Social and Political Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction

By John Christman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3

Distributive justice
• Distributive justice and equality
• Libertarianism
• Rawlsian distributive justice
• Varieties of egalitarianism
• From equality to the welfare state
• Chapter summary
• Case to consider
• Notes on further reading

In the last chapter we found that one way to defend the legitimacy of political authority was to show that the regime in question was just, that it operated according to acceptable principles, and treated citizens fairly. But what makes a society just? There are many ways to ask that question. Are people who commit crimes treated fairly in that society? Can people find redress against injuries they suffer from other citizens? Are the benefits and burdens of living in the society distributed fairly? More specifically, is the distribution of income and wealth in the society just, or are the disparities between the rich and the poor unfair? A more general version of this last question will be the focus of our discussion in this chapter, but political philosophy concerns itself with the others as well (and with related offshoots of them). Theories of justice, following Aristotle, are usually divided into theories of retributive justice (punishment), corrective justice (the payment of damages for private injuries, such as in tort law), and distributive justice (the regulation of social benefits, particularly economic rights and opportunities) (Aristotle 1958). We will consider the third here, as a lesson in how a generally liberal approach to political principle might extend to questions of social justice.

Principles of distributive justice amount principally to those legally enforced norms that shape the economic policies of a state, policies which determine the structure and pattern of property ownership in the society. Although I use

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