Imperfection and Impartiality: A Liberal Theory of Social Justice

By Marcel Wissenburg | Go to book overview
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The distribution of rights

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance in London, that a young healthy Child, well nursed is, at a Year old, a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or Ragoust.

Jonathan Swift, 'A Modest Proposal' (Swift 1959:260)

Owning-the stringent view

Distribution is a matter of at least one distributor, at least one recipient and of course at least one object of a certain value-young healthy Irish children, for instance. In this chapter I shall look at the last category, that of the objects to which the concept of distributive justice ought to be applied. Rights and other things are distributed in various social contexts-the family, classes at school or in universities, neighbourhoods, communities, nations, continents, unions, churches, clubs, and so forth. For reasons of simplicity I shall talk about distribution only in the context of society, without attention for the possible relevancy of my conclusions in other social contexts.

My discussion of this issue is inspired by two almost classic problems in the social justice debate: self-ownership and original acquisition. The first problem was detected by, among others, Rawls's critics. Since neither a new-born child nor its parents 'own' the child's natural endowments nor 'deserve' them, should these endowments not be considered as resources for a society-and should not society then decide on the development and use of its citizens' endowments? One does not even have to think of the nourishing qualities with which children are reputedly endowed to understand that the consequences of a dictatorship of society can be deplorable: imagine a society coercing its members to serve as slaves in the interest of the state for a period of one to five years. On the other hand, we often find it reasonable that governments keep people from using some of their


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