Essay on different concepts of distributive justice

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Essay on different concepts of distributive justice
In this essay, different concepts on how to attain distributive justice in a society shall be presented. In the first part, four egalitarian concepts of what should be equally distributed shall be discussed. In the second part, two concepts on how to achieve a just distribution shall be explained.

  1. Egalitarian concepts of what should be equally distributed

Egalitarianism is an umbrella term for a branch of different, but related theories in political philosophy. Egalitarian theories have in common that they favor equality in society – they share the assumption that equality is an important, if not the most important, principle of social justice. But they differ in the question about how, to which degree and in which fields equality has to be achieved.

Today, the term “egalitarian” is most often applied to theories that promote more equality in the economic field. Theories of this kind discuss the distribution of economic goods among the members of a society and make propositions on how to achieve an equal (or at least a more equal) distribution of these goods.1

1.1 Welfare

If an egalitarian theory focuses on welfare, it promotes welfare (or utility) as criterion for measuring distributive justice. Welfare is the subjective perception of a person about his or her own happiness. Welfare is not an economic good and can therefore not be distributed directly, but it is influenced by economic goods: The welfare of a hungry person increases when she gets money to buy some food.2

If a welfarist wants to attain distributive equality, he tries to equal the welfare of all the members of a society. But there are various problems with this approach. First, as mentioned above, welfare is a subjective experience and therefore hardly measurable. It would be a difficult task to operationalize the concept of individual welfare and to include it into a working system of economic distribution in a society. Second, people have different needs and need therefore different means to attain the same level of welfare. This might be unjust, as people with expensive preferences would be favored. And there is also the question about what to do with needs and preferences that are mutually exclusive.

Utilitarianism, the most influential school of egalitarian welfarism, promotes the maximization of the overall welfare (or utility) of a society as its goal. Under utilitarianism, equality of welfare can only be attained if all the members of a society share the same needs and preferences. Under the condition of different preferences is utilitarianism inequality neutral. This means, utilitarianism allows large inequality if this helps to maximize a society’s overall welfare. Utilitarianism is egalitarian in that it treats all persons as equals: It doesn’t care about whom has got most welfare as long as the overall welfare is maximal.3

1.2 Social primary goods

A primary good, as defined by John Rawls, is a good that everybody needs and wants in order to be able to lead a “good life”, no matter what the individual preferences of a person are. Rawls distinguishes two kinds of primary goods: Social primary goods that are “directly distributed by social institutions, like income and wealth, opportunities and powers, rights and liberties” and natural primary goods like health, intelligence, and talents, “which are affected by social institutions, but are not directly distributed by them”.4

In order to attain a just society, should according to Rawls all social primary goods be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution of any of the goods would be to the advantage of the least favored of a society.5 Rawls approach is therefore inequality sensitive, but it allows inequalities under certain circumstances.

The problem with the equal distribution of social primary goods as a means to achieve a just society is twofold. First, Rawls does not distinguish between chosen and unchosen inequality. This means, a person that is poor because she decided to work only a few hours a day will be treated the same way as a person who is poor because she is not able to earn enough money even if she tries. If there is someone who is better off than these two poor persons, in a Rawlsian society he would have to pay compensations for the inequality to both poor persons, even if one of them would be able to earn more money by himself.

Second, the just distribution of social primary goods does not compensate for disadvantages in the distribution of natural primary goods. A person who is handicapped cannot profit in the same way from an equal bundle of social primary goods as a healthy person.6
1.3 Resources

The goal of a resource orientated egalitarian attempt to create a just society is to distribute resources more equal. There are internal and external resources. External resources, such as land, money, rights, etc., are transferable and can be distributed equally. Internal resources, such as talents, health, etc., are results of good or bad luck and cannot be distributed equally.7

As people have different needs and preferences, Ronald Dworkin proposes instead of a perfectly equal distribution of resources a so called envy-free distribution.8 He imagines a starting point, when all the resources shall be newly distributed. Every person would get the same amount of money, and with this he could buy his favorite resources by auction. Handicapped People would get a compensation for their natural disadvantages before the auction starts. Dworkin suggests that after this free auction no one would prefer another one’s bundle of resources and would therefore be happy. For the case that new inequalities should arrive, Dworkin proposes a hypothetical insurance market. On this market, everybody could invest part of his starting capital to buy insurance against disadvantages and disabilities.

Dworkin’s resource distribution is meant to be ambition sensitive, but endowment insensitive. In theory it works well. But in reality, it would be impossible to do a complete redistribution of resources as Dworkin proposes. Additionally, it is very difficult to measure and compare the degree of different natural disadvantages or to see whether an inequality is due to natural disadvantages or due to choice. Dworkin himself acknowledges that due to the complexity of the field his proposition wouldn’t lead to perfect equality among people. But he states that his proposition would at least be “second best”.

1.4 Capabilities

A capability in general is the ability to do something. Within the capabilities approach to distributive justice, a capability is the freedom to achieve well-being in a certain area of life, for example in health or in social relationships to other persons. Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, the main proponents of the capability approach, claim that in a just society every person should get equal basic capabilities. But that does not mean that in the end all persons will be equal, as individuals would be free to use their capabilities (to make them function) or not.9 A person might choose to fast for religious reasons, for example. She would be different from a person that starves because he does not have the capability to eat.

Capabilities depend both on the endowment of the individual and on the way a society is organized. A capability is therefore not the same as welfare – as it provides rather a opportunity for getting welfare – and it is not a resource, as a capability depends on the organizational structures of a society as a whole – having enough money to buy a house in a nice neighborhood is worth nothing if no one wants to sell a house there. Neither is a capability identical with a social primary good, as it would include natural primary goods as well.10

The main problem with the capabilities approach is that the number of desirable capabilities is indefinitely long. Capabilities would have to be weightened against each other and could therefore never be perfectly just distributed.

  1. Concepts on how to attain a just distribution

Two concepts on how to attain a just distribution of economic goods in a society can be distinguished: Procedural justice and consequential justice. Procedural justice says that the outcomes of a distribution are just when the procedure is just. Consequential justice says the procedure of a distribution is just when the outcomes are just.11 Depending on whether a theory about distributive justice rather stresses procedural or consequential justice – in fact, most theories are concerned with both of them – it develops different solutions for the question on how to attain a just distribution.

An example for consequential justice might be utilitarianism. Utilitarianists want to maximize the total welfare of a society, their focus lies therefore on the result of the process. They pay less importance to how welfare is produced, than to how much welfare they can produce. The process of producing welfare is only important insofar as that it should be as efficient as possible.

An example for procedural justice can be Dworkin’s proposal on how to attain an envy-free distribution of resources. He describes in detail the procedure of how a just distribution could be achieved. But his theoretical argumentation is not purely procedural: Dworkin justifies his procedure with the just results he expects from it.
Arneson, Richard (2009): Egalitarianism. In: Zalta, Edward (ed.): The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition).

URL: (4.5.2011).

Bojer, Hilde (2003): Distributional Justice. Theory and measurement. Routledge, New York.
Kymlicka, Will (2002): Contemporary Political Philosophy. An Introduction. Oxford University Press, New York.
Robeyns, Ingrid: The Capability Approach. In: Zalta, Edward (ed.): The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition).

URL: (4.5.2011).

1 Arneson, Egalitarianism.

2 Bojer, Distributional Justice, p. 20.

3 Bojer, p. 26 and 28.

4 Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, p. 64-65.

5 Kymlicka, p. 55.

6 Bojer, p. 44.

7 Bojer, p. 47.

8 Kymlicka, p. 75f.

9 Robeyns, The Capability Approach.

10 Bojer, p. 49-50.

11 Bojer, p. 11.

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