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Scope and Role of Distributive Principles Distributive principles vary in numerous dimensions. They vary in what is considered relevant to distributive justice income, wealth, opportunities, jobs, welfare, utility, etc.
In this entry, the focus is primarily on principles designed to cover the distribution of benefits and burdens of economic activity among individuals in a society. Although principles of this kind have been the dominant source of Anglo-American debate about distributive justice over the last six decades, there are other important distributive justice questions, some of which are covered by other entries in the encyclopedia.
These include questions of distributive justice at the global level rather than just at the national level see justice: Although the numerous distributive principles vary along different dimensions, for simplicity, they are presented here in broad categories. Even though these are common classifications in the literature, it is important to keep in mind they necessarily involve over-simplification, particularly with respect to the criticisms of each of the groups of principles.
Some criticisms may not apply equally to every principle in the group. The issue of how we are to understand and respond to criticisms of distributive principles is discussed briefly in the final section on methodology see Methodology.
Throughout most of history, people were born into, and largely stayed in, a fairly rigid economic position. The distribution of economic benefits and burdens was normally seen as fixed, either by nature or by a deity.
Only when there was a widespread realization that the distribution of economic benefits and burdens could be affected by government did distributive justice become a live topic.
Now the topic is unavoidable. Governments continuously make and change laws and policies affecting the distribution of economic benefits and burdens in their societies.
Almost all changes, whether they regard tax, industry, education, health, etc. As a result, every society has a different distribution at any point in time and we are becoming increasingly more adept at measuring that distribution.
More importantly, at every point in time now, each society is faced with a choice about whether to stay with current laws, policies, etc.
The practical contribution of distributive justice theory is to provide moral guidance for these constant choices. Many writers on distributive justice have tended to advocate and defend their particular principles by describing or considering ideal societies operating under them.
They have been motivated to do this as an aid to understanding what their principles mean. Unfortunately though, as a result of this practice, some readers and the general public have been misled into believing that discussions of distributive justice are merely exercises in ideal theory—to be dismissed as a past-time of the academic elite rather than as something that is crucially relevant to current political discussion.
This misunderstanding is unfortunate because, in the end, the main purpose of distributive justice theory is not to inform decisions about ideal societies but about our societies. To help correct this misunderstanding it is important to acknowledge that there has never been, and never will be, a purely libertarian society or Rawlsian society, or any society whose distribution conforms to one of the proposed principles.
Rather than guiding choices between ideal societies, distributive principles are most usefully thought of as providing moral guidance for the choices that each society faces right now.
Other theorists are arguing for changes to bring economic benefits and burdens more in accordance with what people really deserve. Sometimes a number of the theories may recommend the same changes to our current practices; other times they will diverge.
It is best to understand the different theorists, despite the theoretical devices they sometimes employ, to be speaking to what should be done in our society—not about what should be done in some hypothetical society. Of course, ensuring that philosophical principles be effective for the purpose of guiding policy and change in real societies involves important and complex methodological questions.
For a review of work specifically addressing this issue, in ideal and nonideal theory, see Zofia Stemplowska and Adam Swiftand Valentini Distributive justice theorists perhaps like all theorists tend to emphasize the differences between their theories. This misunderstanding is, perhaps, best illustrated by the most common type of dismissal.
But to think that this points to the desired conclusion—that in light of this we should retain the status quo for the time being—reveals a confusion about the nature of the choices always facing each society.
So, in this instance, to claim that we should not pursue any changes to our economic structures in light of a distributive justice argument calling for change is, by its very nature, to take a stand on the distributive justice of or, if one prefers, the morality of the current distribution and structures in the society compared to any of the possible alternative distributions and structures practically available.
At any particular moment the existing economic and institutional framework is influencing the current distribution of economic and life prospects for all members of the society.
To assert that we should not change the current system is therefore, despite implications to the contrary, to take a substantive position on distributive justice debates.
It is to argue that keeping the existing distribution is morally preferable to changing to any practical alternative proposed—to take a substantive position in just the area that it was claimed was too controversial to consider.Luck Is Better Than Hard Work.
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