Manual Distributive justice: A constructive critique of the utilitarian theory of distribution

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Not registered? Sign up. Publications Pages Publications Pages. Search my Subject Specializations: Select Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Find in Worldcat. Print Save Cite Email Share. Any virtue, he maintains, is desirable in that it provides us with the pleasant feeling of approval; and any vice, including that of injustice, is undesirable in that it provides us with the painful sense of disapproval. Hume offers us a unique and fascinating argument to prove his point. He imagines four hypothetical scenarios, in which either human nature would be radically different utterly altruistic or brutally selfish or our environment would be so with everything we desire constantly and abundantly available or so destitute that hardly anyone could survive , allegedly showing that, in each of them, justice would not be a virtue at all.

His conclusion is that justice is only a virtue because, relative to reality, which is intermediate among these extremes, it is beneficial to us as members of society. He holds a very conservative view of property rights, in that, normally, people should be allowed to keep what they already have acquired. The rationale for such principles of international justice is that they reduce the horrors of war and facilitate the advantages of peace.

Yet the rules of justice that are normally conducive to public utility are never absolute and can be legitimately contravened where following them would seem to do more harm than good to our society. Whether that is or is not the case in specific circumstances becomes a judgment call. Hume is important here because of a convergence of several factors. First, like the Sophists and Hobbes, he makes justice a social construct that is relative to human needs and interests. Second, like Hobbes, he associates it fundamentally with human passions rather than with reason.

Third, the virtue of justice and the rules of justice are essentially connected to the protection of private property.

Distributive Justice, A Constructive Critique Of The Utilitarian Theory Of Distribution

And, fourth, he considers public utility to be the sole basis of justice. This theory would prove extremely influential, in that Kant will take issue with it, while utilitarians like Mill will build on its flexibility. While it may be attractive to allow for exceptions to the rules, this also creates a kind of instability. Is justice merely an instrumental good, having no intrinsic value? If that were the case, then it would make sense to say that the role of reason is simply to calculate the most effective means to our most desirable ends.

But then, assuming that our ends were sufficiently desirable, any means necessary to achieve them would presumably be justifiable—so that, morally and politically, anything goes, in principle, regardless how revolting.

Distributive Justice: A Constructive Critique of the Utilitarian Theory of Distribution

Is this the best we can do in our pursuit of an adequate theory of justice? As justice is both a moral and a political virtue, helping to prescribe both a good character and right conduct, the question of how such obligations arise is crucial. But, then, what is the logical link here? Why should we, morally speaking, act for the sake of agreeableness and utility? For Kant, the reason we should choose to do what is right has nothing to do with good consequences.

It is merely because it is the right thing to do. Then we shall consider the utilitarian response to this, as developed by the philosopher who is, arguably, the greatest consequentialist of modern times, John Stuart Mill, who, as an empiricist, like Hobbes and Hume, will make what is right a function of what is good.

Even though he was not convinced by it, Kant was sufficiently disturbed by it that he committed decades to trying to answer it, creating a revolutionary new philosophical system in order to do so. This system includes, but is far from limited to, a vast, extensive practical philosophy, comprising many books and essays, including a theory of justice.

It is well known that this practical philosophy—including both his ethical theory and socio-political philosophy—is the most renowned example of deontology from the Greek, meaning the study or science of duty. Justice categorically requires a respect for the right, regardless of inconvenient or uncomfortable circumstances and regardless of desirable and undesirable consequences.

On this view, matters of right will be equally applicable to all persons as potentially autonomous rational agents, regardless of any contingent differences, of gender, racial or ethnic identity, socio-economic class status, and so forth. If Kant can pull this off, it will take him further in the direction of equality of rights than any previous philosopher considered here.

For the dignity of all persons, rendering them intrinsically valuable and worthy of respect, is a function of their capacity for moral autonomy. In his Metaphysics of Morals , Kant develops his ethical system, beyond this foundation, into a doctrine of right and a doctrine of virtue. The former comprises strict duties of justice, while the latter comprises broader duties of merit. Obviously, it is the former category, duties we owe all other persons, regardless of circumstances and consequences, that concerns us here, justice being a matter of strict right rather than one of meritorious virtue.

In his Metaphysical Elements of Justice , which constitutes the first part of his Metaphysics of Morals , Kant develops his theory of justice. To say that we have duties of justice to other persons is to indicate that they have rights, against us, that we should perform those duties—so that duties of justice and rights are correlative.

Kant distinguishes between natural or private justice, on the one hand, and civil or public justice, on the other. He has an intricate theory of property rights, which we can only touch upon here. We can claim, in the name of justice, to have rights to a physical property, such as your car, b the performance of a particular deed by another person, such as the auto shop keeping its agreement to try to fix your car, and c certain characteristics of interpersonal relationships with those under our authority, such as obedient children and respectful servants.

Someone who steals your car or the auto mechanic who has agreed to fix it and then fails to try to do so is doing you an injustice. Children, as developing but dependent persons, have a right to support and care from their parents; but, in turn, they owe their parents obedience while under their authority.

Children are not the property of their parents and must never be treated like things or objects; and, when they have become independent of their parents, they owe them nothing more than gratitude. Similarly, a master must respect a servant as a person. While the master has authority over the servant, that must never be viewed as ownership or involve abuse. This all concerns private or natural justice, having to do with the securing of property rights.

Next let us next consider how Kant applies his theory of justice to the problem of crime and punishment, in the area of public or civil justice, involving protective, commutative, and distributive justice, the requirements of which can be legitimately enforced by civil society. When a person commits a crime, that involves misusing freedom to infringe the freedom of others or to violate their rights. Thus the criminal forfeits the right to freedom and can become a legitimate prisoner of the state. A third application to consider here is that of war.

Unlike Hobbes, he does not see this as a basis for all moral duty. It does account for the obligation we have to the state and other citizens. But states have duties to other states, so that there is an international law of nations. Even though different states, in the absence of international law, are in a natural condition of a state of war, as Hobbes thought, he was wrong to think that, in that state, anything rightly goes and that there is no justice.

War is bad, and we should try to minimize the need for it, although Kant is not a pacifist and can justify it for purposes of self-defense. What shall we critically say about this theory? First, it argues for a sense of justice in terms of objective, non-arbitrary right—against, say, Hobbes and Hume.

To focus the issue, ask the question, why should we be just? For Plato, this is the way to achieve the fulfillment of a well-ordered soul. For Aristotle, the achievement and exercising of moral virtue is a necessary condition of human flourishing. For Hobbes, practicing justice is required by enlightened self-interest.

For Hume, even though our being just may not benefit us directly all the time, it is conducive to public utility or the good of the society of which we are members. But for each of these claims, we can ask, so what? If any combination of these claims were to turn out to be correct, we could still legitimately ask why we should therefore be just. His theory as we have considered it here is a paradigmatic example of the view of justice being advocated in this article, as essentially requiring respect for persons as free, rational agents.

Kant represents the very sort of bourgeois conception of justice against which Marx and Engels protest in their call, in The Communist Manifesto, for a socialistic revolution. Marx explains the ideal of socio-economic equality he advocates with the famous slogan that all should be required to contribute to society to the extent of their abilities and all should be allowed to receive from society in accordance with their needs.

John Stuart Mill, a nineteenth-century English philosopher, was aware of the call for a Communist revolution and advocated progressive liberal reform as an alternative path to political evolution. Whereas Kant was the first great deontologist, Mill subscribed to the already established tradition of utilitarianism. Near the end of his life, Mill observed that it was the closest thing to a religion in which his father raised him.

And, if he was not the founder of this secular religion, he clearly became its most effective evangelist. But what is deceptive about this is the notion that we can sufficiently anticipate future consequences to be able to predict where our actions will lead us. Notice, also, that unlike Kantian deontology, which makes what is right independent of good consequences, utilitarianism makes the former a function of the latter.

We have already discerned what the former concept means and now need to elucidate the latter. People commonly associate all of these with justice, and they do seem to represent legitimate aspects of the virtue. Therefore there purportedly cannot be any genuine conflict between utility and justice. If there ever were circumstances in which slavery were truly useful to humanity, then presumably it would be just; the reason it is typically unjust is that it violates utility.

The main goal here is to reduce justice to social utility, in such a way as to rule out, by definition, any ultimate conflict between the two. Thus, the social role played by our sense of justice is allegedly that it serves the common good. The problem Mill sets for himself here is where to draw a reasonable line between areas in which society can rightly proscribe behavior and those in which people should be allowed the freedom to do as they will.

It is not acceptable to use power against others to stop them from hurting only themselves. Mill candidly admits that this principle is reasonably feasible only with regard to mature, responsible members of civilized societies—not to children or to the insane or even necessarily to primitive peoples who cannot make informed judgments about their own true good.

He seems confident that utility will always require that freedom be protected in these areas ibid. Let us now see how Mill applies his utilitarian theory to three problems of justice that are still timely today. First of all, the issue of punishment is one he considers in Utilitarianism , though his discussion is aimed at considering alternative accounts rather than conclusively saying what he himself thinks we might also observe that, in this short passage, he attacks the social contract theory as a useless fiction ibid. As a utilitarian, he favors the judicious use of punishment in order to deter criminal activity.

In , as an elected member of Parliament, he made a famous speech in the House of Commons supporting capital punishment on utilitarian grounds. Although it is clear that he would like to be able to support a bill for its abolition, the lawful order of society, a necessary condition of societal well-being, requires this means of deterring the most heinous crimes, such as aggravated murder.

He even thinks it a quicker, more humane punishment than incarcerating someone behind bars for the rest of his life. Thus his utilitarian theory provides him with a basis for supporting capital punishment as morally justifiable. A second famous application of his utilitarian theory of justice Mill makes is to the issue of equal opportunity for women.

Here, again, we have an issue of social justice to which his utilitarian theory is applied, generating liberal conclusions. Our third issue of application is that of international non-intervention. Although defensive wars can be justifiable, aggressive ones are not. It can be justifiable to go to war without being attacked or directly threatened with an attack, for example, to help civilize a barbarian society, which, as such, allegedly has no rights.

Social Justice and the Legitimation of Aggressive Behavior

All of this is presumably a function of utilitarian welfare. Once more, a still timely moral issue has been addressed using the utilitarian theory of justice. These applications all plausibly utilize the values and reasoning of utilitarianism, which, by its very nature, must be consequentialist.

Surely, the premium he places on human happiness is admirable, as is his universal perspective, which views all humans as counting. The problem is in his assumptions that all values are relative to consequences, that human happiness is the ultimate good, and that this reduces to the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain.

From its founding, American political thought had an enduring focus on justice. After considering the formidable contributions of Rawls to justice theory and some of its applications, we shall conclude this survey with a brief treatment of several post-Rawlsian alternatives. A key focus that will distinguish this section from previous ones is the effort to achieve a conception of justice that strikes a reasonable balance between liberty and equality.

This led to a greatly developed book version, A Theory of Justice , published in , arguably the most important book of American philosophy published in the second half of the last century. He also makes it clear early on that he means to present his theory as a preferable alternative to that of utilitarians. If you must decide on what sort of society you could commit yourself to accepting as a permanent member and were not allowed to factor in specific knowledge about yourself—such as your gender, race, ethnic identity, level of intelligence, physical strength, quickness and stamina, and so forth—then you would presumably exercise the rational choice to make the society as fair for everyone as possible, lest you find yourself at the bottom of that society for the rest of your life.

He emphasizes the point that these principles rule out as unjust the utilitarian justification of disadvantages for some on account of greater advantages for others, since that would be rationally unacceptable to one operating under the veil of ignorance. Again, this is anti-utilitarian, in that no increase in socio-economic benefits for anyone can ever justify anything less than maximum equality of rights and duties for all.

Thus, for example, if enslaving a few members of society generated vastly more benefits for the majority than liabilities for them, such a bargain would be categorically ruled out as unjust. Rawls proceeds to develop his articulation of these two principles of justice more carefully. The lexical priority of this first principle requires that it be categorical in that the only justification for limiting any basic liberties would be to enhance other basic liberties; for example, it might be just to limit free access of the press to a sensational legal proceeding in order to protect the right of the accused to a fair trial.

For example, the office of the presidency has attached to it greater social prestige and income than is available to most of us. Is that just? It can be, assuming that all of us, as citizens, could achieve that office with its compensations and that even those of us at or near the bottom of the socio-economic scale benefit from intelligent, talented people accepting the awesome responsibilities of that office.

Most of us today might be readily sympathetic to the first principle and the equal opportunity condition, while finding the difference principle to be objectionably egalitarian, to the point of threatening incentives to contribute more than is required. Rawls briefly suggests that his theory of justice as fairness might be applied to international relations, in general, and to just war theory, in particular ibid. Rawls applies his theory of justice to the domestic issue of civil disobedience. No society is perfectly just.

If the severity of the injustice is not great, then respect for democratic majority rule might morally dictate compliance. Ultimately, every individual must decide for himself or herself whether such action is morally and prudentially justifiable or not as reasonably and responsibly as possible. The acts of civil disobedience of Martin Luther King to whom Rawls refers in a footnote seem to have met all the conditions, to have been done in the name of justice, and to have been morally justified ibid.

A just society must protect basic liberties equally for all of its members, including freedom of thought and its necessary condition, freedom of expression. But, in a free society that protects these basic liberties, a pluralism of views and values is likely to develop, such that people can seriously disagree about matters they hold dear. These may be religious like Christianity or philosophical like Kantianism or moral like utilitarian. Yet a variety of potentially conflicting comprehensive doctrines may be such that all are reasonable.

Randomness and Distribution

In such a case, social unity requires respect for and tolerance of other sets of beliefs. It would be unjust deliberately to suppress reasonable comprehensive doctrines merely because they are different from our own. Thus, for example, a Christian Kantian and an atheistic utilitarian, while sincerely disagreeing on many ethical principles, philosophical ideas, and religious beliefs, can unite in mutually accepting, for instance, the American Constitution as properly binding on all of us equally.


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This agreement will enable them mutually to participate in social cooperation, the terms of which are fair and reciprocal and which can contribute to the reasonable good of the entire society. Near the end of his life, Rawls published The Law of Peoples , in which he tried to apply his theory of justice to international relations. Given that not all societies act justly and that societies have a right to defend themselves against aggressive violent force, there can be a right to go to war jus ad bellum.

After hostilities have ceased, just conquerors must treat their conquered former enemies with respect—not, for example, enslaving them or denying them civil liberties. More generally, Rawls applies his theory of justice to international relations, generating eight rules regarding how the people of other societies must be treated. What is most interesting here is what Rawls refuses to say. While different peoples, internationally speaking, might be imagined in an original position under the veil of ignorance, and Rawls would favor encouraging equal liberties and opportunities for all, he refuses to apply the difference principle globally in such a way as to indicate that justice requires a massive redistribution of wealth from richer to poorer societies Peoples , pp.

His views on international aid seem so well worked out that, ironically, they call into question part of his general theory of justice itself. It does not seem plausible that the difference principle should apply intrasocietally but not internationally. The problem may be with the difference principle itself. It is not at all clear that rational agents in a hypothetical original position would adopt such an egalitarian principle. Thus we could satisfactorily specify the requirements of an essentially Kantian conception of justice, as requiring respect for the dignity of all persons as free and equal, rational moral agents.

While less egalitarian than what Rawls offers, it might prove an attractive alternative. To what extent should liberty be constrained by equality in a just society? This is a central issue that divides him from many post-Rawlsians, to a few of whom we now briefly turn. They will represent six different approaches.

What Is Justice?: Crash Course Philosophy #40

We shall consider, in succession, 1 the libertarian approach of Robert Nozick, 2 the socialistic one of Kai Nielsen, 3 the communitarian one of Michael Sandel, 4 the globalist one of Thomas Pogge, 5 the feminist one of Martha Nussbaum, and 6 the rights-based one of Michael Boylan. As this is merely a quick survey, we shall not delve much into the details of their theories limiting ourselves to a single work by each or explore their applications or do much in the way of a critique of them. But the point will be to get a sense of several recent approaches to developing views of justice in the wake of Rawls.

Both are fundamentally committed to individual liberty. First, anyone who justly acquires any holding is rightly entitled to keep and use it. Second, anyone who acquires any holding by means of a just transfer of property is rightly entitled to keep and use it. It is only through some combination of these two approaches that anyone is rightly entitled to any holding.

But some people acquire holdings unjustly—e. So, third, justice can require the rectification of unjust past acquisitions. People should be entitled to use their own property as they see fit, so long as they are entitled to it. Whereas capitalism supports the ownership and control of the means of producing and distribution material goods by private capital or wealth, socialism holds that they should be owned and controlled by society as a whole. If Nozick accuses Rawls of going too far in requiring a redistribution of wealth, Nielsen criticizes him for favoring individual liberty at the expense of social equality.

His sharper departure from Rawls can be found in his second principle, which is to replace the difference principle that allegedly justified socio-economic in equality. Sandel, as a communitarian, argues against Rawls and Nozick that the well-being of a community takes precedence over individual liberty and against Nielsen over the socio-economic welfare of its members.

More specifically, it not only accepts the difference principle but wants to apply it on an international level as well as nationally.

go here But, as applied internationally, it is not.