Distributive Justice

Julian Lamont. Handbook of Political Theory. Editor: Gerald F Gaus & Chandran Kukathas. 2004. Sage Publication.

The conceptual terrain produced by modern theories of distributive justice is multi dimensional. It can be conceived and categorized in many ways. One way to gain insights is to view the different theories according to the importance they afford the competing considerations of welfare (or utility) and responsibility, since the relative importance of these considerations is a constant theme in political discussion throughout the world. At one end of the spectrum, a utilitarian approach to the distributive problem would identify welfare as the only morally relevant consideration in the design of distributive systems, with other moral considerations, including responsibility, entering the calculation not at all, or only in so far as they increase welfare. Alternatively, an approach with responsibility as the primary moral consideration would endeavour to allocate goods and services only on the basis of factors for which individuals are fully responsible. So, for instance, the fact that giving goods to a group would increase their welfare would not be a relevant consideration, but whether that group produced such goods would be. Such an approach would not consider the various levels of welfare different people derive from their goods—that is something for which people themselves are responsible. Furthermore, the distributive institutions under such an approach would be designed to reduce the influence of factors that are the converse of responsibility, those over which people have little or no control (sometimes called luck).

Before examining the different theories of distributive justice, it is important to reflect for a moment on the purpose of developing such theories in the first place. The various positions on offer usually describe idealized distributive systems, which often attract the criticism that such systems could never be realized—‘they don’st apply to the real world’ is how the complaint is expressed. This criticism is misguided, as it misconstrues the practical influence of normative theories of distributive justice. These theories should be viewed not as holding out a utopian dream, but as proposing ideals against which the messiness of real-world systems can be understood and evaluated. No society can avoid assessment of its distributive systems, since even the choice not to change the current distributive system is to make the de facto evaluation that it is preferable to any available alternative. In fact, though, all real-world distributive systems are in a constant state of change. Changes in the distribution of goods, services, wealth and opportunities are effected by most legislative decisions, at all levels. While there never will be a pure utilitarian, pure Rawlsian, or pure libertarian state, the advocates for these and the other theories of justice surveyed here have a significant role to play in informing the constant changes made to distributive systems: they provide the evaluative tools to assess current systems, with each theorist an advocate for moving current distributive systems in a particular direction for the reasons provided in their theory.


Over the last couple of centuries, one traditional answer to the question of how the goods and services of a society should be distributed has been that they should be distributed in a way that increases the welfare of the poor. The most common suggestion for achieving this has been through the provision of adequate food, shelter, health and education services. Utilitarianism extends this traditional answer, so that welfare is not simply to be increased, but must be maximized, and for the whole population, not just for the poor. Under utilitarianism, the right distribution is that which maximizes overall welfare, or ‘utility,’ variously interpreted as net positive happiness, preference satisfaction, pleasure, or well-being (Bayles, 1978; Kelly, 1990; Smart and Williams, 1973).

Unfortunately, through such extension, the theory makes the requirement to benefit the poor a contingent matter, according to the degree such help will maximize overall welfare. Utilitarians, who tend to accept the diminishing marginal utility of resources, believe resources will tend to produce more good when redistributed to the poor than to the rich. Nevertheless, there are easily describable conditions, such as in the case of a poor but satisfied person and a non-satiated rich person, under which utilitarianism would prescribe forcibly transferring goods from the poor to the rich person. Because of prescriptions such as this, and others, which systematically violate common sense morality (Scheffler, 1988; 1994), the ongoing movement in utilitarian theory, in the last two decades, has been towards variations of ‘indirect’ and ‘institutional’ utilitarianism (Bailey, 1997; Goodin, 1988; 1995; Pettit, 1997). The most forceful idea of these theories is to restrict the application of utilitarianism to guide the choice of practices, institutions or public policies rather than to guide individual actions. Such a move ameliorates some of the force of the criticisms from common sense morality. In the case above, for example, even if satisfied poor and non-satiated rich individuals do exist, it is very hard to describe conditions where a general policy of redistributing goods from the poor to the wealthy will definitely increase utility.

The move to indirect and institutional utilitarianism has breathed new life into utilitarian theory, but at a high price. Under institutional utilitarianism, the theoretical criterion for accepting an institution or policy is straightforward: does it maximize the aggregate utility of the population? The problem arises at the practical level, where the information requirements needed to determine which institutions or policies maximize aggregate utility are almost always too great (Gaus, 1998). For example, consider the question of whether institutional utilitarianism would recommend welfare payments to the poor unemployed. This question would be more easily answered if all people obtained the same amount of welfare from all the goods and services available, and if the amount of welfare obtained from a good declined as more of the good is received (that is, if all people had identical diminishing marginal utility functions). Under these conditions we would have some reason to believe that taking goods from the rich and giving them to the poor would increase overall utility. However, every individual has a different utility function and, of course, nobody knows what these functions are. The informational requirements for determining whether utilitarianism recommends welfare payments seem impossible to meet. Unfortunately, the same situation arises for the full range of policies. This problem is compounded by analogues to the common sense morality objections that plagued earlier versions of utilitarianism. For instance, most people in modern liberal democracies strongly believe some policies, such as those that discriminate against racial minorities, are abhorrent, yet even these policies cannot be absolutely ruled out by utilitarianism. While many utilitarians claim that economic or legal discrimination against ethnic minorities will not maximize overall utility, they do not provide the evidence required to support their claims against the populist politicians advocating such policies. Partly, this is due to the complexity of the required evidence, but a further counterintuitive element of the theory is that the consequences, for overall welfare, of discriminatory practices include such contingencies as the size of the ethnic minority and whether the majority has racist beliefs and preferences. Few reasonable people, outside academia, are willing to embrace a theory according to which racist policies and institutions are morally right so long as the ethnic minority is small enough. So substantial stumbling blocks have been encountered in the utilitarian justification for expanding the government’s role from improving the welfare of the poor to maximizing overall welfare.


The most influential theory of distributive justice over the last half century has been John Rawls’s theory, termed ‘justice as fairness.’ Rawls develops a rival to utilitarianism, what he saw as the dominant theory of his time (Daniels, 1975; Kukathas and Pettit, 1992; Pogge, 1989; Rawls, 1972; 1993; 2001). Rawls proposes two principles of justice, the first of which guarantees equal basic liberties. His second principle, composed of two parts, governs the distribution of social and economic goods:

Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: (a) The Principle of Fair Equality of Opportunity: They are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and (b) The Difference Principle: They are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. (1993: 5-6)

Though Rawls permits some inequality, he falls clearly on the egalitarian side of the political spectrum. That inequality is permitted under the difference principle at all is a recognition that the absolute position of the poor is important, and can sometimes be improved, when greater rewards to some serve as an incentive for increasing the overall social product. When such inequalities are justified, however, the competition for these positions is governed by a substantive, not merely formal, equal opportunity, requiring that ‘those equally talented and motivated have the same chances for success’ (1972: s.12). Even when this strong version of equal opportunity is achieved, social and economic inequalities are permitted only when they benefit the least advantaged.

Of Rawls’s many arguments for his distributive principles, the most interesting is his argument from luck (Rawls, 1972; 2001). The role of the principles of justice in the Rawlsian framework is to constrain the operation of major social and political institutions, such as the system of political rights and obligations, the provision of education and health, the market, and the family. His argument for this is that these institutions significantly affect people’s chances in life. These institutions contain inequalities that are present from the start, and hence are not the predictable or deserved consequences of people’s actions. So Rawls defends the substantial redistributive measures required by fair equality of opportunity and the difference principle by appeal to elements over which we have no control, which otherwise would be permitted in large part to determine our outcomes. Since Rawls’s version of equal opportunity requires that those similarly talented and motivated have the same chances of success, it ideally removes the influence of such social circumstances as economic class and gender or racial discrimination. If redistributive matters ended here, the result would be that not only people’s choices, but also the social value of their natural talents and their motivation to work, would still influence their expectations of goods (1972: 72). But Rawls goes on to argue that since one does nothing to deserve one’s natural talents or their value to society, and since one’s motivation to work is largely determined by family upbringing, these factors can provide no justification for unequal distributive shares: ‘Once we are troubled by the influence of either social contingencies or natural chance on the determination of distributive shares, we are bound, on reflection, to be bothered by the influence of the other’ (1972: 75).

For these reasons Rawls argues that equality in the distribution of basic liberties, and fair equality of opportunity, are insufficient to constrain morally arbitrary influences in people’s starting positions. Therefore, the difference principle is also required (Barry, 1988; Hill, 1985). The logical progression of Rawls’s argument is straightforward. Begin with formal equality of opportunity because nobody should have their life chances fundamentally affected by factors over which they have no control, such as race and gender. Then observe that factors, such as family wealth or access to education, over which people have no control, would still fundamentally affect their life chances. This justifies the move from merely formal to the more substantive fair equality of opportunity, whereby those similarly talented and motivated have the same life chances. Observe, though, that people’s life chances are still greatly influenced by factors over which they have little or no control, such as their degree of natural talent or intelligence, and the type of family support they are given. Since these impediments to equal opportunity are practically impossible to overcome, an additional governing principle is required, the difference principle. It does not eliminate the influence of luck on life chances, but it does provide compensation for those least advantaged: the basic structure of society is organized so that, in absolute terms, their life prospects are maximized relative to any alternative structure. In Rawls’s theory, then, we get one of the most powerful arguments, based on luck, for aiding the poorest in a society.

Reflective Equilibrium and Empirical Beliefs

It is worthwhile to digress briefly from considering substantive theories of distributive justice to consider one of the most common methodologies for evaluating different theories. The method of reflective equilibrium in moral and political philosophy has strong analogies with the scientific method of theory evaluation. The main differences are that instead of observations and experiments, we have moral judgements and thought experiments. The idea is to develop moral principles that cohere with our considered ‘lower level’ moral judgements (Rawls, 1993: 8). Under the methodology, when proposed principles do not cohere with our moral judgements, we may modify or reject the principles, or choose to give up some of our moral judgements in favour of those principles with especially good explanatory power for our other judgements. Also, thought experiments can be used to decide between two theories that have similar recommendations over everyday domains. The ideal is that these adjustments are made until eventually our theories and our considered moral judgements are in equilibrium (Daniels, 1996).

This methodology can be understood as operating both at the personal level and at the level of the wider community. Theorists, the general population, and hopefully politicians, engage in a collective cognitive process through discussion and debate in order to come up with principles and policies to better cohere with the moral judgements and beliefs of the people. Of course, theorists can achieve such an equilibrium only by finding out what people believe (Miller, 1999: chs 3-4; Swift et al., 1995). Fortunately, over the last couple of decades, there has been a sustained effort to collect the data necessary to this project (Elster, 1995; Hochschild, 1981; Kluegel and Smith, 1986; Miller, 1999).

David Miller (1999: ch. 4) has surveyed the empirical studies, partly summarizing the findings as follows:

in people’s thinking about social distribution, [there is] a tendency to favour more equality than presently exists in liberal democracies. This is partly to be explained by considerations of desert and need: people do not regard income inequalities of the size that currently obtain as deserved, and at the bottom of the scale they think it unfair that people cannot earn enough to meet their needs. (1999: 91)

In a series of experiments conducted to see what distributive principles people would choose, Frohlich and Oppenheimer (1992) presented the subjects with four principles for distributing income: (1) maximizing the average income, (2) maximizing the minimum income, (3) maximizing the average subject to a floor constraint (no income to fall below $x), and (4) maximizing the average subject to a range constraint (the gap between top and bottom incomes not to exceed $y). Maximizing the average subject to a floor constraint (or safety net) was chosen by the vast majority of individuals, while maximizing the average was a distant second. The alternative used to gauge support for the difference principle—maximizing the minimum income had very little support. So while Rawls (1993: 8) popularized the theory of reflective equilibrium, his own theory of distributive justice gains little support from it. Some critics of his difference principle provide one reason for this. Although the argument, outlined above, for the difference principle gives moral weight to reducing the influence of factors over which people have no control, it gives little positive weight to choice and responsibility. Under the difference principle, the social structure is designed to maximize the position of the least advantaged group (characterized by Rawls, 1972: 97, as the bottom socio-economic quartile), no matter what choices individual members of that group have made. If the general public has a stronger view of the moral weight that should be given to responsibility, as Samuel Scheffler (1992) has argued they do, then the degree of support the public believes is owed to the disadvantaged will depend on whether the disadvantage is due to a disability, a lack of motivation, or an individual lifestyle choice. Such considerations have influenced resource egalitarians and desert theorists, whose theories we consider next.

Resource Egalitarianism

Influenced by Rawls’s natural arbitrariness argument, but even more sensitive than Rawls to what is and what is not a matter of luck, are the resource egalitarians. Since the rejection of slavery, feudalism, and aristocracy, one point of agreement among contemporary theorists has been that equality, in some sense, is a necessary part of any plausible theory of justice. Disagreements arise, however, in articulating the sense in which equality matters, or in specifying what is to be distributed equally (Sen, 1980). In answer to this question, a number of thinkers have promoted equality of resources, usually because they believe in both equality and in responsibility, seeking to hold individuals responsible for the choices they make in using their resources (Cohen, 1989; Dworkin, 2000; Sen, 1980). By the same token, however, they believe that social institutions should be designed to prevent inequalities resulting from factors beyond individuals’s control. They also recognize that an equal distribution of material goods does not achieve equality of resources, because people’s unequal genetic endowments are also important resources. Thus, they tend to argue for some kind of compensation to individuals who are unlucky in the natural lottery, to achieve a genuinely equal distribution of resources (Roemer, 1985).

An important question for any theory of distributive justice is how to measure or compare individuals’s positions or shares of goods. A key insight of the resource theorist is that individuals’s overall positions relative to others depend not only on their shares of social or economic goods, but on their natural endowments. One with severe disabilities, for example, may need more money or more educational opportunity to reach the same level of well-being as others. Thus, even if egalitarian in its motivation, a theory which fails to take into account people’s natural endowments in the measurement of distributive shares will not, according to the resource theorist, achieve a genuinely egalitarian result. The key question for resource theorists, and what determines differences among them, is which endowments are natural, and which are the result of one’s own choices. A paraplegic injured in an unavoidable accident is disadvantaged relative to others even with the same social and economic goods, so a resource theorist would favour their having a larger share. However, a lack of skill resulting from the preference to play rather than work does not entitle one to any compensation in economic resources. The resource theorist’s aim is to include natural endowments as resources, and distribute the social and economic goods in such a way as to ensure that people are compensated only for bad luck, not for the consequences of their own choices.

The most prominent resource-based theory, developed by Ronald Dworkin (2000), proposes that people begin with equal resources but end up with unequal economic benefits as a result of exercising their capacity to choose. Dworkin’s method is to determine justice in material distributions by way of imagining the behaviour of reasonable people at a hypothetical auction. He asks us to suppose that everyone is given equal purchasing power with which 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. In addition, Dworkin supposes that before bidding, people do not know their own natural endowments or the value and distribution of these in society. They can, however, contribute payments to an insurance pool to compensate those who are unlucky in the ‘natural lottery,’ thereby protecting themselves from this sort of disadvantage. Although people are likely to finish with different economic benefits, they have been treated equally, since they began with equal resources and total freedom to bid for other resource bundles had they wished.

The hope of Dworkin and other resource theorists is that institutions can be designed with this hypothetical ideal in mind: individuals enjoy the fruit of, or bear the burden of, their choices, but the negative impact of luck is shared by society, unless individuals choose to face the risk alone. Though this ideal is plausible, its full implementation in a real economy requires what now seems impossible: the measurement of differences in people’s natural talents. There is no philosophical or empirical agreement about which talents are natural, the result of individuals’s choices, or largely influenced by social factors beyond an individual’s control. A system of special assistance to the physically and mentally handicapped and to the ill would be a partial implementation of Dworkin’s compensation system, but most natural inequalities would be untouched by these measures. Despite its theoretical advantages, therefore, it is difficult to see ‘equality of resources’ as a practical improvement on the difference principle, at least until there are answers to these implementation questions.

As Allen Buchanan argues, however, the theoretical aims of the resource theorist movement may become more practically relevant as scientific knowledge and technological advancement in the area of genetics grow. The human genome project is likely to affect our ideals regarding distributive justice in a number of fundamental ways. First, as we gain more knowledge of people’s genetic probabilities, we are more likely to pass judgement about what is and what is not a matter of choice or luck. We may also expect others to make responsible choices in light of this information. Second, much of what is now seen as one’s ‘natural’ endowments may come to be seen as subject to human intervention and so part of the social institutions to which principles of justice apply. If our likelihood of facing certain illnesses or disabilities depends not entirely on luck or genetic makeup, but also on the way in which access to and use of appropriate technologies is regulated, and whether we choose to make use of these, then this changes the scope of what is natural and what is social. Thus, advances in genetic technology have the potential to change where the line is drawn between what is a matter of luck, what is a matter of choice, and what is a matter of social responsibility, so that the previous array of theoretical positions may have very different implications in the social context of the coming century (Buchanan et al., 2001).

Desert Theories

Like resource egalitarians, desert theorists (Pojman and McLeod, 1998) emphasize responsibility and the minimization of the influence of factors over which people have little control. Their primary moral notion is not equality, however, as it is in resource egalitarianism, but the notion of deserving (though desert theories normally require a background of equal opportunity). Desert theorists seek to correct Rawls’s failure to appreciate the extent to which individuals are responsible for, and hence deserving of, the fruits of their labour (Miller, 1976; 1989; 1999; Sher, 1987; Sterba, 1980). They argue that the role of luck in determining our success is not significant enough to undermine a legitimate class of claims to deserve greater distributive shares on the basis of greater effort or a more valuable contribution towards the social product (Lamont, 1994; McLeod, 1996; Miller, 1999; Richards, 1986; Sher, 1987). Central to the theories is the ideal of people as agents who have the capacity to choose responsibly for themselves. People exercise this capacity to influence others’ treatment of them and to act in ways that bring into the world goods and services that others find valuable.

Desert theories differ about what should be the basis for desert claims. The three main categories are:

  • Productivity. People should be rewarded for their work activity with the product of their labour or value thereof (Gaus, 1990: 410-16, 485-9; Miller, 1976; 1989; 1999; Riley, 1989).
  • Effort. People should be rewarded according to the effort they expend in contributing to the social product (Sadurski, 1985).
  • Compensation. People should be rewarded according to the costs they voluntarily incur in contributing to the social product (Carens, 1981; Dick, 1975; Feinberg, 1970; Lamont, 1997).

Desert theorists in each category also differ about the relationship between luck and desert. All desert theorists hold that there are reasons to design institutions so that many of the gross vagaries of luck are reduced, but theorists diverge with respect to luck in the genetic lottery. For instance, advocates of effort or compensation reject productivity as a desert basis on the grounds that people’s productivity is too influenced by luck in the genetic lottery.

Desert theories have been relatively less prominent, over the last 40 years, than other theories discussed in this chapter. This is peculiar given the frequent usage of the notion of deserving in everyday language. As noted earlier, over the last two decades there has been an enormous increase in empirical data regarding people’s beliefs about justice. The data reveal that desert is one of the most common moral notions that people, across many societies, use to justify and/or criticize economic distributions, but many contemporary theories ignore or dismiss the concept (Miller, 1999: ch. 4). The reason for this can most easily be illustrated by comparing desert and utilitarian theories of distribution. Desert theorists, because of their emphasis on outcomes being tied to people’s responsibility rather than their luck, view with concern how much people’s level of economic benefits still depends significantly on factors beyond their control. By contrast, utilitarians consider this of no moral consequence since, for them, the only morally relevant characteristic of any distribution is the utility resulting from it. This gap between the desert and utilitarian theorists, and hence between the general public and utilitarian theorists, is partly attributable to differences in empirical views. Desert theorists are much more likely to view people as significantly responsible for their actions and want to give effect to that responsibility by reducing the degree to which people’s life prospects are influenced by factors beyond their control. Utilitarians are more likely to see people as largely the products of their natural and social environment, and so not responsible for many of their actions in the first place. On the latter view, the point of reducing the effect of luck is less attractive. But, as Scheffler (1992) points out, the general population has a noticeably more robust view of the responsibility of people than many academic theorists. For this reason, he thinks certain theories of distributive justice, such as utilitarianism, have, over recent decades, been seen by the population as irrelevant. In contrast, the ability of desert theorists to give direct recommendations about contemporary institutional design, and the general public’s receptiveness to appeals to desert, are combining to effect a resurgence in this area of distributive justice research.


In contrast to the theories so far presented, libertarian theories deny the relevance, for distributive justice, of both luck and utility. In terms of the political institutions affecting distributive justice, libertarians (also known as classical liberals or right libertarians) typically recommend that in ideally just conditions goods and services be distributed in a free market with minimal state intervention, redistributive measures and protectionism. These recommendations are usually based on what libertarians see as the normative implications of property rights and liberty (Kukathas, 2003; Lomasky, 1987; Machan, 1989; Machan and Rasmussen, 1995; Narveson, 1989; Nozick, 1974). The starting point for libertarians’ strong interpretation of property rights is commonly self-ownership. The most influential libertarian, Robert Nozick (1974), argues that since people own their natural endowments and their labour power, and since they freely exercise these in various ways, they are entitled to the fruits of their labour. Even though outcomes are not justified according to desert (and hence may be the result of luck), Nozick rejects Rawls’s description of them as morally arbitrary, since self-ownership gives rise to entitlements (1974; ch. 7). Compensation for the influence of luck has no place in the Nozickean conception of justice, nor do any government measures to improve the lives of people or to relieve human suffering. Aid to the less fortunate must result from the individual voluntary actions of others.

Libertarian theories proposing minimal states on the basis of self-ownership have generally encountered two stumbling blocks internal to the theories themselves (Haworth, 1994). One is in defending the argument that self-ownership implies unequal and nearly absolute property rights. Critics of libertarianism are more disturbed with the unequal ownership of material goods and natural resources than with self-ownership per se. The problem of how ownership of oneself extends out to ownership of natural resources has plagued all ownership-based libertarian theories. Nozick tried unsuccessfully to justify the acquisition of natural resources with a version of the ‘first come, first served’ principle. Such principles, whereby people can acquire unequal natural resources to the detriment of, and against the will of, others, including future generations, are implausible for determining the use of natural resources. The issue of how to solve this problem continues to be a fertile area for research and has been the source of a resurgence in ‘left libertarianism’ with its emphasis on material guarantees for the disadvantaged (Cohen, 1995; Reeve and Williams, 2003; Steiner, 1994; Steiner and Vallentyne, 2000a; 2000b; Van Parijs, 1995), but the most plausible suggestions regarding ownership of natural resources appear unlikely to yield the minimal state political systems normally associated with libertarianism.

The second problem internal to ownership-based libertarianism is what to do about past injustices. Libertarianism is widely interpreted as advocating a change to a laissez-faire system with government functions limited to minimal taxes for police, defence, and a court system. This interpretation, however, is a mistake for the majority of libertarian theories. Although right libertarians do believe such minimal government is ideal when there has been no injustice, current holdings of goods and land are not morally legitimate under libertarianism if they have come about as a result of past injustices. Given that such past injustices are systemic to any current society, libertarians have difficulty justifying any move towards a more minimal state, unless they can specify some way of recognizing and rectifying past injustices first. As Nozick noted with his own theory:

In the absence of [a full treatment of the principle of rectification] applied to a particular society, one cannot use the analysis and theory presented here to condemn any particular scheme of transfer payments, unless it is clear that no considerations of rectification of injustice could apply to justify it. (1974: 231)

The treatment Nozick requires, however, is simply beyond our capabilities. We know every existing society is systematically infected with past injustice including theft and forcible seizure of natural resources. So, for instance, even if we could discover all the ways in which the majority of natural resources were unjustly acquired, we have no way of knowing what the distribution would look like if the injustices had not occurred. A theory can make a serious contribution to ongoing debate and policy only if it can offer a realistic proposal for rectifying past injustice, or if there are other resources in the theory for recommending distributive principles which do not depend on an entirely clean slate. The problem seems particularly damning to ownership or property rights versions of right libertarianism, though, because the theory recommends a near absolute respect for property rights over all other moral considerations. These strong property rights are implausible if infected with past injustice, but the theory has little to offer for addressing the past injustice problem.

The more fruitful arguments for libertarianism are based on the value of liberty itself. The most famous twentieth-century champion of such arguments was Friedrich Hayek (1944; 1976a; 1976b), though there are many varieties, often inspired by John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty (1982). This group of libertarians have responded to critics with greater depth. To see this, consider two of the more general criticisms of libertarianism (Haworth, 1994). First, critics complain that libertarianism excludes state measures to improve the lives of the people, including the provision of public goods (Morris, 1998: ch. 9; Van Parijs, 1995). Second, libertarianism is also charged with preventing state measures to alleviate deprivation and suffering. Most ownership-based libertarian theories have failed to respond to the first criticism, parting company at this point with neoclassical economists, who have generally taken the public goods problem more seriously than political libertarians. The most common responses to the second criticism have been various versions of ‘tough luck’: while it might be nice if individuals transfer some of their property rights to others in order to relieve suffering, people cannot justly be coerced to do so. Nozick’s view, for instance, is that respect for people’s absolute property rights is more important than improving the lot of the least fortunate. The harshness of this reply has been unappealing to the majority in liberal democracies.

Millean and Hayekian versions of libertarianism have been able to provide more fruitful replies, by appealing more directly to the values of liberty and autonomy (Lomasky, 1987). People’s optimism about the government’s ability to aid and empower people grew in the first 60 years of the twentieth century, but stalled in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Greater government intervention in the economy, particularly to increase welfare in the general population rather than just for the most needy, proved considerably less successful than preceding interventions targeted only to the poor. Hayek’s explanation for this failure was that governments do not, and never will, have the information required for successful intervention to help the majority of the population. In agreement, Mill’s view was that individuals themselves are in the best informational position for improving their own situation, so the government should allow them the liberty to act upon it. To suppose that governments improve the lives of the destitute by providing adequate food and shelter is a much simpler and more plausible matter than to suppose governments improve the lives of the middle class by taxing and spending for their own good. These forms of libertarianism do not in principle oppose state measures to alleviate suffering or to provide public goods, but are merely sceptical of governments’ ability successfully to carry out such functions. They differ about the income level at which governments no longer have sufficient information to intervene effectively in people’s lives, and they differ on what level and type of public goods governments have enough knowledge to provide efficiently.

A related contribution of Millean and Hayekian libertarianism is to highlight the costs of government intervention. While the increase in government intervention in liberal democracies in the first half of the twentieth century enjoyed widespread support and success, the increase in the size of government was not without costs. With the increase in government size came an increase in regulation, only some of which was beneficial. Much regulation primarily served the interests of bureaucracies, while decreasing individuals’s autonomy. Public choice theorists, inspired by libertarians such as James Buchanan (Brennan and Buchanan, 1985; Buchanan and Tullock, 1962; Buchanan, 1975; Rowley et al., 1988), also argued forcefully that increasing government size substantially increases rent-seeking by lobby groups, professions, and other powerful groups, distorting economic distribution in their favour. Once these and other consequences are taken into account, the success of government interventions in realizing their intended benefits is quite uncertain, compared with the clear and demonstrable detrimental effects these interventions have on people’s liberty and autonomy. Hence, as one of their most important ongoing contributions, libertarians have argued the possible benefits need to be very large, or their realization very certain, for the policies to be justified.

The third ongoing contribution of libertarian-inspired theories is in the area of relations between nations. The economic success of both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the European Economic Union have increased the momentum towards global free trade. Although various other liberal theorists have also supported free trade, libertarians have usually been its most vocal advocates. One of the main areas for discussion and research arises from the fact that a reduction in barriers to trade or immigration typically causes upward pressure on the wages/employment of workers in Third World countries and downward pressure on the wages/employment of workers in equivalent First World industries. Moreover, the effect is most pronounced with respect to low wage occupations such as agricultural and labour-intensive manufacturing workers in First World countries. Libertarians argue that keeping trade barriers up in order to protect low wage workers in First World countries makes much poorer people in Third World countries worse off. The poorer people’s liberty to engage in consensual trade with consumers in First World countries is restricted, thereby denying them an important means of improving their economic well-being (Lomasky, 2001).

This issue arises as a result of technological advances that have overcome distance, leading to economic globalization and with it the capacity of countries and corporations, through their policies and actions, dramatically to influence the freedom and well-being of people around the globe. So far, the question has been framed in the libertarian context in terms of restricted liberty. However, the same question can instead be framed in terms of who is the proper subject of distributive justice concerns: is restricting the economic liberties of much poorer people in other societies a legitimate means to increasing the economic well-being of the poor at home? Indeed, put this way, the question is crucial to all the theories discussed so far. Whether the justification for distributive institutions in a society is based on beneficence, the arbitrariness of luck, egalitarian concerns, self-ownership, or freedom, theorists need to address whether the scope of the theory should be local, national, or global. Peter Singer (2002), for example, asks whether political leaders should see their role as promoting the interests of their own citizens or whether they should be concerned with the welfare of people everywhere. This question is connected to the more general problem of partiality/impartiality in moral theory: are we morally permitted or even sometimes required to give priority to the interests of one’s own citizens, or indeed to one’s own family (Barry, 1995; Friedman, 1989; 1991)? Thomas Pogge argues from a position of moral universalism to the conclusion that the standard attitude of recognizing greater obligations to alleviate the conditions of the poor or oppressed at home than those of the poor abroad counts as arbitrary discrimination (Pogge, 2001a; 2001b; Jones, 1999). In one form or another, this question is crucial for all distributive justice theories. Ever increasing globalization will require greater attention to this area of research in each of the theories.

Alternative Characterizations

So far the major theories discussed have been characterized mainly according to the content of their approach to the moral demands of welfare (or luck) and responsibility. It is important to note here some of the complications of these characterizations and also other ways of conceptualizing the distributive justice literature. Most theorists are accurately described by a number of non-equivalent labels. The classifications used here are widespread in the contemporary literature, but there are nevertheless subtle differences in the ways different authors use these labels.

One important distinction is between the content of a distributive principle, and its justification. ‘Content’ refers to the distribution ideally recommended by a principle, whereas ‘justification’ refers to the reasons given in support of the principle. Theorists can be distinguished and labelled according to the content of their theory or according to the justification they give. The classifications used in this chapter have been divided according to the content but they could have been divided, though somewhat more messily, according to their justifications.

The messiness comes from two sources. First, the common labels used here refer sometimes to the content and other times to the justifications for various positions. Second, most groups of theories have justifications from a number of different sources and single writers even will sometimes use more than one source of justification for their theory. Most combinations of content and justification, in fact, have been tried. For instance, different libertarians use natural rights, desert, utilitarianism or contractarianism in the justification of their theories; different desert theorists use natural rights, contractarianism and even utilitarianism (Mill, 1877; Sidgwick, 1890). Partly this comes about because there are different versions of justifications which nevertheless, due to some similarity, share the same broad label. For instance, contractarianism features in the justifications of many theories, and covers both Hobbesian and Kantian contractarians, after Thomas Hobbes and Immanuel Kant (Hampton, 1991). Hobbesian contractarians, such as David Gauthier, attempt to justify morality in terms of the self-interested reasons individuals have for agreeing to certain terms of social co-operation. Kantian contractarians, such as John Rawls, appeal to moral reasons to justify the terms of social cooperation that would be worthy of consent, usually arguing for distributions on the egalitarian end of the spectrum. A Hobbesian contactarian, as you might suspect, is more likely to argue for libertarian oriented systems (Buchanan, 1982; Gauthier, 1987; Levin, 1982). However, there are also followers of Hobbes who insist his contractarianism is better read to justify some important aspects of the welfare state, rather than a merely minimalist government (Kavka, 1986; Morris, 1998: ch. 9; Vallentyne, 1991). So theorists who share the ‘contactarian’ label may also be characterized by a libertarian rejection of redistribution or an egalitarian insistence on widespread distribution.

The most common alternatives to characterizing distributive justice theories along the dimensions of welfare and responsibility have been to characterize them either along the related dimension of equality, or according to the degree of egalitarianism the theories prescribe. So each of the theories already surveyed here could alternatively be categorized according to its treatment, or approach, to equality (Joseph and Sumption, 1979; Rakowski, 1991). In his influential lecture ‘Equality of what?’ (1980), Amartya Sen addresses the question of what metric egalitarians should use to determine the degree to which a society realizes the ideal of equality. In his lecture, Sen was addressing a debate over two candidate metrics, welfare (or utility) on the one hand, and Rawlsian primary goods on the other. At issue between these were questions about the extent to which the welfare metric unfairly caters to morally wrongful preferences or expensive tastes. Between these extremes, Sen introduced ‘capability equality,’ where capabilities refer to what various goods do for people, apart from the welfare they achieve (Sen, 1985; 1987). This introduced another variable into the ‘equality of what’ literature which had been dominated by arguments between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity advocates (for more recent contributions see Bowie, 1988). A range of alternative variables for what should be equalized have since been introduced (Daniels, 1990) and refined, including the resource egalitarians discussed above (Dworkin, 2000), equal opportunity for welfare (Arneson, 1989; 1990; 1991), equal access to advantage (Cohen, 1989), and equal political status (Anderson, 1999).

In arguing for equal political status, Elizabeth Anderson (1999), in contrast to Rawls, resource egalitarians, and desert theorists, criticizes the prominence placed on luck and choice in the contemporary distributive justice literature. Even though she supports egalitarian ideals, the point of equality, in her view, is not to compensate for different amounts of luck, but to express an ideal of political equality in which all members of the citizenry are publicly recognized as equally valuable and of equal status. Redistribution might be required to ensure public institutions effectively express political equality, but equality in the distribution of resources, whether to rule out luck or to hold people responsible for their choices, is not, according to Anderson, the primary or even legitimate aim of liberal redistributive institutions. Anderson’s arguments align her to a significant degree with a number of other political theorists, including communitarians and some feminists, who argue for the primacy of political recognition and equality over the more directly material policies of many other theorists. One of the challenges for this group is to give the details of the policies designed to give effect to their theories. Once this is done, others will be in a much better position to evaluate the substance of their proposals. For instance, if the material policies designed to give effect to political recognition and equality turned out to be substantially similar to the theories with which they were supposed to contrast, then they would be considerably less interesting. If, however, they rejected the distributive policies of many other theories, then that would be an interesting contrast likely to provoke ground-breaking debate. But until such detail is given, proper evaluation is difficult.

Another approach not canvassed in detail here has been to explore the notion of fairness more fully. Some of the earliest discussions of distributive justice involved claims of fairness with respect to the division of profits between labour and capital. This work has continued as an important part of the political economy literature on distributive justice. In recent times it has moved away from Marxist theories with state controlled socialism to market socialism (Le Grand and Estrin, 1989; Ollman, Lawler and Ticktin, 1998; Pranab, Bardhan and Roemer, 1997; Roemer and Wright, 1996). For socialists the motivation for this move has been to embrace the virtues of the market mechanism for the allocation of resources while avoiding the vices of capitalism (Arnold, 1995).

Another approach to fairness, favoured by economists, has developed in the context of modern game theory. The most common strategy is to introduce an ‘envy-free’ requirement: a distribution is deemed fair when none of the relevant parties to the distribution are envious of others’s allocations. This and related notions of fairness are commonly applied to ‘microjustice’ issues which arise in more everyday or localized situations rather than distribution for the whole society (Baumol, 1986; Brams and Taylor, 1996; Le Grand, 1991; Varian, 1975; Young, 1994). The difficulties these theories face is to specify real allocations satisfying the envy-free criterion, but which do not achieve this by unreasonable extensions of our everyday notion of being envy-free. Despite these difficulties, some theorists have extended the analysis within the broader context of bargaining theory to deal with the traditional problems of distributive justice (Barry, 1989; Binmore, 1994; 1998; Zajac, 1995). This trend is likely to continue in the future with more engagement between economists, political theorists and philosophers.

Another complication worth noting, in presenting a comprehensive classification of theories, comes from differences in how the very topic of distributive justice itself is conceived, with some theorists emphasizing process rather than content or justification. For the most part, the theories discussed so far address the question of distributive justice by recommending principles intended as normative ideals for institutions, which themselves will significantly determine the distribution of resources. These theories reflect progress and a growing consensus throughout most of the twentieth century about what is not acceptable. For example, all of the theories on offer reject the inequalities characteristic in feudal, aristocratic, and slave societies, as well as the inequalities inherent in systems that restrict access to goods, services, jobs or positions on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity or religion. However, there remains a large area of reasonable disagreement about which is the best theory, with all theories offering some good reasons and some problematic consequences. In the context of such disagreement, philosophical argument can continue to guide reasoned public debate and democratic decision-making towards building public institutions which instantiate one or some combination of the proposed theories.

On the other hand, some theorists believe that the ongoing existence of reasonable disagreement reflects importantly on the very nature of distributive justice. They argue that, within the area of reasonable-disagreement about what are the best distributive ideals, the additional questions to examine are whether the processes for deciding distributive questions are just. So, some argue that certain distributive justice issues should be dealt with at the constitutional level, variously described, while other issues are properly decided at the legislative level. A subgroup of these theorists also take the view that some decisions about distributive justice issues can be partly or fully justified because they are the result of a just process (Christiano, 1996; Gaus, 1996). Rational argument alone may be able to exclude some systems as unjust, but others will be justified not simply on the grounds of their content, but also by the process by which they were reached. This view does not exclude content-based argument but adds that process-based arguments will also be essential for the ongoing project of distributive justice in contemporary society.

Challenges to Liberal Distributive Theories

Most of the theories of distributive justice discussed so far are properly seen as embedded in liberal theories that also answer questions broader than the concerns of distributive justice. So, for instance, Rawls’s difference principle and equality of opportunity principle have their place in a broader theory in which the first principle is equal basic liberty for all. ‘Liberalism’ or a ‘liberal position’ usually indicates an emphasis on individual liberty. That is, government institutions are thought by liberal philosophers to work in the interests of individuals, as opposed to groups defined by ethnicity, geographic location, community identity, gender, or class. The rights and obligations defended by liberals are held by individuals. Usually, these include political institutions which protect a set of civil liberties, such as free speech, freedom of thought and of religion, freedom of association, a free press, due process under the law, etc. Liberals usually also believe that the freedom of individuals entails that government institutions be ‘neutral,’ in the sense that the government is not in the business of promoting or discouraging particular views, religions, lifestyles, or conceptions of the good, except where this is required to protect the basic liberties of individuals (Hampton, 1997: 170-81; Nussbaum, 1999).

Within this framework, as we have seen, liberals divide on questions of distribution. Classical liberals generally favour minimal government involvement in the marketplace, or in other distributive institutions, such as those that distribute education or health care. These theorists commonly argue for their positions by reference to the value of individual liberty, and they see government interference as a threat to, rather than a protector of, liberty. Welfare liberals, at the other end of the spectrum, view markedly unequal distributive outcomes as, among other things, a threat to individual liberty. They argue for government involvement in the marketplace and in the delivery of important resources such as health care or education, in order to limit the degree of inequality that might emerge from the unhampered pursuit of individual liberty (Hampton, 1997: 172).

In addition to these content positions, ‘liberalism’ sometimes refers to a kind of methodology whereby arguments are crafted largely a priori, abstracting away from the particular history, culture, or empirical conditions associated with a particular society. Such arguments might appeal to human nature, universal characteristics of persons, or a priori reasons, and might even idealize, referring to ideal conditions or ideal persons which are only hypothetical but nevertheless generate an ideal principle to guide our necessarily imperfect institutions (Buchanan et al., 2000: 371-82). ‘Contractarianism,’ ‘rights-based’ theories, and ‘utilitarianism’ are all, in different ways, examples of justifications of this type.

The ideals that liberals specify are proposed as constraints on the development and operation of cultures; they are viewed as a way to ensure that cultures develop freely and justly. They do not, for the most part, employ a methodology that takes distributive ideals to arise from specific cultural practices, or historical struggles specific to a community. In this respect, communitarians and postmodern theorists have objected to the methodology of liberalism as abstract, individualistic, universalistic, and anti-democratic (MacIntyre, 1984; Mulhall and Swift, 1996; Sandel, 1982; Walzer, 1983). Communitarians and feminists have also questioned the nature of persons and autonomy that is the celebrated core of liberalism. Communitarians see individuals as largely the products of culture, rather than as autonomous individuals who choose freely by exercising an objective capacity to reason (Mulhall and Swift, 1996; Taylor, 1985a; 1985b). The dialogue growing out of the communitarian critique, along with the response of Rawls and other liberals, has coincided with political movements in Western democracies to respond to the myriad of issues raised by the realities of multiculturalism and feminism. This body of literature discusses justice as much in terms of cultural recognition as in terms of resource distribution (Taylor, 1994; Willet, 1998).

Communitarians oppose the methodology, but not necessarily the content, of liberalism. They represent a range of positions that specify a methodology, a style of justification, and a theory of the nature of persons. Communitarians, along with Marxists, emphasize the relevance of the particular history, culture, class struggles, and community interests to the content and justification of distributive principles. Hence, they tend to be moral relativists. A communitarian liberal, then, such as Michael Walzer (1983), is someone who, for some particular society, will argue for liberal institutions on communitarian grounds. One clear strand in the communitarian critique is the claim that whatever principles are proposed from a liberal-style methodology will be too vague and abstract to be of any practical use, and at the same time, that they will tend to be oppressive in so far as they ignore the ideals actually arising from real political and cultural histories (Fisk, 1989; Walzer, 1983; Willet, 1998; Young, 2000). Theorizing about distributive justice, for these thinkers, must be largely empirical and relativistic.

Of the communitarian philosophers, Michael Walzer (1983) is perhaps the most specific in proposing a methodology for arriving at just distributive principles. For Walzer, criteria for the just distribution of goods in a society are relative both to the particular goods in question and to the particular society’s values and understandings of those goods. Walzer argues that goods such as political membership, market commodities, education, health care, prestige, political office, professional expertise, or income are always understood and interpreted in a social context. Different societies have different meanings, understandings, and values associated with these goods. The particular meanings of the goods, moreover, determine their proper distribution. So social meanings of goods give rise to distributive principles valid only in a given society, within the sphere of those goods. Injustice occurs when the distributive criteria for one good are allowed to encroach on the sphere of another (Walzer, 1983). For example, if a given society’s interpretation of health care is that it should be distributed according to need, then injustice occurs when health care becomes inaccessible to the needy ill and available only to those who have money, or talent, or fame. Similarly, if a particular society’s interpretation of education is that it should be distributed equally or according to merit, then injustice occurs when it is in fact distributed according to wealth or social connection (Gutmann, 1980).

However, no argument for the injustice of such distributions of health care or education can be given independently of a particular society’s views, histories, and culture. Walzer’s claim is that the philosopher’s attempt to derive distributive criteria for abstract goods from abstract reasons is ‘undemocratic.’ Democracy, for Walzer, requires that real people base principles on their actual views, whatever they are, in deliberation with others. The outcome of the deliberation and democratic struggle will be principles reflecting compromises arising from the actual historical processes of each society, and there is no reason to expect much similarity from culture to culture in the resulting ideals (Fisk, 1989). The right way to distribute the goods will depend only on the requirement that all members of the society actually participate in a manner free of dominance in the development of the principles. Thus, Walzer himself goes so far as to say that even a caste system, where people’s positions of birth determine their access to a whole range of social goods, is permissible, so long as the social meanings inherent in the caste system are genuinely shared by the society (Mulhall and Swift, 1996: 140). Of course, no such systems in the real world are genuinely embraced by everyone in society, raising questions as to what constitutes a ‘shared’ culture or community, and how to resolve disagreements within them. Walzer recognizes the reality of disagreement in communities, but insists the resolution of disagreements must take place within the specific historical and shared cultural context. The consequence of this, he argues, is that there can be no reference to hypothetical or objective abstract ideals, independent of the particular community’s standards, in resolving the disagreements or in determining the institutional methods and procedures for resolving disagreements.

Where there is genuine disagreement within a culture, what within the communitarian theory ensures that voices of criticism and dissent will not be drowned by the dominant, possibly oppressive, culture? If there are no independent normative standards for defining oppression, and if even the points of view of dissenting individuals are secondary to the normative primacy of cultures, how can any cultures be shown oppressive on the communitarian view? Jean Hampton is one liberal theorist who believes communitarian theories lack the theoretical resources needed to answer these questions: in her words, communitarian theories lack ‘critical moral distance’ (1997: 188). Whether communitarians can answer this complaint in a distinctive way will determine the success of communitarian theory as a viable alternative to liberalism, and will also determine, more broadly, the success of cultural relativism for distributive justice.

Perhaps the most significant distributive change of the twentieth century has occurred as a result of the feminist movement, yet it is surprisingly unclear whether this movement is best classified as an extension of, or a rejection of, liberalism. Certainly the so-called first wave of feminism, in which the focus was primarily on securing for women equal rights in the areas of education, work, pay, and political participation, seemed to extend liberal rights. The theoretical underpinnings of this movement were largely liberal in character, as evidenced in such classic works as Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1995) and John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1979), in which feminism is presented as a natural implication of liberalism. However, feminists have also developed their views under Marxist, socialist, communitarian, postmodern, or radical frameworks, and have proposed creative and novel positions modelled on the distinctive reasoning and nurturing associated with relationships, especially the relationship between mother and child (Jaggar, 1983; Tong, 1989; 1993).

The feminist field has been unprecedented in its diversity, yet remarkably a common theme has emerged, usually expressed under the motto ‘the personal is political.’ These feminists argue that liberal theories of distributive justice are unable to address oppression which surfaces in the so-called private sphere of government non-interference. There are many versions of this criticism, but perhaps the best developed is Susan Moller Okin’s (1989: 128-30), which documents the effects of the institution of the nuclear family. She argues that the consequence of this institution is a position of systematic material and political inequality for women. Okin demonstrates, for example, that women have substantial disadvantages competing in the market because of childrearing responsibilities which are not equally shared with men. As a consequence, any theory relying on market mechanisms, including most liberal theories, will yield systems which result in women systematically having less income and wealth than men. The theoretical trouble for liberalism is that in its respect for individual liberty, and in its insistence on government neutrality, it cannot even recognize the inequalities in the economic or political positions of women as unjust, since these inequalities result from the combined effect of many individual choices (Hampton, 1997: 200-8; MacKinnon, 1987: 36). In the distribution of domestic labour, for example, classical liberal philosophers would view these decisions as largely non-political, to be made by individuals. So long as government laws do not dictate unequal roles for men and women—if men and women in their particular cultural contexts choose roles that in the long run create unequal economic positions for men and women—the liberal view would ordinarily permit the outcome as not unjust. The feminist point is that the choices are not necessarily free, and do not preserve equality, but a liberal government is powerless to change the situation. Similar points can be made about the unequal impact of other cultural views, such as those that are racist or in other ways work against minorities.

Despite these important challenges, there is as yet no consensus among feminists or communitarians about what alternatives are needed. Thus, the distinctive issues raised by cultural diversity or the political effects of the personal sphere are likely to be addressed via refinements, rather than wholesale rejections, of the liberal frameworks inherited from Locke and Mill.