Together with procedural, retributive, and restorative justice, distributive justice forms one of the basic types of justice. It is “concerned with the fair allocation of resources among diverse members of a community” (Maiese, 2003). In this case, fair allocation implies the resources available for distribution, the responsibility of the society for equitable distribution of available resources, the procedure of this distribution and the resulting patterns (Maiese, 2003; Ascension Health, 2005).
For instance, in the realm of education, the application of distributive justice means that everyone should receive equal access to quality secondary and higher education as there is a fundamental human right to receive education.
The idea of fair allocation implicit in distributive justice seems indisputable. However, it implies that each individual should walk away from the distribution with a “fair share” of goods and services, and exactly what constitutes this ‘fair share’ is open to debate. Thus, society can apply different principles to the process of distribution that will result in different outcomes.
For instance, distribution can be based on the principle of Equality, which means that resources are divided in perfectly equal shares and given out to all people in equal proportions. In this case, “due to differences in levels of need, this will not result in an equal outcome” (Maiese, 2003). Thus, if everybody is given free health care services in the amount of $300 a year, this would leave the poor with severely limited access to health care.
An alternative approach is the principle of Equity, according to which goods are distributed according to the person’s input in society. However, in this case the distribution system is fair only if there are equal opportunities for all people. Goods can also be distributed according to Need so that all people received goods in the proportion that would enable an equal outcome (Maiese, 2003). For instance, the poor and the elderly receive additional health care benefits as they cannot afford to pay on their own.
One of the most popular theories of distributive justice was developed by John Rawls. His theory is grounded in two basic principles: first, “each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties”, and equal political liberties “are to be guaranteed their fair value” (Lamont, 2003). Second, if there are inequalities, they have to reflect the status obtained by individuals in competition with others under the condition of equal access to these positions. In addition, the inequalities have to be structured in such a way that they benefit in the first place the most disadvantaged members of society. The most important is the first principle that calls for the equal distribution. The violation is only possible if the resulting inequalities are indeed beneficial to the most disadvantaged members of society. Thus, liberty can be limited only in order to promote greater liberty.
Distributive justice is very important in society. The choice of a particular principle defines the design of many economic and social systems, such as education, health care and others. For this reason, a study of distributive justice is indispensable for the construction of a just society.
Ascension Health. (2005). Principle of Distributive Justice. Retrieved January 16, 2006 from http://www.ascensionhealth.org/ethics/public/key_principles/distributive_justice.asp.
California State University, Dominguez Hills. (2000, June 8). Distributive Justice. Retrieved January 16, 2006 from http://www.csudh.edu/dearhabermas/distjust01.htm.
Lamont, J. (2003). Distributive Justice. Retrieved January 16, 2006 from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice-distributive/.
Maiese, M. (2003, July). Distributive Justice. Retrieved January 16, 2006 from http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/distributive_justice/.