Skip to main content
Select Source:

Justice, Distributive

Justice, Distributive


Distributive justice refers to a process whereby a society allocates certain rewards and resources to persons based on a moral belief or set of moral beliefs. Once a typical feature of envisioned social utopias, ranging from a late medieval scheme of Thomas More (14781535) to the more modern experiments of thinker-activists like Robert Dale Owen (18011877), allocation became linked to modern theories of justice with the rise of bourgeois democracies. Jeremy Benthams (17481832) liberal utilitarian creed of the greatest good for the greatest number was contrasted in the nineteenth century with oppositional calls by radical thinkers from anarchist, socialist, and communist movements for a collectivist justice based on some form of economic leveling or allocation to each according to his or her needs.

The call for distributive justice found its expression in the transformation of Western bourgeois democracies into social democracies, along with the development of a postrevolutionary form of state socialism in the Soviet Union. The first consisted of state-centered provision of various forms of universal insurance, as well as of a full range of social and human services, and was financed typically by more progressive income and inheritance taxes. Greater equity, but not broad-based economic equality, resulted. Scandinavian countries, notably Sweden, had the greatest success in reducing income and wealth differences. The Soviet Union achieved much greater equity, though the creation of a nomenclature consisting of party officials and state bureaucrats did great damage toward attempts to achieve absolute economic equality.

Since the 1970s with the decline of Communist regimes and a general retreat from socialist/reformist thinking, there has been a return of more liberal calls for greater economic and social equity. They possess a twofold and somewhat contradictory character. First, they are decidedly more individualist and libertarian in their concerns. Modern philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition, such as John Rawls (19212002), stress the need to provide individuals with adequate resources for fulfilling livesequality of opportunity, in a phrase. The leveling process, contrary to utilitarian and generally socialist aims, is clearly curtailed in this tradition by the desire to protect individual liberty and the freedom of choice in the economic transactions of civil society. Ronald Dworkin argues for an equality of outcomes, insofar, however, as persons are prudent and responsibly choose forms of insurance that could be offered by a state to compensate persons from potential or real harms.

Simultaneously, distributive justice has acquired a distinctly collective sociological character. The modern study of invidious distinctions ranging from class and caste to status, and the differences among persons thereby, have created a more radical theory of justice based upon the elimination of economic and social inequalities arising from membership in disadvantaged classes based upon income, wealth, race, gender, sexuality, and disability. Empirical social science has provided extensive documentation that has been used by judiciaries, legislators, public administrators, and policy formulators to construct a variety of remedies, ranging once more from providing equality of opportunity to the more demanding requirement of equality of outcomes. The latter often requires limiting the freedom of others more privileged in some sense and of transferring resources to members of disadvantaged classes in amounts equal to or greater than amounts available to those not suffering from the disadvantage(s) under review.

More recently, economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has sought to join concerns for the well-being of individuals with the disadvantages they acquire as members of a discriminated class. Every individual, Sen argues, is an assemblage of specific capabilities. To provide equality of opportunity, interventions need to provide resources that strengthen an individuals capabilities to function in a manner she finds conducive to her well-being. Her freedom of choice is preserved, along with her desire to live her particular life. To get resources to individuals with discernible capability deficits, Sen argues strongly that resources must be targeted to specific kinds of persons rather than simply added to a societys macroeconomic mix. Hence, the individuality of deficits is matched with ameliorative social programs based upon the realization that deficits can be identical, person to person. Gender inequality, for instance, commonly affects certain women who could be grouped into a class, while this same class could differ from other women with another provenance.

This shift in the concept of distributive justice from universal entitlement to individual capabilities in the 1990s has had an enormous influence on social policy. International assistance to poor countries by the World Bank, rich countries, and nongovernmental organizations has been redirected from capital-intensive infrastructure projects to expenditures on public health and basic education, as well as gender-related remedies founded on the widespread recognition that womens capabilities are sorely damaged by discrimination worldwide. In rich countries, the focus on individual capability deficits has led to a restructuring of income support programs that seek to hold individuals more responsible for their own development.

The calls for more equitable forms of distributive justice have stimulated a variety of opposition responses. The first might be termed a naturalist response. Persons are composed of innate differences in a variety of aptitudes that cannot be overcome by programs of distributive justice. Even if persons are compensated in ways that provide each with economic equality, natural differences will express themselves in the original cohort or in their progeny to re-create natural differences in aptitude once more.

Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein (19301994) argue that differences in intelligence lead to the formation of an elite based upon their superior abilities, and subaltern status for those less fortunate. A second, less genetically based version posits that subaltern groups form destructive ways of life that greatly diminish their chances for well-being. This position is typically referred to as the culture-of-poverty argument.

A second response bears a long and distinguished genealogy, and viewed from this end of the telescope is a profoundly sociological account of the origins and development of society. There are several sources. Thomas Hobbes (15881679) argues that the very equality between persons in the original state of society creates a drive for aggrandizement on a persons part, if only to protect one from the envy and finally aggression of another. A state thus becomes necessary to protect each from all. John Locke (16321704) held a more congenial view of humankind, believing that persons were self-possessed and cognizant of their own needs and wants. The products of their toil, Locke argued, were theirs. The acquisition of property, however, provided them with a place for amicable exchange but also of legal defense against others in an organized society. Money creates a fetter in this otherwise peaceable kingdom, requiring that a civil government adjudicate fairly the disputes that arise between persons, especially as they become more unequal.

Both the more punitive motivations of Hobbes and the more genial motivations of Locke contribute to a modern, minimalist view of the state whose justice consists of ensuring fairness in the exchanges of individuals. Often called the night watchman state theory, its principal exponent in modern discourse is Robert Nozick (19382002). The job of the state, on Nozicks view, is to repel national invaders and enforce contracts. As humans are their own property and not that of others, they are entitled to whatever property they acquire through their effortsin fact, as much as they can acquire so long as they do not destroy the property of others or that of the commons. The state guarantees free markets in property, capital, and labor. Justice is no longer connected with distribution, but instead associated with equitable rules applied in the marketplaces of society.

This broad view has been used to support free-market-based economic and social policy. In the social sciences, it underlies the increased resort to so-called rational choice theory, whereby individuals are taken a priori to be rational, and create society via interactions on their own behalf. However, from this same premise, this notion that the self-interested person is a rational person can be severed from a purely means-ends rationality and applied to assumptions about the strength of greed, network, and group ties in orienting action.

This position also affected the nature of the social scientific investigation of inequality. Considering the broad endorsement of a kind of first-order naturalness to unequal social existence, investigators from the functionalist tradition in the postwar period produced descriptive paradigms of economic and social inequality in modern societies, and between rich and poor societies, that abjured comment on the moral and political dimensions of their studies. Their fundamental premise was that societal development necessitated an increasing division of labor, and inequality was its inevitableand valuableresult.

A strong critical and highly politicized movement developed across the social sciences to combat what was seen as this received view. As a consequence, normative theorizing about inequality and the value of forms of distributive justice now constitute themselves as the normal conditions of discourse.

SEE ALSO Choice in Economics; Culture of Poverty; Egalitarianism; Equal Opportunity; Equality; Ethics; Hobbes, Thomas; Inegalitarianism; Inequality, Gender; Inequality, Political; Inequality, Racial; Locke, John; Philosophy; Rationality; Rawls, John; Sen, Amartya Kumar; Socialism; Welfare Economics


Becker, Gary. 1971. The Economics of Discrimination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bendix, Reinhard, and Seymour Martin Lipset. 1966. Class, Status, and Power: Social Stratification in Comparative Perspective. 2nd ed. New York: Free Press.

Blim, Michael. 2005. Equality and Economy: The Global Challenge. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.

Dworkin, Ronald. 2000. Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Friedman, Milton. [1962] 2002. Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Giddens, Anthony. 1998. The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.

Hobbes, Thomas. [1651] 1962. Leviathan: On the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. New York: Collier.

Hobsbawm, Eric. 1987. The Age of Empire, 18751914. New York: Pantheon.

Horowitz, Irving, ed. 1964. The Anarchists. New York: Dell.

Locke, John. [16791680] 1963. Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mills, C. Wright. 1962. The Marxists. New York: Dell.

Murray, Charles, and Richard Herrnstein, 1996. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press.

Nozick, Robert. [1974] 2001. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Nussbaum, Martha. 1999. Sex and Social Justice. New York: Oxford University Press.

OConnor, Alice. 2002. Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy and the Poor in Twentieth Century United States History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rawls, John, 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sachs, Jeffrey. 2005. The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. New York: Penguin.

Sen, Amartya. 1992. Inequality Reexamined. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as Freedom. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Michael Blim

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Justice, Distributive." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 23 Aug. 2017 <>.

"Justice, Distributive." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (August 23, 2017).

"Justice, Distributive." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from

distributive justice

distributive justice See JUSTICE, SOCIAL.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"distributive justice." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 23 Aug. 2017 <>.

"distributive justice." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (August 23, 2017).

"distributive justice." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from