Ana Matan, Tue, 19 Nov 2002
Who is more interested in distributive justice, the
rich or the poor?
of you may know that the contemporary academic debate
over distributive justice was spurred by and American
political philosopher John Rawls and his book A Theory
of Justice. In this book Rawls proposes that inequalities
of income and wealth are justified only if they benefit
the worst off group in society. Or to put it differently,
inequality is justified because the poorest members
of society (and everybody else) would be even worse
off if the inequality did not exist.
is really curious is that despite the enormous impact
Rawls made on the academic community in the US, the
general public was not acquainted with his ideas and
they were not a matter of public debate. On the other
hand, Rawls's ideas have been widely discussed in the
Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Island, Finland)
in which there is much more equality and justice in
distributive matters than in the US. ...Why is it so
that in countries which have among the highest level
of welfare provision in the world and not much inequality
and where even fines for speeding rise progressively
according to income, theories of distributive justice
are much more popular than in a country (USA) in which
there are huge inequalities in income and wealth?
Thu, 21 Nov 2002
What do we mean when we say "distributive justice"?
first: I do not think that ideas about Distributive
Justice do depend on how wealthy a nation is: rather
I expect historical processes to determine this. For
example, I expect that in Norway the ideas of how the
wealth should be shared are probably much older. But
of course, it might be regarded as disappointing that
a nation that is wealthy like the US seemingly has a
brings me to an important question in this group: what
do we mean when we say "distributive justice"?
I know from economic courses that there are diagrams
that analyze how equal wealth is shared among an amount
of people. Probably several of you know the statements
like "10 percent of the inhabitants own 60 percent
of the income". This seems obviously not to be
fair. But: what does "fair" (distributive
The justice based on performance and the justice based
know at least two meanings of "distributive justice"-
therefore I find it easy to understand that in America
another kind of idea of distributive justice is common.
In German obviously the reality isn't that extreme and
compromises between the two poles are most common. The
reason for this is seemingly that a society has to cope
with the losers of distribution and keep them quiet
to prevent rumors. One could distinguish Leistungsgerechtigkeit”
first means that one gains as much as he is able to
perform for others (someone skilled and ambitious will
earn more). The second means that one should get what
he needs, regardless of how powerful or skilled he is.
there are tendencies - and correct me if I am wrong,
but I expect the US to be one of the countries in which
the first idea mentioned above of distributive justice
is strongly believed to be the right one by most of
expect the "rags to riches" American dream
("vom tellerwäscher zum millionär") to be
one of the fundamentals of that idea: everybody could
be the winner, and that is why everybody copes with
not being the winner yet. (In addition this idea of
distributive justice could be strengthen as far as I
know partly by religious roots, as the Calvinism/Puritanism
utters that being loved by God might show in "earthly
wealth", too. (An idea of M.WEBER I think, I hope
I do not insult anybody by this statement). This could
help to justify inequality, too. Thus, it does not surprise
me that in the US the majority is not thinking much
about other kinds of distributive justice (although
I have to admit that in Germany this topic isn’t
discussed that often either).
Justification of our market-based system?
this idea of a strong kind of "Leistungsgerechtigkeit"
is not "originally European" (funny- as the
first Americans were Europeans), I am afraid it becomes
part of our "European way" more and more -
(probably strengthened by tendencies of globalization
and tendencies of "individualization"). I
consider the idea to be just too tempting: you do not
have to care too much about others, as everybody gets
what he deserves. And this seems great as long as you
belong to the winners or at least you believe you might-
and the losers keep being quiet.
And like you told me, this principle could even be seen
as "good" as long as it proves that the "losers"
are even better off that way (according to Rawls), which
seems to be the unspoken justification of our market-based
system in opposition to the socialistic one that was
obviously put forward during the Documenta project.
I think this is a very interesting statement to discuss:
can the system be
justified by the idea that any (A-thinkable/ B-realistic)
alternative would be even worse for the "losers"?
what do we mean by "Distributive Justice"?
Matan Fri, 29 Nov 2002
“ What do we meanÝwhen we say "distributive
justice"? One could distinguish Leistungsgerechtigkeit”
from Bedürfnisgerechtigkeit. The first means that one
gains as much as he is able to perform for others (someone
skilled and ambitious will earn more). The second means
that one should get what he needs, regardless of how
powerful or skilled he is.”
each according to... and to each according to ...
one way both of these formulations could be fitted into
a formula of a type "From each according to...and
to each according to..." The first one I think
is similar to that of the (already mentioned) American
philosopher Robert Nozick which reads: "From each
according to what he chooses to do, to each according
to what he makes for himself..." And the second
is more in line with some kind of a socialist slogan,
which can be formulated as: "From each according
to her abilities, to each according to her needs."
Now, one can say that the question of distributive justice
is a question of how to fill in the blanks of the above
formula (From each...to each...). Of course the
problem is that we do not agree about how those blanks
should be filled.
favorite author J. Rawls would say that we all share
a concept of justice,
but disagree about conceptions of justice. He says:
"Those who hold different conceptions of justice
can...still agree that institutions are just when no
arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the
assigning of basic rights and duties and when the rules
determine a proper balance between competing claims
to the advantages of social life." What we disagree
on is "what are arbitrary distinctions?" and
"what is a proper balance between competing claims?"
The principles on which all can agree?
As Klaus made it clear there are compromises between
the claims made on the basis of property rights, talents,
abilities, and claims on the basis of need. And some
compromise between different principles is maybe the
best we can do, but the idea of distributive justice,
as Rawls put it, is to find a conception of justice
on which all can agree and which will not be a result
of a bargain struck between lets say the rich and the
poor.ÝWe (the rich) agree to give you something of our
wealth to you (the poor) and in exchange we ask that
you do not rebel against us. This, thinks Rawls is not
justice. His conception of justice requires that we
agree on principles behind "a veil of ignorance"
where we do not know whether we are rich or poor, talented
or untalented, ambitious or not ambitious, high, middle
or lower class, man or women, etc...
The principles of justice are those that can be agreed
on in such "original position" of equality.
And he thinks that all can agree on the principles I
have already mentioned in one of my previous letters:
1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most
extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible
with a similar scheme of liberties for others
2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged
so that they are both
(a) to the greatest expected benefit of the least advantaged
(b) attached to offices and positions open to all under
condition of fair equality of opportunity
But Rawls' conception of justice is only one among many,
and you do not have to accept it or think it is "truly"
just. You may have a different conception. I see our
task as carrying on a discussion about these different
conceptions of distributive justice that we may have.
You are right when you say that Rawls' conception can
be seen as a justification of our market-based system
in opposition to the socialistic one that was obviously
put forward during the Documenta project.
And you are also right that part of its justification
in its proposition that
any (A-thinkable/ B-realistic) alternative would be
even worse for the "losers"?
So one question asked in a popular way may be: "Do
we care more about equality and are prepared to accept
that all should live of a loaf of bread and glass of
water or we care more about what people eat so we accept
that it is OK for some to eat champagne and caviar in
order for others to have beans and sausages along with
the bread?" (Provided that there is a mechanism
by which the champagne and caviar for some brings beans
and sausages to others).
This was all to say that our question should more precisely
be: What conception of distributive justice do we accept
as "truly" just? Or, what distribution
of social advantages do we accept as just? And not what
is distributive justice?