Distributive Justice and Subsidiarity: The Firm and the State in the Social Order

By Burke, Joseph | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Distributive Justice and Subsidiarity: The Firm and the State in the Social Order


Burke, Joseph, Journal of Markets & Morality


The term social justice is today generally used as a synonym of what used to be called distributive justice. The latter term perhaps gives a somewhat better idea of what can be meant by it and, at the same time, shows why it can have no application to the results of a market economy: "There can be no distributive justice where no one distributes." (1) This quote is due to Friedrich Hayek, and, in the essay in which it appears, he denies the very existence of social justice or distributive justice. In his criticism, Hayek's point that there can be no distributive justice where no one distributes is a valid one. Indeed, justice, including distributive justice, is a virtue, and as such can only be practiced by men. Michael Novak makes exactly this point when he argues: "Social justice is a virtue, an attribute of individuals, or it is a fraud." (2) Hayek is also right to point out that social-justice and distributive justice are used synonymously, often along with a third, economic justice. In practice, all three terms pertain to income redistribution and related policies. In fact, however, while they both have implications for the distribution of income and wealth in society, social justice and distributive justice are not synonymous in Catholic teaching or in the Scholastic tradition. The loss of the traditional understanding of these terms has resulted in widespread confusion regarding the demands of justice and a corresponding inability to satisfy those demands and live justly. This article examines the classical definitions of justice as well as the types of justice, beginning with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. These concepts were adopted and developed by Scholastic theologians and are contained in the teaching of the Catholic Church today. This article establishes the classical definition of distributive justice and draws out the implications of this type of justice for the firm and the state in the social order.

Types of Justice

Justice pertains to what is owed to a person, and justice is satisfied when each gives what he owes and receives what he is owed. Justice is both a characteristic of transactions and a virtue. A transaction is just if what is given to or received by a person is what is due to that person. A person is just, or has the virtue of justice, when he is in the habit of giving to each what is due to him. The term person can refer to either an individual or a community, and a community is a group of persons united in common purpose. Commutative justice and distributive justice are the two types of justice, according to Aristotle and later to Thomas Aquinas. Commutative justice pertains to what is owed between persons in exchange; distributive justice pertains to the obligations between a community and the members of that community. In distributive justice, there are two sets of obligations: (1) what a person owes to a community of which he is a member, and (2) what a community owes to its members. Scholastic teaching refers to the former set of obligations as general or legal justice and the latter set as particular justice. Modern Catholic teaching refers to the former set of obligations as social justice and reserves the term distributive justice for the latter, at least insofar as these terms are defined and used in the encyclicals. For example, Pope Benedict identifies commutative, social, and distributive justice as types of justice in his encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate. (3)

Table 1 summarizes the distinctions among the types of justice. With the exception of quotes from ancient and medieval sources, these terms are used in their modern sense throughout this article. I begin with a discussion of the requirements of commutative, social, and distributive justice, and then turn to the focus of this article, which is distributive justice in the modern sense: what a community owes to its members.

The Exercise of Justice

Commutative justice pertains to exchanges between persons.

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