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Principles of Distributive Justice

As part of one of my current projects, I am trying to get an overview of all the different principles of distributive
justice. This post is simply an addition to my own personal notes on the topic. However, I share it here since it may
be of interest to some readers. I am working off this article.
The Distributive Problem
Before looking at the different principles of distributive justice, it is necessary to understand why we need these
principles in the first place. As I understand it, the need stems from the basic cooperative bargains at the heart of
social intercourse. A cooperative bargain arises whenever there is some set of resources, services, opportunities
(etc.) that is only obtainable when people work together.
Take a simple example. Suppose you and I really like chocolate cake. It would be great if we could each make our
own chocolate cakes for our personal consumption. However, this is not possible since we do not independently
have access to all the necessary ingredients: I have access to the eggs and the flour, and you have access to the
cocoa and the sugar. If we want the chocolate cake, we will have to work together.
A lot of social interactions have the same structure as this simple example: there is some gain to be made from
working together that would not be made by working independently. And it is from these mutually-beneficial
interactions that the need for principles of distribution arises.
Consider once more the chocolate cake. After we have made it, who is entitled to what proportion of the finished
product? Should we each get half? Or should our share depend on the value of our original contribution? Is the
contribution of cocoa somehow more important than the contribution of flour? Principles of distribution should
help us to answer these questions.
More generally, the principles of distribution should do two things:

They must tell us what to do with the cooperative surplus. That is: the surplus that motivates the bargain
in the first place must be shared among the parties to the bargain.

They must tell us what to do with the cooperative burden. That is: no surplus will be realised without
some effort being expended by the parties to the bargain, so it is essential to know how much effort each party is
expected to expend.
Most discussions of distributive justice focus on surpluses instead of burdens. That makes a certain amount of
sense since there would really be no point in talking about distributive justice if there was no surplus to be
distributed. However, I think it is worth bearing in mind the existence of burdens as well.
Now we are in a position to look at the various principles of distributive justice. In each case I will describe the
principle and look at some of its shortcomings.
1. Strict Egalitarianism
The first, and perhaps most obvious, principle of distribution is that of strict egalitarianism. This calls for all
parties to get an equal share of the surplus (and the burden). In modern societies, this might mean equal rights,
incomes, access to social services, and so on.
There are two major difficulties with strict egalitarianism and other theories of distributive justice that are based
on some preferred pattern of distribution:

The Measurement (Index) Problem: We can only know that people are getting an equal share if there is
some way of measuring the value of the relevant surplus. While money may be a useful measure in some cases, it
is likely to useless in other cases (e.g. measuring the value of a legal right). Similarly, if people value resources in
different ways over different time periods, it may always be in their interest to exchange their existing
entitlements with others.

The Time Frame Problem: Over what time period must the preferred pattern of distribution be achieved?
Is it just a starting point from which people are free to deviate? Or must it be sustained indefinitely?

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There are some specific moral criticisms of strict egalitarianism as well. Chief among them would be its tendency
to limit freedom, to be insensitive to what people deserve, to fail to achieve the best outcomes for all people and
to fail to give best effect to the principle of equal respect. These criticisms will come up again and again.
2. The Difference Principle
This is associated with the work of John Rawls. He argued that a general social distribution is just provided two
conditions are met:

(i) Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of basic rights and liberties (e.g. speech,
conscience, religion etc.)

(ii) Any social inequalities such as differences in income, are (a) attached to positions and offices that are
open to all under conditions of equal opportunity, and (b) are such that they "raise the floor" (i.e. the position of
the least well-off) as much as is possible.
Condition (ii)(b) is the Difference Principle.
The primary criticisms of Rawls are as follows:

By concentrating on the absolute position of the least well-off, Rawls is inattentive to the injustices arising
from the relative positions of the least well-off compared to the most well-off. If the upper echelons of a society
are significantly better off than the lower echelons, it may be possible for them to exclude the less well-off from
all important public jobs and political offices. This would be an important injustice overlooked by Rawls's theory.

It does not maximise outcomes (utilitarian objection).

It involves unacceptable infringements on personal liberty: people are constrained in what they can do
with their own resources (libertarian objection).

It is not sensitive to people's contributions to the social surplus (contribution-sensitivity), nor to their
natural endowments (endowment-sensitivity).
3. Resource-based Principles
The third set of principles maintain that equal initial access to resources is the most just distribution. In practice,
this means that people are initially granted equal resources to do with as they please. According to Dworkin's
metaphor, we are to imagine everyone is given equal purchasing power in a massive auction for all possible social
goods. They can choose to spend as they see fit.
Resource-based theorists aim to be sensitive to peoples' ambitions, contributions and endowments. For example, if
people suffer from some natural (as opposed to developed) handicap or talent, this will need to be compensated
or rectified so that they can start from the same position as others.
Utilitarian and libertarian objections apply to this set of principles. Also, it is not clear how any actual accounting
for differences in natural talents or handicaps can be done. Particularly since the dividing line between what is
natural and what is developed is unclear.
4. Welfare-based Principles
Welfare-based principles of distribution are utilitarian in form. They are focused on maximising the overall amount
of some agreed-upon unit (or units) of welfare. These could range from the subjective preferences of individual
actors, to objective measures of welfare such as lifespan, access to education, healthcare, income etc.
Welfare-based principles do not focus on the actual pattern of distribution (e.g. equal shares for everybody) but on
the net welfare-outcomes associated with patterns of distribution.
All the standard criticisms of utilitarianism apply. The main problems, especially when it comes to distributional
issues, are:

It is insensitive to the differences between people: if the goal is overall maximisation, then it is possible
that a massively unequal society (e.g. with one rich overlord and 99 starving servants) could be more "just" than a
society in which the welfare is spread around more evenly.

Preference-maximisation can give equal weight to preferences that seem wrong e.g. the preferences of
racists, homophobes and misogynists.

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Because it cannot automatically rule out particular patterns of distribution, it would rely on highly
accurate empirical information about the aggregate of utility in society. Often, such empirical data is absent or
impossible to obtain.
5. Desert-based Principles
Desert-based principles try to ensure that distributions are sensitive to the effort or contributions that people
make to the social surplus. The idea is that some people deserve certain shares or outcomes because of their
previous actions. So distributions should be proportionate to contributions.
The main problems with desert-based principles are:

The failure to find a good measure of contribution: is it the economic output they produce? the costs they
incur? the "effort" they expend?

Oftentimes, people's ability to contribute is a function of pre-existing inequalities. For instance, those who
are better off can contribute more because they have more resources or they have a better education. So a
desert-based system may simply perpetuate injustices and inequalities.

6. Libertarian Principles
The classic (Nozickian) libertarian position is that any distribution of resources is acceptable provided it conforms
with three principles of liberty: legitimate acquisition, legitimate transfer and rectification.
According to the principle of legitimate acquisition, one naturally owns oneself and by proxy one acquires
legitimate ownership over those (previously unowned) features of the natural world with which one mixes one's
labour. Once one owns something, one is entitled to freely transfer it to another, whereby they legitimately
acquire what is transferred.
Any distribution of resources that is arrived at following legitimate acquisition or transfer is just. However, current
distributions may be the product of previously illegitimate acquisitions and transfers. In those cases, some
rectification is needed owned.
The major problems with libertarian principles are:

The practical impossibility of rectification and the consequent potential to perpetuate historical

The questionable theory of property ownership that accompanies it. Many would argue that property rights
are only possible within a legal and political framework and that this framework requires the cooperation of
others. Thus, it is not true to say that you "naturally" acquire ownership simply by mixing your labour with the
natural world.
7. Critical Theories
There is a whole suite of theories -- feminist, postmodern, Marxist, race-based -- that criticise traditional theories
of justice for their tendency to ignore, silence or suppress certain groups. I don't think any of these theories
advance their own principles of justice, they simply tend to argue for expansion or abandonment of existing

In social psychology, distributive justice is defined as perceived fairness of how rewards and costs are
shared by (distributed across) group members. [1] For example, when workers of the same job are paid
different salaries, group members may feel that distributive justice has not occurred.
To determine whether distributive justice has taken place, individuals often turn to the distributive
norms of their group.[1] Anorm is the standard of behaviour that is required, desired, or designated as
normal within a particular group.[2] If rewards and costs are allocated according to the designated
distributive norms of the group, distributive justice has occurred. [3]

Types of distributive norms[edit]

Five types of distributive norm are defined by Forsyth: [who?][1]

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1. Equity: Members' outcomes should be based upon their inputs. Therefore, an individual who
has invested a large amount of input (e.g. time, money, energy) should receive more from the
group than someone who has contributed very little. Members of large groups prefer to base
allocations of rewards and costs on equity.
2. Equality: Regardless of their inputs, all group members should be given an equal share of the
rewards/costs. Equality supports that someone who contributes 20% of the groups resources
should receive as much as someone who contributes 60%.
3. Power: Those with more authority, status, or control over the group should receive more than
those in lower level positions.
4. Need: Those in greatest needs should be provided with resources needed to meet those
needs. These individuals should be given more resources than those who already possess
them, regardless of their input.
5. Responsibility: Group members who have the most should share their resources with those
who have less.

In organizations[edit]
In the context of organizational justice, distributive justice is conceptualized as fairness associated
with outcomes decisions and distribution of resources. The outcomes or resources distributed may be
tangible (e.g., pay) as well as intangible (e.g., praise). Perceptions of distributive justice can be
fostered when outcomes are perceived to be equally applied (Adams, 1965).

Distributive justice effects performance when efficiency and productivity are involved (Cohen-Charash
& Spector, 2001). Improving perceptions of justice increases performance (Karriker & Williams,
2009). Organizational citizenship behaviors(OCBs) are employee actions in support of the
organization that are outside the scope of their job description. Such behaviors depend on the degree
to which an organization is perceived to be distributively just (Cohen-Charash & Spector, 2001;
Karriker & Williams, 2009). As organizational actions and decisions are perceived as more just,
employees are more likely to engage in OCBs. Perceptions of distributive justice are also strongly
related also to the withdrawal of employees from the organization (Cohen-Charash & Spector, 2001).

Distributive justice and wealth[edit]

See also: Redistribution (economics)
Distributive justice considers whether the distribution of goods among the members of society at a
given time is subjectively acceptable.
Not all advocates of consequentialist theories are concerned with an equitable society. What unites
them is the mutual interest in achieving the best possible results or, in terms of the example above,
the best possible distribution of wealth.

In policy positions[edit]
Distributive justice theory argues that societies have a duty to individuals in need and that all
individuals have a duty to help others in need. Proponents of distributive justice link it to human rights.
Many governments are known for dealing with issues of distributive justice, especially countries with
ethnic tensions and geographically distinctive minorities. Post-apartheid South Africa is an example of
a country that deals with issues of re-allocating resources with respect to the distributive justice

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Essay on Economic Growth without Distributive Justice Is Bound To Breed

Increasing production and thereby enhancing economic growth is a major priority for most developing
countries including India. But production alone is not sufficient. The fruits of production must be
distributed-in adjust and fair manner.
Development of Thought:
History is witness to the fact that all wars and revolutions the world over are linked to economic causes be
it the European war for colonies, the Second World War, the French Revolution, the Marxist revolution or
the more recent Gulf war.
Closer home too, Naxalism, Trade Union unrest, Caste wars, the tension in Punjab and the North-east, the
growing crime rate in cities are-all linked to the lack of distributive justice and the fact of economic
Economic growth on its own does ensure prosperity and peace to a limited extent. But without a just
distribution, conflicts are bound to arise sooner or later as one class of people feels exploit by the other.
Unless proper steps are taken to ensure a proper and just distribution of the fruits economic progress, there
is bound to be conflict and violence in society.
The most urgent task before the country immediately after independence was to increase economic
production and growth but even then Nehru was careful to insist that production by itself would not do.
Addressing businessmen in Delhi in 1947, he had said "Distribution will not look after itself there is no
proper distribution, no proper social justice, there will be conflicts on an enormous scale."
Indeed the truth of the statement "Economic Growth without Distributive justice is bound to breed
violence" has been borne out many times in history.
All wars and violent conflicts have had their roots in an economic cause whatever may have been the
outward act of provocation. If the European powers fought amongst themselves to carve out colonies in the
Third World in the earlier centuries, it was because of the huge economic stakes in terms of the wealth of
the colonies that were involved.
In the 1990s if the USA and its allies went to war with Iraq it was not just to uphold the values of liberty
and free Kuwait, but because of the huge economic interests involved in the oil industry in the Gulf.
While preserving the economic advantage one already possesses, has been a major cause of war, another
major cause has been the violence which results from economic deprivation a violence that arises from the
unjust distribution of wealth, from having to live in sub-human conditions in ghettos and urban slums while
the fruits of economic growth and prosperity are appropriated by the few who have the power and means to
do so.
History is again a witness to the violence of the 'have-note'. The French Revolution which healed the value
of liberty, equality and fraternity was a result of the economic deprivation that the French masses suffered
under an unjust feudal system.
While the monarchy and aristocracy appropriated the fruits of economic growth, the poor peasants starved.
Queen Marie Antoinette's famous words "If they do not have bread, let them eat cakes" are reflective of the
economic injustice perpetrated on the masses, which ultimately led to the violent revolution in which the
peasants overthrew the monarchy and aristocracy.

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The seeds of World War II were also sown in the economic deprivation that Germany had to suffer after
World War I. The allied powers slapped stiff economic sanctions against Germany which had to shell out
huge amounts as war reparation. German industry was prevented from expanding. All this ultimately led to
the rise of Hitler and militant German nationalism in the form of Nazism.
The Russian revolution based on the ideals of Marx was a revolution of the proletariat (masses) against the
bourgeoisie (classes) the "have-nots" against the "haves". Marx traces the entire history of mankind as a
struggle between those who have economic power and those who don't.
Closer home too; we have seen that mere economic growth is not enough. When distributive justice does
not accompany it, it is bound to lead to social tensions which when magnified breeds violence. The Naxalite
movement is a case in point.
The violence perpetrated by Naxalite arise from their desire to gain justice a distributive justice that they
have been deprived of by the rich landlords and zamindars who hold the peasants virtually as bonded labour
and point their services to earn phenomenal profits.
The same is true of trade union violence in the industrial sector. The factory worker finds himself
inadequately compensated for his bourn and having to work often in unsafe and unhygienic conditions
while the profits which the worker has helped earn lines the pockets I of the industrialists.
Many political problems in a also have their roots in the lack of distributive justice. The terrorist problem in
Punjab was often attributed to the large scale unemployment among educated youth who were lured to take
up arms.
Similarly the continuing tensions and movements of secessions and insurgency in the North- East can be
traced to the lack of economic, particularly industrial development in these states.
The North-Eastern states feel that they are being given a step- mother treatment by the Centre which does
not sanction enough funds for economic development in these regions.
Similarly, the rising crime rates and incidence of violent riots, in the metropolitan cities like Mumbai are
symptomatic of the deeper problems arising from 'Growth without distributive justice' Forced to live out
their lives in my hovels, in slums, which stand check by jowl with luxurious high rise apartments, the
masses are bound to feel a sense of resentment at the injustice. This builds up a simmering discontent which
ultimately breaks out in violent demonstrations at some slight provocation.
Even the question of caste wars in India is ultimately a question of distributive justice. It is the more
powerful castes who enjoy greater economic power and benefits and it is they who corner the most lucrative
jobs and other economic benefits arising out of development.
When the lower castes thus begin to realise that it is economic freedom which can increase their status in
society, they are bound to fight for their rights and when forcibly deprived of their rights it could lead to
The whole controversy over the Mandals issue was also linked to the question of economic security of jobs
which the forward castes thought they would be losing out on because of the reservation for the Backward
The Government, however, was right in this case as it was merely correcting an injustice which had been
perpetrated on the Backward Classes for centuries.
The founding fathers in their wisdom foresaw the disastrous consequences that growth without social
justice could cause and hence ensured reservations in education and jobs for the Scheduled Castes and
Scheduled Tribes who had for centuries been deprived of basic human rights and had been prevented from
economic progress.
Had not this right been given constitutionally, there would definitely have been a violent upheaval as
awareness among the depressed classes increased.

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It is true that when there is economic progress in general, to a certain extent the standard of living of every
person will go up. Similarly if there is economic growth there will be more jobs and if there are enough
jobs; there is no cause for conflict. But human society as it has developed tends to be exploitative.
There will always be sections of people who will benefit more than others from economic development. If
left to natural market forces of distribution, there is bound to be some injustice.
Even capitalist countries recognize this act and hence have moved from the concept of pure laissez-faire to
the concept of welfare states where the government does provide social security nets for the less privileged
sections of society such as the aged, the sick and the unemployed.
Way back it was the late V.K. Krishna Menon who had stated in Parliament that India was not a poor
country but a country' of poor people. The truth of this statement is becoming more a more apparent as time
passes on.
In spite of the economic growth achieved since independence, not much dent has been made in solving the
problem of poverty. Unless more efforts are made to ensure distributive justice along with growth, violence
is bound to be a part of our society.


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