This article takes an in-depth look at some of the theoretical approaches to distributive justice. The article analyzes the ideals of three general frameworks - that which requires egalitarian distribution, that which encourages individual initiative and that which focuses on the equitable distribution of resources.
Keywords Difference Principle; Distributive Justice; Egalitarianism; Endowments; Liberalism; Resource Egalitarianism; Utilitarianism
Nearly 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, an ancient ruler became an example of equal distribution for people to follow for millennia to come. King Solomon, according to tradition, was a man of great judgment and wisdom, famous for an incident in which two women came to his court, each claiming to be the mother of a newborn. When he ruled that the child be split in two so that the two women could each claim ownership, one woman accepted his outrageous decision, while the other offered to give the child to the first woman in order to save its life. Solomon knew at that moment the identity of the child's mother and gave it back to the second woman. Justice was served.
Ironically, the man who is arguably one of history's greatest issuers of egalitarian justice would ultimately become the subject of wealth redistribution on an equal plain. During the course of his life, Solomon had accumulated vast amounts of wealth. When he died, his son, Rehoboam, took the throne but not his father's riches - those vast sums, along with the rest of the kingdom, were divided equally among the two competing Hebrew states (Schoenberg, 2008).
Throughout history, people in every society have consistently sought to acquire the maximum benefits available to them. Then again, no society has been able to find a balance between those who are able to obtain large sums of wealth and those who have fallen into poverty. At the center of what is known as "distributive justice" is a theoretical quest to bridge the gap between the "haves" and "have nots" in a given society.
The distribution of wealth in the United States, one of the world's wealthiest nations, paints an interesting example of the inequity that drives advocates of this philosophical ideal. In 2007, the top one percent of earners in the United States owned 34.6 percent of all privately held wealth. The following 19 percent, comprised of managers, professionals and small business operators owned about 51 percent. The remaining 80 percent of households, comprised of lower-income workers, owned 16 percent of the wealth in the country. With such inequities, debate over how wealth should be distributed (versus how it currently is distributed) continues within the philosophical circle of distributive justice. This concept states that resources should be allocated according to an established moral or ethical code that is reflective of social norms but still represents a departure from the forces that created such inequity.
This paper takes an in-depth look at some of the theoretical approaches to distributive justice, analyzing the ideals of three general frameworks - that which requires egalitarian distribution, that which encourages individual initiative and that which focuses on the equitable distribution of resources.
There is a common perception that the terms "equality" and "egalitarianism" are interchangeable. However, whereas the former term refers to a situation in which differences between strata are bridged, the latter refers to the pursuit of equality and even elimination of those different strata (Marina, 1975).
It is this latter concept that lends to the notion of "strict egalitarianism," a term that applies to a socio-political rule or law mandating that all strata of a society must be equal to one another. Within a strict egalitarian conceptual framework, all individuals are endowed with freedoms and rights, ideals which are the same for each person. However, current systems, while allowing for equality (each socio-economic stratum enjoying such liberties while distinct from one another), do not seek to eliminate the different strata and therefore guarantee all individuals the same benefits and social standing. Strict egalitarianism requires that all social strata are equalized - that the disadvantaged are raised in the social order, and that the wealthier classes are lowered to one common, uniform level.
Of course, the central element of strict egalitarianism is the redistribution of resources in order to create equity among social groups. Such a formula requires that there be no affluence or poverty; resources are redistributed in such a way that each individual within the society receives an equal share. Interestingly, the strict egalitarian method could also lead to a situation in which everyone, from the wealthiest to the most indigent, might receive less than they might if inequities were allowed (Legal Theory Lexicon, 2005).
Shortcomings of Strict Egalitarianism
Considered one of the more simple theoretical models of the normative field of distributive justice, strict egalitarianism's most significant shortcoming is the fact that its application may be too simple and unclear. After all, egalitarianism proceeds from the notion that there are shortages in the endowments available to all individuals, and that this inequality must be corrected. However, the ideal of strict egalitarianism does not look at the causes of these deficiencies and inequalities (Raz, 1986).
A clarification of this issue with strict egalitarianism is offered in a 2002 study of international relations. The problem with this concept, the authors write, is that there will be many allocations of resources, good and services that will inevitably help some but not others. In fact, the distribution of these resources may not be uniform, which means that some will gain more than others, and some may lose in order that others gain. The result, the authors argue, will be that making identical bundles of resources, goods and services will inevitably make people materially worse off than they would be under another framework (Griffiths and O'Callaghan, 2002).
There have been many challenges and criticisms to the strict egalitarian model. In addition to the issues that exist with the pursuit of some sort of socio-economic equilibrium, many scholars and observers believe that the nature of such equalization violates the freedoms and rights that individuals should enjoy in a democratic system. The relative rigidity and incompleteness of the strict egalitarian model have given rise to alternatives. It is to some of these alternatives that this paper next turns.
In 1971, political philosopher John Rawls offered his liberal-leaning views on the morally agreeable manner by which goods and assets are distributed in society. His seminal work, "A Theory of Justice," introduced a theoretical ideal of how to correct the imbalance between the wealthy and the poor.
Central to Rawls's theory is the "Difference Principle." The ideal behind Rawls's theory is that inequities in a society are allowable, but they are permissible only if the imbalance works in the favor of the disadvantaged. In essence, his view was that while all individuals have far-reaching, equal rights and freedoms, there should be limits to those liberties based on the social and economic conditions of people with the least social, political and economic advantages. Rawls's believed that if this concept of egalitarianism was applied, there would be no inequities in a society; those with traditionally higher paying jobs would still perform their duties but would not be at an economic advantage over the rest of society (Distributive Justice Project, 2008).
The Difference Principle allows for inequality based on the cause of that inequality's affect on the society as a whole. An institution that creates advantages for some and disadvantages for others is admissible if its overall impact on society is positive.
Rawls's work became iconic among left-leaning scholars and activists. Liberal scholar and philosopher Stuart Hampshire called "A Theory of Justice" the most important work of moral philosophy since the end of World War II (Gordon, 2008). A 1999 survey of American teachers of philosophy concurred with Hampshire's view. Respondents were asked for their views of the best works of philosophy of the 20th century. The survey did not ask the individuals whether or not they agreed with the philosophers' points of view, but rather inquired as to how often they were cited. In a list of 25 names, John Rawls's "Theory" was the third-most invoked work by respondents, with 131 citing that work in their own studies. "Theory" only fell behind Ludwig...
(The entire section is 3890 words.)