What is Distributive Justice?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Distributive justice is a legal and philosophical concept that revolves around a society's rules for the distribution of goods and services. The concept carries the weight of many complex philosophical issues, such as the role of a society in promoting the common welfare and the importance of universal human rights. Proponents of distributive justice tend to suggest that society has an inherent duty to allocate resources to citizens in need, and to oversee equity of access to basic human necessities.

Freedom of religion can be supported by distributive justice.
Freedom of religion can be supported by distributive justice.

The basic theory of distributive justice suggests that society inherently owes individuals rights and protections. These owed duties may include things like laws protecting free speech or freedom of religion, but may also include basic goods and services seen as necessary to human survival and dignity. Within these simple principles, however, lies a wealth of controversy between legal scholars, academics, and philosophers. Primarily, the differences of opinion lie in the areas of what constitutes fair allocation, and what rights, protections, and services are socially necessary under distributive justice.

Fair allocation is an issue in distributive justice that attracts a lot of discussion between theorists. In a strictly equal society, every citizen would receive exactly identical rights, services, and protections, regardless of his or her contribution to society. While strict equality sometimes factors into law through the giving of equal rights, such as the right to vote, it becomes more complex in terms of services offered by a government, such as welfare, health care, or disability benefits. John Rawls, one of the most influential voices in theories of modern distributive justice, suggests that allocation needs to provide equal opportunities and rights for all, but also work to distribute assets to benefit the poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

Critics of distributive justice often cite that personal responsibility is not taken into account in many of the theories of improving fair allocation. A person who cannot work because he is disabled may be more entitled to benefits than one who chooses not to work because he is lazy. In this instance, critics sometimes suggest it is unfair to distribute resources and effort to citizens who do not take personal responsibility for their lot in life. It is also argued that designing a system of allocation to benefit the poor discourages personal motivation, and may lead to a gradual increase in the amount of citizens that need or want to receive state-offered benefits.

Regardless of criticism, the principles of distributive justice are evident in the legal system of most modern societies. The right of a citizen to a fair trial, safety, liberty, and other basic concepts of law are build into the fabric of constitutions and legal codes around the world. While the fine-tuning of the idea is an ongoing process tailored to adapt to each new generation, the essential basis of distributive justice remains an integral part of almost all legal discussion.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@Logicfest -- I do believe these programs in the United States at least are designed to be temporary. When those programs start to look permanent, then it is time to reform them.

Meanwhile, if someone is truly disabled, don't we owe it to them to look out for them? Do we really want a society that would turn its back on people who do legitimately need long term help?


Distributive justice makes sense in a legal system, but is terrible social policy. We can probably agree that everyone deserves a right to a fair trial and that we should be able to rely on a police force to keep us safe, but what about when it comes to how much everyone has?

Should one person go to work every day and be taxed so that he or she can help support those who do not work? It seems we used to allow for that when people were off work for temporary reasons, but finding ways to live off the system has become a way of life for some people.

What is fair about that? If taken to the logical extreme, we would see society break down as those who go to work to support those who don't would eventually start staying home and living off the system, too.

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