Distributive Justice

Michelle Maiese

Originally published in June 2003; updated in June 2013 by Heidi Burgess, Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in July 2020

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

Calls for "racial justice" are being voiced frequently and loudly around the U.S., and indeed, the whole world, in the summer of 2020, following the death of George Floyd in late May.  While much of the attention is being paid to ending racially-motivated police brutality, people are also taking a broader look at racially-motivated distributional injustice. Despite efforts made in the 1960's "Great Society programs," as well as with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Black income, wealth, and education still trail Whites' by a lot.  More...

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The Notion of Fair Distribution

Distributive justice is concerned with the fair allocation of resources among diverse members of a community. Fair allocation typically takes into account the total amount of goods to be distributed, the distributing procedure, and the pattern of distribution that results.

In Global Distributive Justice, Armstrong distinguishes between distributive justice generally and principles of distributive justice.[1]. Armstrong defines distributive justice as the ways that the benefits and burdens of our lives are shared between members of a society or community. Principles of distributive justice tell us how these benefits and burdens ought to be shared or distributed.[2].

Because societies have a limited amount of wealth and resources, the question of how those benefits ought to be distributed frequently arises. The common answer is that public assets should be distributed in a reasonable manner so that each individual receives a "fair share." But this leaves open the question of what constitutes a "fair share."

Various principles might determine of how goods are distributed. Equality, equity, and need are among the most common criteria.[3] If equality is regarded as the ultimate criterion determining who gets what, goods will be distributed equally among all persons. (In other words each person will get the same amount.) However, due to differences in levels of need, this will not result in an equal outcome. (For example, every incoming freshman to a local college with a grade point above 3.0 might be offered a $500 scholarship. This is a nice reward for students and parents who can afford the remaining tuition, but is of no help to families that cannot afford the additional $6000/year fee to attend the school.)

Another possibility is to proceed according to a principle of equity, and distribute benefits in proportion to the individuals' contribution. Thus, those who make a greater productive contribution to their group deserve to receive more benefits. (Thus, in theory, people who work harder in more valuable jobs should earn more money.) This sort of distribution is typically associated with an economic system where there is equal opportunity to compete. In competitive systems, wealth or goods might also be distributed according to effort or ability.

Or, we might distribute goods according to need, so that an equal outcome results. Those who need more of a benefit or resource will receive more, as occurs when colleges offer needs-based scholarships, or states provide welfare payments to the poor.

Some suggest a system of competition that includes safety nets for those who cannot compete. This sort of system combines the principle of equity with that of need. It attempts to reward people for their productivity at the same time that it ensures their basic needs are met.

Finally, we might distribute resources according to social utility, or what is in the best interests of society as a whole.  This is the argument that is frequently made by high-paid executives, who not only argue that they deserve their high salaries because of their contributions to their businesses, but they also argue that they are the "job creators," thus paying them highly benefits society as a whole. Others, however, think taxing them highly and using the income to provide services to the less fortunate would be of greater overall benefit to the society.

The Significance of Distribution Procedures and Outcomes

Deborah Kolb talks about the impact of gender bias on a company's compensation scheme.

Different sorts of distributions advance different social goals. For a society to function effectively, it must keep its membership, engage in efficient and effective production, and sustain the well-being of its members.[4] The principles of distributive justice arise out of these concerns. Equal distribution is thought to give people a sense of full-fledged membership. Equity fosters the motivation to produce, to be rewarded for one's productivity. Lastly, distribution according to need ensures that everyone's basic and essential needs are met, which is not only good for the individual, but makes criminal and political violence less likely as well. 

Because these principles are often in tension with one another, one of them is typically regarded as the central criterion of distribution. Depending on which principle is adopted, an economic system characterized by equality, competition, or social welfare safety nets will arise.

Some believe that what makes a distribution just is the final outcome, while others believe that what matters are the rules followed in determining that distribution. Even in those cases where the outcome is a fair distribution of resources, the procedures used to arrive at that distribution might be unjust. Conversely, a fair procedure might result in an unfair distribution.

In his Theory of Justice, John Rawls claims that one's place of birth, social status, and family influences are matters of luck that should not unduly influence the amount of benefits we receive in life. He maintains that the job of distributive justice is to limit the influence of luck so that goods might be distributed more fairly and to everyone's advantage.

Robert Nozick, on the other hand, believes that distributive justice is a matter of setting down rules that individuals should follow in acquiring and transferring resources and benefits. The aim of distributive justice is not to achieve any particular outcome of distribution, but rather to ensure a fair process of exchange.

Others think that distributive justice must be a matter of both process and outcome.

They believe that the processes of distribution must be fair in order for people to feel that they have received a fair outcome. Insofar as it is linked to the notion of fair processes, distributive justice has ties to concerns about procedural justice.

In some cases, the thing to be distributed is not a benefit, but a burden. For example, one might be concerned with the fairness of allocation of punishments, which is connected to retributive justice.  Or one might be concerned about the fairness of distribution of burdens--such as who should pay for medical care for the uninsured, or who should have to live next to a dump or a jail.

Why Distributive Justice Matters

According to the theory of relative deprivation, a sense of injustice is aroused when individuals come to believe that their outcome is not in balance with the outcomes received by people like them in similar situations.[5] When people have a sense that they are at an unfair disadvantage relative to others, or that they have not received their "fair share,"  they may wish to challenge the system that has given rise to this state of affairs. This is especially likely to happen if a person or groups' fundamental needs are not being met, or if there are large discrepancies between the "haves" and the "have-nots." This is particularly apparent in both Europe and the Middle East in 2013, but is also going on, to a lesser extent (and much less violently) in the U.S. where the distribution of wealth is getting more and more unequal. (See Rich/Poor Conflicts)

While it is clear to most people (at least in the US) that skin color or religion should not be valid criteria of distribution, real-life experience suggests that such factors often turn out to be quite significant. In the United States, as elsewhere, issues of distributive justice are connected to concerns about systemic poverty and racism, and questions about the fairness of affirmative action -- policies that grant preferential treatment to particular racial or gender groups.

Societies in which resources are distributed unfairly can become quite prone to social unrest. For example, "since the colonial period, unfair land distribution and the prevailing agricultural economic system have been the prime causes of armed and civil resistance in Guatemala ."[6] While national and international elites enjoy largely unrestricted access to communal lands expropriated from the Maya, the majority of Guatemalans live in poverty, on farms smaller than those required to feed the average family. This sort of land distribution violates principles of equality, equity, and need, and therefore generates conflict.  

Redistribution of benefits can sometimes help to relieve tensions and allow for a more stable society. However, redistribution always has losers, and they often initiate a conflict of their own. This is apparent in the US, where opposition to affirmative action has always been strong.  Similar policies preferentially treating Maylays and indigenous people in Malaysia is currently (2013) leading to tension and conflict--though not violence, at least as of yet.  Although always challenging, to the extent that re-distribution can be enacted by the government through what is widely perceived to be a legitimate decision making process, success is more likely to be achieved.  If the redistribution process is seen as illegitimate, renewed conflict is a more likely outcome.  

Balancing out gross inequalities of wealth might also be part of compensatory justice after periods of war. During periods of postwar adjustment and peacebuilding efforts, long-term economic policy must aim to achieve equity, or balance in the distribution of income and wealth. Issues of distributive justice are in this way central to any peacebuilding or reconstruction program. Such efforts to ensure a just distribution of benefits following conflict are typically accompanied by democratization efforts to ensure a more balanced distribution of power as well.

Current Implications

Calls for "racial justice" are being voiced frequently and loudly around the U.S., and indeed, the whole world, in the summer of 2020, following the death of George Floyd in late May.  While much of the attention is being paid to ending racially-motivated police brutality, people are also taking a broader look at racially-motivated distributional injustice. Despite efforts made in the 1960's "Great Society programs," as well as with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Black income, wealth, and education still trail Whites' by a lot. 

At the same time, Blacks suffer a disproportiate number of "bads" (as opposed to goods).  Of particular concern in the summer of 2020, they are being much harder hit by the novel Coronavirus than are Whites.  They are incarcerated more than whites (see procedural justice), they are victims of crime more than Whites, they live in neighborhoods stricken with environmental hazards more than whites. 

So in addition to calls for retributive justice (to punish the officers who killed George Floyd) and procedural justice (to improve the way policing is done in the future), "racial justice" must include fundamental changes in the way goods and "bads" are distributed in our societies so that Blacks, other minority groups, and "left-behind" Whites are treated more fairly. 

A first step would be to decide what we mean by "more fairly."  Is it, as this article discusses, "equity, equality, or need?"  Likely, I would argue, it is a combination of all three.  It is high time that we start looking at the issue of distributive justice: deciding what it means and how it should be pursued for Blacks, for other minority groups, and for whites who shouldn't be treated unjustly either, lest their anger fuel a continuing (potentially even violent) conflict.

-- Heidi Burgess. July, 2020.

[1] Chris Armstrong, Global Distributive Justice: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2012). <http://books.google.com/books?id=LJU0djAZ1osC>.

[2]. See also: Nicolas Rescher, Fairness: Theory & Practice of Distributive Justice (Transaction Publishers, 2002). <http://www.amazon.com/Fairness-Theory-Practice-Distributive-Justice/dp/0765801108>.

[3] Robert T. Buttram, Robert Folger, and B.H. Sheppard, "Equity, Equality and Need: Three Faces of Social Justice," In Conflict, Cooperation, and Justice: Essays Inspired by the Work of Morton Deutsch, eds. B.B. Bunker and Morton Deutsch (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers, 1995), 261. <http://www.amazon.com/Conflict-Cooperation-Justice-Inspired-Deutsch/dp/0787900699>.

[4] Buttram, Robert T., Robert Folger, and B.H. Sheppard, 263.

[5] Morton Deutsch, "Justice and Conflict." In The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, ed. M. Deutsch and P.T. Coleman (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers, 2000), 43. More recent edition (2011) available here.

[6] Murga, Gustavo Palma. "Promised the Earth: Agrarian Reform in the Guatemalan Socio-Economic Agreement" (1997).<http://www.beyondintractability.org/library/external-resource?biblio=17526>.

Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Distributive Justice." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/distributive-justice>.