Chapter 9 :    Social Philosophy

(NOTE:  You must read only those linked materials that are preceded by the capitalized word READ.)   

The principle question for social philosophy is:                     Who gets what????

This matter is known as DISTRIBUTIVE JUSTICE.  Just how are the goods and services within any society to be distributed?   In any society no matter how small (an island society) or how large (the People’s Republic of China) there will arise the question of how goods and services are to be distributed.  Whether people will be free to work and keep what they earn or whether all must contribute in some way to the welfare of others, particularly those not capable of working and caring for themselves.  Below there are a number of principles which have been developed in response to this problem of deciding how social life is to be regulated and people are to be cared for. Read these and note the differences. 

Please READ: On Distributive Justice:    

There are different theories of how to make the basic distribution.  Among them are:

There are different theories of how to make the basic distribution.  Among them are:

Strict Egalitarianism

One of the simplest principles of distributive justice is that of strict, or radical, equality. The principle says that every person should have the same level of material goods and services. The principle is most commonly justified on the grounds that people are morally equal and that equality in material goods and services is the best way to give effect to this moral ideal.

The Difference Principle  

The most widely discussed theory of distributive justice in the past four decades has been that proposed by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, (Rawls 1971), and Political Liberalism, (Rawls 1993). Rawls proposes the following two principles of justice:

·         1. Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value.

·         2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: (a) They are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and (b), they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. (Rawls 1993, pp. 5–6. The principles are numbered as they were in Rawls' original A Theory of Justice.) 

Equality of Opportunity and Luck Egalitarianism 

Dworkin proposed that people begin with equal resources but be allowed to end up with unequal economic benefits as a result of their own choices. What constitutes a just material distribution is to be determined by the result of a thought experiment designed to model fair distribution. Suppose that everyone is given the same purchasing power and each uses that purchasing power to bid, in a fair auction, for resources best suited to their life plans. They are then permitted to use those resources as they see fit. Although people may end up with different economic benefits, none of them is given less consideration than another in the sense that if they wanted somebody else's resource bundle they could have bid for it instead.

In Dworkin's proposal we see his attitudes to ‘ambitions’ and ‘endowments’ which have become a central feature of luck egalitarianism (though under a wide variety of alternative names and further subset-distinctions). In terms of sensitivity to ‘ambitions’, Dworkin and many other luck egalitarians argue that provided people have an ‘equal’ starting point (in Dworkin's case, resources) they should live with the consequences of their choices. They argue, for instance, that people who choose to work hard to earn more income should not be required to subsidize those choosing more leisure and hence less income.


Welfare-Based Principles  Welfare-based principles are motivated by the idea that what is of primary moral importance is the level of welfare of people. Advocates of welfare-based principles view the concerns of other theories — material equality, the level of primary goods of the least advantaged, resources, desert-claims, or liberty — as derivative concerns. They are only valuable in so far as they affect welfare, so that all distributive questions should be settled entirely by how the distribution affects welfare. However, there are many ways that welfare can be used in answering these distributive questions, so welfare-theorists need to specify what welfare function they believe should be maximized. The welfare functions proposed vary according to what will count as welfare and the weighting system for that welfare. Economists defending some form of welfarism normally state the explicit functional form, while philosophers often avoid this formality, concentrating on developing their theories in answer to two questions: 1) the question of what has intrinsic value, and 2) the question of what actions or policies would maximize the intrinsic value. Moreover, philosophers tend to restrict themselves to a small subset of the available welfare functions. Although there are a number of advocates of alternative welfare functions (such as ‘equality of well-being’), most philosophical activity has concentrated on a variant known as utilitarianism. This theory can be used to illustrate most of the main characteristics of welfare-based principles.


Desert-Based Principles  The different desert-based principles of distribution differ primarily according to what they identify as the basis for deserving. While Aristotle proposed virtue, or moral character, to be the best desert-basis for economic distribution, contemporary desert theorists have proposed desert-bases that are more practically implemented in complex modern societies. Most contemporary desert theorists have pursued John Locke's lead in this respect. Locke argued people deserve to have those items produced by their toil and industry, the products (or the value thereof) being a fitting reward for their effort (see Miller 1989). Locke's underlying idea was to guarantee to individuals the fruits of their own labor and abstinence. Most contemporary proposals for desert-bases fit into one of three broad categories:

  1. Contribution: People should be rewarded for their work activity according to the value of their contribution to the social product. (Miller 1976, Miller 1989, Riley 1989)
  2. Effort: People should be rewarded according to the effort they expend in their work activity (Sadurski 1985a,b, Milne 1986).
  3. Compensation: People should be rewarded according to the costs they incur in their work activity (Dick 1975, Lamont 1997).


Libertarian Principles  The market will be just, not as a means to some pattern, but insofar as the exchanges permitted in the market satisfy the conditions of just acquisition and exchange described by the principles. For libertarians, just outcomes are those arrived at by the separate just actions of individuals; a particular distributive pattern is not required for justice. Robert Nozick has advanced this version of libertarianism (Nozick 1974), and is its best known contemporary advocate.

Nozick proposes a 3-part “Entitlement Theory”.

If the world were wholly just, the following definition would exhaustively cover the subject of justice in holdings:

a.       A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in acquisition is entitled to that holding.

b.      A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer, from someone else entitled to the holding, is entitled to the holding.

c.       No one is entitled to a holding except by (repeated) applications of (a) and (b).

The complete principle of distributive justice would say simply that a distribution is just if everyone is entitled to the holdings they possess under the distribution (Nozick, p.151).

 All this from--On Distributive Justice:  

Consider some matter of importance to us today that relates to the question of the distribution of goods and services. Apply any of the social theories you have read about and take a position on it. For example,

The distribution of the funds of the charities to the victims of the 9-11 Disaster, how should the federal money be distributed? What principle of distributive justice do you favor using.

Read how the money was distributed.  $7 Billion for the Grief of Sept. 11

There are a variety of social situations that result from the application of these principles or from a combination of the principles.  The range of variations is quite broad and includes communist states and democratic states.  It includes societies that have great concern for individual welfare and those that have great concern for the common welfare.  It includes those that have liberal as well as conservative orientations.  What does this mean? 

We shall contrast two rather different approaches to the matter of distribution in the next section:  Liberalism and Conservatism

Proceed to the next section.

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Introduction to Philosophy by Philip A. Pecorino is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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