strict equality principles are commonly conjoined with some society-wide specification of just saving behavior.
There are a number of direct moral criticisms made of strict equality principles: that they unduly restrict freedom, that they do not give best effect to equal respect http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/justice-distributive/ 14/12/2010 Distributive Justice (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Page 5 of 26 for persons, that they conflict with what people deserve, etc. (see Desert-Based Principles) But the most common criticism is a welfare-based one: that everyone can be materially better off if incomes are not strictly equal. (see Carens) It is this fact which partly inspired the Difference Principle. 3.
The Difference Principle The wealth of an economy is not a fixed amount from one period to the next. More wealth can be produced and indeed this has been the experience of industrialized countries over the last few centuries. The most common way of producing more wealth is to have a system where those who are more productive earn greater incomes. This partly inspired the formulation of the Difference Principle. The most widely discussed theory of distributive justice in the past three decades has been that proposed by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, (Rawls 1971), and Political Liberalism, (Rawls 1993).
Rawls proposes the following two principles of justice: 1. Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value. 2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: (a) They are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and (b), they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.
(Rawls 1993, pp. 5-6. The principles are numbered as they were in Rawls’ original A Theory of Justice. ) Under Rawls’ proposed system Principle (1) has priority over Principle (2). In addition to (2b) it is possible to think of Principles (1) and (2a) as principles of distributive justice: (1) to govern the distribution of liberties, and (2a) the distribution of opportunities. Looking at the principles of justice in this way makes all principles of justice, principles of distributive justice (even principles of retributive justice will be included on the basis that they distribute negative goods).
Keeping in line with the primary focus of this entry though, let us concentrate on (2b), known as the Difference Principle. The main moral motivation for the Difference Principle is similar to that for strict equality: equal respect for persons. Indeed the Difference Principle materially collapses to a form of strict equality under empirical conditions where differences in income have no effect on the work incentive of people. The overwhelming opinion though is that in the foreseeable future the possibility of earning greater income will bring forth greater productive effort.
This will increase the total wealth of the economy and, under the Difference Principle, the wealth of the least http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/justice-distributive/ 14/12/2010 Distributive Justice (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Page 6 of 26 advantaged. Opinion divides on the size of the inequalities which would, as a matter of empirical fact, be allowed by the Difference Principle, and on how much better off the least advantaged would be under the Difference Principle than under a strict equality principle. Rawls’ principle however gives fairly clear guidance on what type of arguments will count as justifications for inequality.
Rawls is not opposed to the principle of strict equality per se, his concern is about the absolute position of the least advantaged group rather than their relative position. If a system of strict equality maximizes the absolute position of the least advantaged in society, then the Difference Principle advocates strict equality. If it is possible to raise the absolute position of the least advantaged further by having some inequalities of income and wealth, then the Difference Principle prescribes inequality up to that point where the absolute position of the least advantaged can no longer be raised.
Because there has been such extensive discussion of the Difference Principle in the last 30 years, there have been numerous criticisms of it from the perspective of all the other theories of distributive justice outlined here. Briefly, the main criticisms are as follows. Advocates of strict equality argue that inequalities permitted by the Difference Principle are unacceptable even if they do benefit the least advantaged.
The problem for these advocates is to explain in a satisfactory way why the relative position of the least advantaged is more important than their absolute position, and hence why society should be prevented from materially benefiting the least advantaged when this is possible. The most common explanation appeals to solidarity (Crocker): that being materially equal is an important expression of the equality of persons. Another common explanation appeals to the power some may have over others, if they are better off materially.
Rawls’ response to this latter criticism appeals to the priority of his first principle: The inequalities consistent with the Difference Principle are only permitted so long as they do not compromise the fair value of the political liberties. So, for instance, very large wealth differentials may make it practically impossible for poor people to be elected to political office or to have their political views represented. These inequalities of wealth, even if they increase the material position of the least advantaged group, may need to be reduced in order for the first principle to be implemented.
The Utilitarian objection to the Difference Principle is that it does not maximize utility. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls uses Utilitarianism as the main theory for comparison with his own, and hence he responds at length to this Utilitarian objection and argues for his own theory in preference to Utilitarianism (some of these arguments are outlined in the section on Welfare-Based Principles). Libertarians object that the Difference Principle involves unacceptable infringements on liberty.
For instance, the Difference Principle may require redistributive taxation to the poor, and Libertarians commonly object that such http://plato. stanford.edu/entries/justice-distributive/ 14/12/2010 Distributive Justice (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Page 7 of 26 taxation involves the immoral taking of just holdings. (see Libertarian Principles) The Difference Principle is also criticized as a primary distributive principle on the grounds that it mostly ignores claims that people deserve certain economic benefits in light of their actions. Advocates of Desert-Based Principles argue that some may deserve a higher level of material goods because of their hard work or contributions even if their unequal rewards do not also function to improve the position of the least advantaged.
They also argue that the explanations of how people come to be in more or less advantaged positions is relevant to their fairness, yet the Difference Principle wrongly ignores these explanations. Like desert theorists, advocates of Resource-based principles criticize the Difference Principle on the grounds that it is not ‘ambition-sensitive’ enough, i. e. it is not sensitive to the consequences of people’s choices. They also argue that it is not adequately ‘endowment-sensitive’: it does not compensate people for natural inequalities (like handicaps or ill-health) over which people have no control.
4. Resource-Based Principles Resource-based principles (also called Resource Egalitarianism) prescribe equality of resources. Interestingly, resource-based principles do not normally prescribe a patterned outcome — the idea being that the outcomes are determined by people’s free use of their resources. Resource-theorists claim that the Difference Principle is insufficiently ‘ambition-sensitive’ and that provided people have equal resources they should live with the consequences of their choices.
They argue, for instance, that people who choose to work hard to earn more income should not be required to subsidize those choosing more leisure and hence less income. Resource-theorists also make a related complaint that the Difference Principle is not sufficiently ‘endowment-sensitive. ’ While part of Rawls’ motivation for the Difference principle is that people have unequal endowments, resource-theorists explicitly emphasize this feature of their theory though they differ on which endowments are relevant to questions of distributive justice.
They agree that, ideally, social circumstances over which people have no control should not adversely affect life prospects or earning capacities. Some resource-theorists further argue that, for the same sorts of reasons, unequal natural endowments should attract compensation. For instance, people born with handicaps, ill-health, or low levels of natural talents have not brought these circumstances upon themselves and hence, should not be disadvantaged in their life prospects.
The most prominent Resource-based theory, developed by Ronald Dworkin, (Dworkin 1981a, 1981b), proposes that people begin with equal resources but end up with unequal economic benefits as a result of their own choices. What constitutes a just material distribution is to be determined by the result of a thought experiment designed to model fair distribution. Suppose that everyone is http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/justice-distributive/ 14/12/2010 Distributive Justice (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Page 8 of 26 given the same purchasing power and each use that purchasing power to bid, in a fair auction, for resources best suited to their life plans. They are then permitted to use those resources as they see fit. Although people may end up with different economic benefits, none of them is given less consideration than another in the sense that if they wanted somebody else’s resource bundle they could have bid for it instead. As mentioned above, many resource-theorists, including Dworkin, add to this system of equal resources and ambition-sensitivity, a sensitivity to inequalities in natural endowments.
They note that natural inequalities are not distributed according to people’s choices, nor are they justified by reference to some other morally relevant fact about people. Dworkin proposes a hypothetical compensation scheme in which he supposes that, before the hypothetical auction described above, people do not know their own natural endowments. However, they are able to buy insurance against being disadvantaged in the natural distribution of talents and they know that their payments will provide an insurance pool to compensate those people who are unlucky in the ‘natural lottery’.
Because the Resource-based theory has a similar motivation to the Difference Principle the moral criticisms of it tend to be variations on those leveled against the Difference Principle. However, unlike the Difference Principle, it is not at all clear what would constitute an implementation of Resource-based theories and their variants in a real economy. It seems impossible to measure differences in people’s natural talents — unfortunately, people’s talents do not neatly divide into the natural and developed categories.
A system of special assistance to the physically and mentally handicapped and to the ill would be a partial implementation of the compensation system, but most natural inequalities would be left untouched by such assistance while the theory requires that such inequalities be compensated for. It is simply not clear how to implement equality of resources in a complex economy and hence despite its theoretical advantages, it is difficult to see it as a practical improvement on the Difference Principle. 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. Advocates of Welfare-based principles view the concerns of other theories – equality, the least advantaged, resources, desert-claims, or liberty as derivative concerns. Resources, equality, desert-claims, or liberty are only valuable in so far as they increase welfare, so that all distributive questions should be settled according to which distribution maximizes welfare. However, ‘maximizes welfare’ is imprecise, so welfare theorists propose particular welfare functions to maximize.
The welfare functions proposed vary enormously both on what will count as welfare and the weighting system for that welfare. For almost any distribution of material benefits there is a welfare function whose maximization will yield that distribution (at least in a one http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/justice-distributive/ 14/12/2010 Distributive Justice (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Page 9 of 26 sector period). Distribution according to some welfare function is most commonly advocated by economists, who normally state the explicit functional form.
Philosophers tend to avoid this. Philosophers also tend to restrict themselves to a small subset of the available welfare functions. Although there are a number of advocates of alternative welfare functions (like ‘equality of well-being’), most philosophical activity has concentrated on a variant known as Utilitarianism. This theory can be used to illustrate most of the main characteristics of Welfare-based principles. Historically, Utilitarians have used the term ‘utility’ rather than ‘welfare’ and utility has been defined variously as pleasure, happiness, or preferencesatisfaction.
So, for instance, the principle for distributing economic benefits for Preference Utilitarians is to distribute them so as to maximize preferencesatisfaction. The welfare function for such a principle has a simple theoretical form: it involves choosing that distribution maximizing the arithmetic sum of all satisfied preferences (unsatisfied preferences being negative), weighted for the intensity of those preferences. The basic theory of Utilitarianism is one of the simplest to state and understand. Much of the work on the theory therefore has been directed towards defending it against moral criticisms, particularly from the point of view of ‘commonsense’ morality.
The criticisms and responses have been widely discussed in the literature on Utilitarianism as a general moral theory. Only two of the criticisms will be mentioned here. The first is that Utilitarianism fails to take the distinctness of persons seriously. Maximization of preference-satisfaction is often taken as prudent in the case of individuals — people may take on greater burdens, suffering or sacrifice at certain periods of their lives so that their lives are overall better.
The complaint against Utilitarianism is that it takes this principle, commonly described as prudent for individuals, and uses it on an entity, society, unlike individuals in important ways. While it may be acceptable for a person to choose to suffer at some period in her life (be it a day, or a number of years) so that her overall life is better, it is often argued against Utilitarianism that it is immoral to make some people suffer so that there is a net gain for other people.
In the individual case, there is a single entity experiencing both the sacrifice and the gain. Also, the individuals, who suffer or make the sacrifices, choose to do so in order to gain some benefit they deem worth their sacrifice. In the case of society as a whole, there is no single experiential entity — some people suffer or are sacrificed so that others may gain. Furthermore, under Utilitarianism, there is no requirement for people to consent to the suffering or sacrifice.
A related criticism of Utilitarianism involves the way it treats individual preferences or interests referring to the holdings of others. For instance, some people may have a preference that some minority racial group should have less material benefits. Under Utilitarian theories, in their classical form, this http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/justice-distributive/ 14/12/2010 Distributive Justice (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Page 10 of 26 preference or interest counts like any other in determining the best distribution.
Hence, if racial preferences are widespread and are not outweighed by the minorities’ contrary preferences, Utilitarianism will recommend an inegalitarian distribution based on race. Utilitarians have responded to these criticisms in a number of ways. Utilitarians may apply their theory to the preferences themselves, arguing that utility is best promoted in the long run when people’s preferences are shaped (if this is possible) in ways that are harmonious with one another, suggesting racist preferences should be discouraged.
However, the utilitarian then must supply an account of why racist or sexist preferences should be discouraged when the same level of total long term utility could be achieved by encouraging the less powerful to be contented with a lower position. It is difficult for utilitarians to explain why the position of the oppressed is aptly described as one of oppression. Utilitarians have also argued that the empirical conditions are such that utility maximizing will rarely require women or racial minorities to sacrifice or suffer for the benefit of others, or to satisfy the prejudices of others.
But if their theory on rare occasions does require people sacrifice or suffer in these ways, Utilitarians have defended this unintuitive consequence on the grounds that our judgments about what is wrong provide us with ‘rules of thumb’ which are useful at the level of commonsense morality but ultimately mistaken at the level of ‘critical theory’. Utilitarian distribution principles, like the other principles described here, have problems with specification and implementation.
Most formulations of Utilitarianism require interpersonal comparisons of utility. This means, for instance, that we must be able to compare the utility one person gains from eating an apple with that another gains from eating an apple. Furthermore, Utilitarianism requires that differences in utility be measured and summed for widely disparate goods (so, for instance, the amount of utility a particular person gains from playing football is measured and compared with the amount of utility another gains from eating a gourmet meal).
Critics have argued that such interpersonal utility comparisons are impossible, even in theory, due to one or both of the following: (1) It is not possible to combine all the diverse goods into a single index of ‘utility’ which can measured for an individual; (2) Even if you could do the necessary weighing and combining of the goods to construct such an index for an individual, there is no conceptually adequate way of calibrating such a measure between individuals.
(see Elster 1991) Utilitarians face a greater problem than this theoretical one in determining what material distribution is prescribed by their theory. Those who share similar Utilitarian theoretical principles frequently recommend very different material distributions to implement the principle. This problem