A Theory of Distributive Justice

Abstract: Concerning distributive justice, there is much we humans agree on, and much we disagree on. In this paper, I am especially concerned with the disagreements, and in particular, with the possibility that there are deep conflicts embedded in our way of thinking about distributive justice, so that in certain kinds of cases, we are internally divided about the guidelines we should follow to decide who deserves what. I will give some reasons to think that, in prehistoric times, humans were committed to three different schemes for allocating just deserts:

  1. To each equally, or according to their needs,
  2. To each according to the talent and effort they invest, and
  3. To each according to the goods they produce.

Each scheme was, I argue, applied in different circumstances or to the allocation of different goods. Thus there was, originally, no conflict among the schemes. The conflict is a modern development with two causes. The first cause is that the boundaries between the proper domains of the three different schemes have become vague, or even entirely indeterminate, so that there are large classes of cases over which two or more principles can reasonably claim dominion. The second cause is a universalizing urge that seeks to make a single distributive scheme paramount. Of these, the first cause is a far more important source of confusion, uncertainty, and disagreement in public discourse about justice, but the second is perhaps at least as important as a source of philosophical disagreement.