Distributive Justice

The term distributive justice refers to fairness in the way things are distributed, caring more about how it is decided who gets what, rather than what is distributed. In modern society, this is an important principle, as it is generally expected that all goods will be distributed throughout society in some manner. In a society with a limited amount of resources and wealth, the question of fair allocation is often a source of debate and contention. This is called distributive justice. To explore this concept, consider the following distributive justice definition.

Definition of Distributive Justice


  1. Justice that is concerned with the distribution or allotment of goods, duties, and privileges in concert with the merits of individuals, and the best interests of society.


12th century     Middle English

History of Distributive Justice

Some modern philosophers express the opinion that the notion of distributive justice is not very old, probably originating in the 18th century, based on the idea that society did not have a structure sophisticated enough to address allocation of resources with the intent of meeting everyone’s needs. Additionally, in empires and kingdoms of old, the monarch owned everything, permitting his subjects to use goods, land, and other items in his name.

Distributive Justice and the Right of Necessity

Sometime in the 12th century, the question of whether someone who had great need would be justified in taking something that belonged to someone else without consent, if it was needed to save his life, was addressed by certain philosophers. Religious scholars, at first, seemed inclined to say no, arguing that doing something that is evil, or otherwise inherently wrong, could not be justified by need. Believers in the philosophy of right of necessity brought about questions of the justification of property rights.

The idea of private property, or property being owned by a single person or entity other than the crown, gained both popularity and legitimacy over time. The writings of church fathers, church councils, and popes, however, were interpreted as meaning that the concept of private ownership of property was a matter of human law, not divine or natural law. Both natural and religious laws held that the earth had been given by God for the benefit of all, meaning that all things must be shared with those who need them.

As an example of distributive justice, and the right of necessity, sixteenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that each individual person has a right to whatever is needed for self-preservation, including such things as food, water, fire, clothing, and a place to live.

Equality of Resources

There is a philosophy in distributive justice, in which treats each person’s abilities and external resources as random chance. In this theory, inequalities between people’s social situations are acceptable, if they are a result of the individuals’ personal choices, but are not acceptable if they result from disadvantages thrust upon them. Under this theory, an individual who begins with equal resources may still end up in a better state than others, simply by virtue of having fewer handicaps, or greater talents.

Distributive Justice Example

Suppose 30 people survive a plane crash, and make their way onto a small, deserted island. The group places a priority on determining what resources are available to them, including natural resources of the island and the sea, and resources that may have washed ashore from the wreck. What would be the best way to ensure those resources are shared among the survivors in a fair and equitable fashion?

Jewish-American philosopher Thomas Dworkin suggests that, in order for a division of resources to be fair and impartial, one must apply what he calls “the envy test.” In this evaluation of distribution, none of the survivors would prefer, or envy, someone else’s resources. If this system of distributive justice is used, however, the final allocations may meet the test, but still appear biased or unfair.

Dworkin recommends a different manner of distribution of resources that places each individual in the same starting position, and allows them to choose which resources they would prefer to have. Should all of the resources be pooled, then each survivor be given an equal number of tokens. An auctioneer, appointed to divide the resources into lots, on which survivors may bid, using their tokens. This allows each person to make a choice as to his priority in resources, and on which items he will bid.

Welfare-Based Principles of Distributive Justice

Distributive justice takes into account the equitable distribution of many aspects of social life, above and beyond “goods.” Other benefits and burdens that are considered include potential income and economic wealth, taxation, work obligations, political power, education, housing, healthcare, military service, and community involvement.

Equality issues then are commonly seen in affirmative action policies, minimum wage laws, and public education opportunities and quality. Some of the more highly contended issues of distributive justice are those of public welfare, including Medicaid and food stamps, as well as providing aid to developing nations, and issues of progressive or tiered income taxes.

The Importance of Distributive Justice

In some fashion, every person’s claim to resources is, or has been, affected by someone who came before. The issue of what someone owns, or what he is entitled to, may be divided into two camps: (1) the belief that everyone begins life at a null point when they are born, after which they must earn their way through life, acquiring resources through the use of their talents and effort; and (2) the belief that each person, from birth, is entitled to what his parents possess, regardless of their own efforts in life. The second camp may be expanded to include people who believe they are entitled to what others have, regardless of family relation.

It has been noted that people begin to feel a sense of injustice when they believe that their condition or outcome is not in balance with the conditions of other people in similar situations. The perception of being at some kind of unfair disadvantage, or of not receiving a “fair share” of resources, often leads to feelings of despair. This is especially true when a person feels his fundamental needs are not met. A gulf between the “haves” and “have nots” of society sometimes drives people to challenge the system, pushing for change.

The issue of perceived imbalance in distribution has become apparent in certain regions of the world, including the Middle East, Europe, and other regions, as more and more people take a stand, often violently. Even in the United States, as the gulf between classes increases, civil and political unrest escalate. Another important issue in distributive justice is society’s belief that such things as race, color, gender, and religion should have nothing to do with distribution. Many people’s actual life experiences lead them to feel at an unfair disadvantage, and left out of what should be fair distribution.

Example of Distributive Justice in Education

If equality in distribution of resources was the only true measurement of who should get what, goods or other resources would be divided equally among all people. Another, equally important, consideration is need. To illustrate how a simple, equal division of resources is likely to result in an unequal outcome, consider the needs of students entering college each year.

Fairplay Community College has decided to offer a $500 scholarship to every freshman coming in with a GPA of 3.0 or higher. On the surface, giving every student in the group the same size scholarship seems to be a fair way to distribute the monies. On the other hand, while a $500 scholarship will certainly help pay the expenses of students whose family can afford the rest of their tuition and other expenses, it has no value at all to the students whose families cannot afford the additional $3,000 to $4,000 per semester tuition. In this example of distributive justice, the school is likely to save quite a bit of money, as a large number of freshman students in the 3.0 GPA group will simply not be able to avail themselves of the scholarship.

The GPA approach certainly appears to reward students according to their efforts and abilities, though a more just method of distribution may take into account the students’ individual financial needs. In fact, many colleges in the U.S. do offer needs-based scholarships, in which students with a greater need receive a larger scholarship. In educational opportunities, as well as social programs, this type of approach helps ensure everyone’s needs are met.

Distributive Justice and the Environment

As it relates to the environment, distributive justice refers to the evenhanded sharing of society’s environmental risks, benefits, and impacts. These issues include air and water pollution, overburdened landfills, industrial waste, and other environmental burdens. Distributive justice in the environment is the vital principle of sharing the burdens and responsibilities for the earth’s health, as pollution, global warming, and other environmental consequences have a negative effect on people’s heath, decrease quality of life, and reduce property values.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Distribution – The act of sharing something out among a number of recipients.
  • Equitable – Something characterized by equity or fairness, that which is just and right.