First published Sun Sep 22, 1996; substantive revision Wed Jan 2, 2013
The economic framework that each society has — its laws, institutions, policies, etc. — results in different distributions of economic benefits and burdens across members of the society. These economic frameworks are the result of human political processes and they constantly change both across societies and within societies over time. The structure of these frameworks is important because the economic distributions resulting from them fundamentally affect people's lives. Arguments about which frameworks and/or resulting distributions are morally preferable constitute the topic of distributive justice. Principles of distributive justice are therefore best thought of as providing moral guidance for the political processes and structures that affect the distribution of economic benefits and burdens in societies.
This entry is structured in the following way. After outlining the scope of the entry and the role of distributive principles, the first relatively simple principle of distributive justice examined is Strict Egalitarianism, which calls for the allocation of equal material goods to all members of society. John Rawls' alternative distributive principle, which he calls the Difference Principle, is examined next. The Difference Principle permits diverging from strict equality so long as the inequalities in question would make the least advantaged in society materially better off than they would be under strict equality. Some have thought that neither strict equality nor Rawls' Difference Principle capture the important moral roles of luck and responsibility in economic life. The “Luck Egalitarianism” literature comprises varying attempts to design distributive principles that are appropriately sensitive to considerations of responsibility and luck in economic life. Desert-based principles similarly emphasize the moral roles of responsibility and luck but are distinct because they approach these factors through claims about what people deserve because of their work.
Advocates of welfare-based principles (of which utilitarianism is the most famous) do not believe the primary distributive concern should be material goods and services. They argue that material goods and services have no intrinsic value but are valuable only in so far as they increase welfare. Hence, they argue, distributive principles should be designed and assessed according to how they affect welfare, either its maximization or distribution. Advocates of libertarian principles, by contrast to each of the principles so far mentioned, generally criticize any distributive ideal that requires the pursuit of economic ‘patterns’, such as maximization or equality of welfare or of material goods. They argue that the pursuit of such patterns conflicts with the more important moral demands of liberty or self-ownership. Finally, feminist critiques of existing distributive principles note that they tend to ignore the particular circumstances of women, so feminists tend to argue for principles which are more sensitive to facts such as that women often have primary responsibility for child-rearing and on average, spend less of their lifetimes than men in the market economy.