Distributive justice

Distributive justice examines the socially just allocation of goods, which involves how rewards and costs are shared by the members of a group. When a society abides by the principles of distributive justice, there are minimal inequalities in the distribution of goods between individuals. There are several viewpoints on how to approach distributive justice. Donelson Forsyth broke it down into five different norms, each representing a different way in which rewards and costs can be distributed. They are:

  • Equity. No matter what amount of inputs a group member generates, all members of a group should receive an equal share of the rewards or costs. This can cause significant disparities between the amount of inputs and outputs. For example, a taxpayer might pay $1 million of income taxes to the government, and yet receive only $150,000 of benefits from the government in exchange.

  • Equality. The outputs given to the member of a group should be based on his inputs. This approach roughly matches inputs to outputs, so that someone who has paid in a significant amount can expect to receive a significant amount back in return. This norm initially seems fair, but provides no assistance to the poorer members of society, who never receive any support to improve their circumstances.

  • Need. Anyone with a high level of need is given more resources in order to meet those needs, irrespective of the level of their input into the group. While this approach can greatly enhance the lives of those in need, it provides little incentive for those providing the largest amounts of inputs to continue to do so.

  • Power. Anyone with more authority or status receives more outputs than those in positions of relatively less authority or status. This approach can greatly concentrate outputs in the upper echelons of a group.

  • Responsibility. Those members of a group who have the most resources have an obligation to share them with other group members who have fewer resources.

Each of these norms presents a different way to distribute outputs. There is no perfect way to do so; society has to determine for itself which alternative works best.

Another viewpoint on how to approach distributive justice was promulgated by Aristotle. His view was that equals should be treated equally, and that unequals should be treated unequally. For example, the commission structure of a sales department should award a 6% commission to any salesperson who achieves the $1 million quarterly sales target. Conversely, when one salesperson displays considerably superior performance, she should be awarded with a larger commission than her less productive associates. When there are differences in performance, the difference in compensation paid should reflect the proportional difference in performance between the various parties.

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