Distributive justice attempts to answer the question of who gets what in society. To illustrate, let's consider a typical question that a theory of distributive justice should hopefully answer: are we entitled to the full rewards of exercising those talents we just happen to have been born with?
To answer this, I need, for any rewards I receive, an account that justifies that change in holdings, from others to me. The distributive justice debate is the search for such an account.
John Rawls and Robert Nozick provide the background to the debate. Rawls first proposes a hypothetical ‘original position’ (OP) in which we should putatively establish ‘the principles of justice for the basic structure of society’. This position is one in which ‘no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like’. Such a position, Rawls thinks, will universalise a notional rational person and remove self-knowledge so that neutral judgements are made. The concept of rationality he employs is that of ‘taking the most effective means to given ends...’, highlighting that the outcome, the end pattern of distribution, is important to Rawls.
By hypothetically removing arbitrary advantages, Rawls establishes a fair OP from which he thinks a rational person will be forced, in a sense, to establish basic structures. The two principles he proposes reflect this: the first is ‘equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties’ and the second, dubbed the difference principle (DP), holds that ‘social and economic inequalities...are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society’ (ibid). He does not think that a person in the OP could rationally sacrifice themselves for the greater good, and these principles reflect that rejection of utilitarianism. He suggests almost a Kantian imperative that everyone would sign up to structures that benefited all if they are behind this ‘veil of ignorance’. It is Kantian in that the principles, Rawls claims, command rational assent. However, reason has been deployed in self interest (though self-ignorant) and not to determine duty, per Kant.
So we have a clear statement by Rawls that society’s basic principles should be (hypothetically) established without knowledge of our natural assets and abilities. Equal pay legislation, for example, is consistent with Rawls’s two principles. Outcomes are important, and Rawls places the first egalitarian principle ‘lexically prior’ to the second (we consider equality before we apply the DP), so it seems to follow that a man should not get paid more than a woman, all other things being equal, gender being a natural accident. But then, equal pay legislation for different natural talents would seem to follow too from Rawlsian principles. Should it be illegal, for example, to reward Wayne Rooney more than me (if we both happen to play up front for Manchester United!) on the grounds that he is more talented?
Rawls writes about nullifying ‘the accidents of natural endowment’ ‘as counters in quest for political and economic advantage’, and Rooney is surely no more responsible for his natural talent than I am for my lack of them. Certainly he may have spent more time honing his skills growing up, but he is not ultimately responsible for his ability to work at his skills, or for being in the position to develop his skills. But do Rawls’s principles explicitly support these conclusions and give us a particular answer to our question?
It’s not clear that they do. Moving from a fairly equal distribution to a more unequal distribution could be consistent with Rawls’s principles, so long as everyone benefits. Pay dictated by demand for certain natural talents could well deliver such outcomes. Further, the principles say little about who is entitled to what. The principles are indifferent to me earning a footballer’s salary or Wayne Rooney, so long as the distributions are structurally equivalent, so it’s difficult to establish any particular individual entitlement from the two principles.
Nozick identifies this problem too; ‘one traditional socialist view’ argues for workers’ entitlement to ‘the full fruits of their labour’, he writes. But what he calls ‘time-slice’ distributions are indifferent to who has what; 'time-slice' distributions are judged on their structure as they stand, regardless of the history behind that distribution, which appears to be the Rawlsian approach; remember, Rawls was interested in outcomes, the end pattern of distribution. He is noting that left-wingers also think they are entitled to the full rewards of exercising their talents, so they recognise that history is important to determining a just distribution. He argues for a ‘historical’ principle to justify entitlements, which contrasts with Rawls’s ‘current time-slice principles’ of distribution outcomes. If original acquisitions and subsequent transfers are in ‘accordance with the principle of justice’ then the distribution is just. Whereas, if we concern ourselves with outcomes, initial just patterns of distributions followed by just transfers can result in unjust patterns of distribution, and constant state interference will then be required to make corrections, violating individual liberty and autonomy.
So Nozick rejects various patterns of distributive justice, such as moral merit, need, effort and indeed ‘natural dimension’; he simplifies his ‘entitlement conception’ to ‘From each as they choose, to each as they are chosen’. So long as acquisitions and transfers meet this principle the resulting (unpatterned) distributions are just. In reality no-one’s existing holdings will be just under the principle (because they won't have been arrived at through Nozick's principles), but, to be fair, Nozick is only talking in principle.
Consider Nozick’s example of talented basketball player Wilt Chamberlain: if we imagine an ideal distribution of wealth at the start of a basketball season, and during the season people freely choose to upset that ideal distribution by each paying a small amount to see Chamberlain play, how is that new distribution unjust, even if the worst off are now worse off and Chamberlain is now wealthy? If a just starting position is followed by just transfers, a just distribution surely results, Nozick concludes, and
Chamberlain is fully entitled to what others have chosen to pay him.
Entitlement, then, is left to market forces; just desert is whatever anyone chooses to pay you from their justly acquired holdings. One is not so much being rewarded for one’s talent as being rewarded for exploiting one’s talent. People with no useful skill but a talent for persuading people they want to part with their money would be just as entitled to their rewards as someone with a talent that adds value. But this manipulation casts doubt on just how free people’s choices are in the market place.
Nozick’s maxim has at least three problems, I think.
First, whilst an opening distribution of holdings may be just, that does not necessarily mean people have an unfettered right to do with it as they will. We grant that people can own land, but if they start to pursue a scorched earth policy which renders that land unusable to anyone else, we would consider that unacceptable. In other words, in many holdings there is still a common interest.
Secondly, the opportunity afforded to individuals by societal infrastructures is not recognised in unfettered transfers of holdings. If Wilt Chamberlain were born at a time when basketball were not organised, he would be unable to exploit his talent. The advantages afforded by this commonwealth deserve to be recognised when we analyse distributions.
Thirdly, recognising self-ownership does not mean we have precisely the same rights over the products of our talents as we have over our talents.
To illustrate, consider the ‘eye lottery’ thought experiment, suggested by Jo Wolff, which exploits the libertarian notion that the same property rights attach to our holdings as to our natural endowments. This imagines a state where a minority of people are born without eyes, and people with two eyes are forced to give up one eye to benefit the blind. This evokes a visceral objection to property redistribution, but is disanalogous to the re-distributive project in two key ways: it does not recognise any common interest in holdings and it doesn’t differentiate between natural endowments and the rewards of those natural endowments.
More analogous would be to imagine a state where anyone born short-sighted is issued with spectacles. Through accidents of historical distribution some people have ended up with many spectacles – altruistic people with better eyesight have passed their spectacles on to the more short-sighted for ‘spares’, people have inherited specs, and so on. When people are born with poor eyesight, those with spares are forced to give them up. The spares provide no additional benefit to the holder (they have enough for their own use and cannot wear them all at the same time) and were state supplied in the first place, and no violation of bodily integrity occurs. This spectacle lottery seems much less objectionable, and more justified, than the eye lottery, so objections to redistribution should likewise be tempered.
Nozick’s principle justifies transfers that could impoverish many – the untalented, or, rather, those who are not good at selling their services - which is unpalatable to some for whom Rawls’s protection of the worst off is important. Nevertheless, Nozick’s linking of people’s choices to entitlement is reminiscent of some conceptions of moral responsibility, which recognise that while rational free agents act deterministically, so are not ultimately responsible for their behaviour, they are nevertheless individually responsible if they make intentional choices uncoerced by external factors. Rawls recognises this point when, while saying that people may not deserve their place in the ‘distribution of natural endowments’, they can still be credited for using them:
A basic structure satisfying the difference principle rewards people, not for their place in that distribution [of native endowments], but for training and educating their endowments, and for putting them to work so as to contribute to others’ good as well as their own. (p.75)That people should not be rewarded for their place in the distribution of natural endowments suggests Rawls would answer our opening question in the negative; he does, however, identify intentional acts with entitlement, and if ‘putting talent to work’ is ‘exercising’ it, then Rawls might instead answer in the affirmative. But while rewarding people for exploiting their talent satisfies the DP (echoes of Nozick there), it is hardly predicated by it, and since also equality of rights and duties takes priority over the DP, such entitlement doesn’t follow uncontroversially from his principles.
Rawls recognises that his two principles may not be the final word, but expects a ‘reflective equilibrium’ to eventually settle them. Despite eschewing utilitarianism, his principles have a forward-looking consequentialist flavour, but massaging outcomes disrupts even the thin notion of individual desert that he allows. Under Nozick, anyone freely paid from holdings justly acquired would be fully entitled to their rewards (though even he allows that a minimal state will require some small percentage of people’s earnings). Nozick’s criticisms of fair distributions are well made, and his backward-looking historical account provides a simple way to establish entitlement, but it reflects little debt to community, and, practically, it may be impossible to establish any holdings that are justly acquired under his principle.
So I find neither account very satisfactory, but lean to the egalitarian because outcomes ultimately must matter more than processes. I can take enough from both accounts to conclude that I am not entitled to the full rewards of exercising those talents I just happen to have been born with, but am entitled to some of them.
Cottingham, J. (ed.) (2008) Western Philosophy: An Anthology, Oxford, Blackwell Pub..
Pike, J. (2011) Political Philosophy (A222 Book 6), Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Rawls, J. (2001) Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.