Distributive justice is a concept whereby the fair allocation of resources is ensured amongst the members of a community. Such a distribution, takes into account the entire amount of goods to be distributed, the pattern of distribution and the distributing procedure. Further, it is a quest to ascertain what is just or right with respect to the allocation of commodities in a society. This could be comprehended in the manner that a community whose individual members are given their due rights would be considered as a society guided by the principles of distributive justice.
The concept of Distributive justice considers the distribution of goods among members of society within a time frame specifying certain standards for its acceptability.
However, a number of philosophers and thinkers possess different views about the importance of equitable norms in the society, but they unanimously agree on the principles of perfect distribution of wealth.
Historically, many countries have dealt with issues pertaining to Distributive Justice, especially countries with ethnic tensions and geographically distinctive minorities. Post-apartheid South Africa is an example of a country that deals with issues of re-allocating resources with respect to the framework of Distributive justice.
Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia is one of the most stimulating essays on political philosophy in recent times. In it he revives the claim long associated with John Locke and Herbert Spencer that a “minimal state” limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified that the minimal state is distributive justice Nozick inspiring as well as right.
He develops a concept of justice which he calls the “entitlement theory” according to which economic goods arise already encumbered with rightful claims to their ownership. The central idea behind the concept is the existence of a “minimal state”.
Nozick develops his argument by elaborating the subject of “justice in holdings” which consists of three major topics. The first is the “original acquisition” of holdings through which unheld things may be attained. The second revolves around the transfer of the above mentioned holdings from one person to another.
The third covers the general descriptions of voluntary exchange, gift and fraud. It further encompasses several details of happenings within a society. It could be explained as the principle of justice in transfer that is how a person may divest himself of a holding, passing it into an unheld state. If the world were wholly just, the following inductive definition would exhaustively cover the subject of justice in holdings.
(a) A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principles of justice in acquisition is entitled to that holding.
(b) A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer, from someone else entitled to the holding, is entitled to the holding.
(c) No one is entitled to a holding except by (repeated) applications of 1 and 2.
The complete principle of distributive justice would suggest a distribution to be just wherein all are entitled to the holdings they possess under the distribution through legitimate means. The legitimate means of moving from one distribution to another are specified by the principle of justice in transfer. The legitimate first "moves" are specified by the principle of justice in acquisition. Whatever arises from a just situation by just steps is itself ‘just’.
The concept of Justice in holdings is historical which is dependant upon what actually happened. Not all actual situations are generated in accordance with the two principles of justice in holdings. Some people steal from others, or defraud them, or enslave them and others acquire holdings by means not sanctioned by the principle of justice in acquisition. The existence of past injustice (previous violations of the first two principles of justice in holdings) raises the third major topic under justice in holdings: the rectification of injustice in holdings. This leads us to the process through which past injustices may be rectified.
The general outlines of the theory of justice in holdings are that the holdings of a person are just if he is entitled to them by the principles of justice in acquisition and transfer, or by the principle of rectification of injustice (as specified by the first two principles). If each person's holdings are just, then the total set (distribution) of holdings is just.
Discussion of Rawls’s Theory:
One of the most interesting modern attempts to defend principles of justice is found in John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, as now reformulated in Political Liberalism. One cannot think about justice, one commentator observed.
Rawls Concept of Justice involves the following principles,
- The maximization of liberty, subject only to such constraints as are essential for the protection of liberty itself;
- Equality for all, both in the basic liberties of social life and also in the distribution of all other forms social goods, subject to only to the exception that inequalities may be permitted if they produce the greatest possible benefits for those least well-off in a given scheme of inequality(“ the difference principle”); and
- “Fair equality of opportunity” and the elimination of all inequalities of opportunity based in birth and wealth.
Rawls begins with a Kantian statement that “each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole can override.” However, he quickly rejects the premise by declaring “no doubt [these propositions] are expressed too strongly.”
In the beginning, Rawls acknowledges the tension between the society and an individual. The principles of justice, within his theory, are the principles that best reconcile the interests of the two parties. Society is described as a “cooperative venture for mutual advantage,” although “it is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interests.”
The basic reason for the existence of a clash is that humans are ego-centric. “Social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts,” but “persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed .”
Essentially, “a set of principles is required for choosing among the various social arrangements which determine this division of advantages.” This pattern is reflective of the principles of justice of Rawls which determine the allotment of goods. It is vital that these principle progress from foundations of fairness and equality.
For Rawls, the above mentioned is the original position from which any prudent person would derive the same principles of justice. Each member of society must enter the original position behind a “veil of ignorance,” meaning that they are completely oblivious to the fact that how their natural talents and strengths are placed in the society in lieu of the class position or social status. This in essence means that those behind the veil of ignorance construct the society oblivious of any personal advantages or disadvantages. Thus it is architected on egalitarian basis.
Rawls theory differs from utilitarianism in three significant ways.First, Utilitarians can accept inequalities; social arrangements in which some benefits at the expense of others provided the benefits or pleasure exceed the costs or pains. Secondly, while Utilitarians defend liberty and political rights, they have no objection to limiting liberty or restricting political rights, provided doing so, would promote greater well-being. Thirdly, Rawls conception of benefits is different from utilitarianism, which is concerned with welfare.
Nozick’s Criticism; Its Strengths and Weaknesses:
Nozick comes to the conclusion there is no such thing as a social good, instead, there are only individual people with their own individual lives, and use one of these people for the benefit of others, nothing more. He further says social goods, social welfare, or social justice are all bogus terms used to justify coercing individuals to benefit each other.
For distributive justice he states that there is no central distribution, an authority or a person to control the world resources. Distribution is a result of several decisions in a free and rightful society where what a person gets is an exchange of gifts leading to independent decision making.
Nozick considers justice in holdings as historical depending upon what actually has happened. He considers this as the differentiating factor between him and Rawls. Nozick differs with Rawls’s current time-slice principles of justice which determine distribution on the structural principle(s) of just distribution as Rawls bases his arguments on historically ignorant grounds and argues that this is beneficial because ignorance leads to equality and fairness. Nozick disagrees by saying that Rawls end-result principles which are, applying unhistorical principles of distribution to a time sequence may be rejected by a number of people. For example any prudent man to know that any man who has been given death penalty or life imprisonment in residing in incarceration for a purpose.
Further Nozick considers that every principle of distributive justice is patterned that is according to one’s moral merit, needs, or how hard he tries. The pattern represents the basic criterion for distributing social goods. On the other hand for Rawls the pattern is represented by the second principle. His findings rest on the premise of human inviolability whereupon one submits to the society and consequentially the State. Nozick exploits the contradiction by discussing his famous example of Wilt Chamberlain.
For Nozick, talent and the subsequent hard work that he puts in cannot be differentiated in any objective manner. Differentiating between natural advantages and the fruits of an individual’s labor is impossible. No rational individual would agree to sacrifice his own hard earned income to another simply for the sake of equality. Society would be plagued by the free-rider problem as individuals took advantage of others’ productivity, without having to provide anything of their own. This is the historical context that the second principle of A Theory of Justice fails to account for and, in doing so, violates the basic precepts that Rawls established.
Ostensibly, there appears to be some convergence in the theories of Nozick and Rawls. However Nozick does not pay heed to the egalitarian concerns being subject to some inequities towards the least advantaged.
An individual is not bound by any perceptible pre-determined divisions rather exercises liberty and choice to enter into free transactions and consequentially affecting the initial and purported patterned distributions. The more an individual does to serve the ends of others, the greater the share of the distribution that individual will receive. Nozick gives a maxim to represent his distributive justice: “From each as they choose, to each as they are chosen”. By eliminating the second principle of Rawls, the preceding logic in A Theory of Justice is all but flawless. It provides for a distribution based on the first principle, that of inviolable liberty.
The above discussion has given a detailed account of the concept of distributive justice and how John Rawls and Robert Nozick have justified their own concepts while criticizing the other.
As per John Rawls, his concept seems a little more understandable. He comes up with the concept of end result principles, which work behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. For him basic liberties are essential as well as integral for a society. He wants to maximize the productivity and liberties for others. This would be most suitable for our society where there are extreme injustices, poor are suppressed and the rich are getting richer. The situation is far gross stretching to the international scenario.
In the present world, rich countries are exploiting the poor nations by eliminating their basic rights of growth and competition. Such nations work in close coordination to further enrich themselves while the poor nations are suffering. As per Rawls, it is important that everyone should be given free chance to excel irrespective of his past history. An example is of a class of ten students following the annual system of education; every student studies according to his/her own abilities, but the final term exam decides who stands first as every student were given a fair chance to compete. Secondly, it does not matter that how much a boy studied as all were given equal opportunity to perform.
At this juncture, Nozick’s idea jumps in. According to him, if we consider the above example, we are completely ignoring the amount of effort or work that was applied by a student which we seem to forget under Rawls veil of ignorance. According to Nozick, the background of every student must be taken in to account while deciding his fate.
Similar examples could be taken from the international scenario. The Iraq war is a prime example. Whatever happened in Iraq was a gross violation of many international instruments including the international humanitarian law. Now America considers Iraq in a rebuilding phase. If we follow Rawls theory such an atrocity could be justified as achieving the end results under the veil of ignorance. But on the other hand, how would someone forgive the gross violations and injustices that have happened as many innocent people were brutally killed and murdered. To my understanding, it would be an excessive injustice to forget the past and look for the future goals.
One of the constructive examples is of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). The purpose of this tribunal was not only to provide better future for the people by ensuring justice and equality but to bring to justice those who where involved in grave crimes against humanity.
The similar example is of the Nuremburg Trials in which not only the Nazi regime war criminals were prosecuted for their crimes against humanity but the future of Germany was considered foremost.
It could be concluded that Nozick’s idea of ascertaining the history of rights is important and what ever happens as per his theory of justice in holding is essential but on the other hand his concept of minimal state may never be achieved. The reason why I say this is that every state has to be run as per certain rules that may be detrimental to some (as per their own perception) and vital for others. It is the objective guidelines through which a state intends to govern the population that is integral. Anything contrary to that would lead a mass of individuals to chaos. Here Rawls’s theory materializes which works for the society as a whole looking out for the best possible standards for all.
If Nozick’s principles of holding lead to the end results concept of Rawls, an ideal state may be achieved where a wrong may be remedied at the earliest stage and the best possible end result be achieved.
Lloyd’s ‘Introduction to Jurisprudence’, seventh edition M.D.A. Freeman
John Rawls ‘A Theory of Justice’, revised edition published 2005, Harvard university press
Robert Nozick ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’ Basic Books 1974
Rawls vs. Nozick: ‘The necessity of Liberty’ Uploaded by houndofzeus (132) on May 1, 2006
Robert Nozick ‘Distributive Justice’, from Anarchy, State and Utopia, 149-182. Copyright @ 1974 by Basic Books, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books, a subsidiary of Perseus Books Group, LLC
John Kilcullen Macquaire university, ‘Robert Nozick, Anarchy, state and utopia’
Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University, ‘Distributive Justice’
First published Sun Sep 22, 1996; substantive revision Mon Mar 5, 2007
Principles of distributive justice are normative principles designed to guide the allocation of the benefits and burdens of economic activity.
John Kilcullen Macquaire university, Robert Nozick : ‘Against Distributive Justice’
David Kelly, ‘Robert Nozick and the Good fight’
Michelle Maiese, ‘Distributive Justice’ June 2003