Distributive Justice: How Should Resources be Allocated?

Authors: Dick Timmer and Tim Meijers
Category: Social and Political Philosophy, Ethics
Word Count: 994

As we write this, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is worth $188 billion.[1] That is about $1 billion more than the day before. And $1 billion is more money than you would have had you earned $1,000 a day, every day, since Jesus died.

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of people around the world live in extreme poverty.[2] And for many people extreme poverty is just a hospital bill or failed harvest away.

This is an example of the distribution of wealth and economic resources. There are other goods that are relevant here as well, such as education, healthcare, and housing.[3] The distribution of these goods matters because they contribute to our well-being.

Yet such valuable goods are scarce: how should goods which contribute to well-being be distributed? This is the question of distributive justice.[4]

Distributing the good of watching a game.
Distributing the good of watching a game.

1. Equality

One proposal is that everyone should have the goods that would lead to roughly equal amounts of well-being. This is called egalitarianism.[5] Egalitarianism might seem fair: people are moral equals so they should have equal amounts of well-being.[6]

Equality does not always mean having exactly the same goods: we must take certain facts about persons into consideration:[7] e.g., people with some physical disabilities might need more money to achieve the same level of well-being to, say, pay for a wheelchair or assisted-living facilities.

But thinking that distributive equality is itself valuable has some counterintuitive implications. It means that sometimes making people worse off without making anyone better off is preferable:[8] e.g., if a storm destroys houses in a rich part of town, bringing the rich closer to the welfare level of the poor, egalitarianism seems to suggest that this is good because it makes things more equal.

To avoid such implications, many people argue that inequalities are sometimes justified. For example, contemporary debates about distributive justice really began with the publication of Rawls’ Theory of Justice.[9] Rawls proposed that inequalities are justified if – and only if – they benefit the least well-off in society.[10] This is still an egalitarian view in that an egalitarian distribution is seen as the baseline and departures from it need to be justified.

Unlike Rawls, others have rejected the idea that distributive equality is the moral baseline altogether. Here we review some influential principles philosophers have defended in response to egalitarianism and its valuing equality in distributive justice.

2. Priority

One alternative to egalitarianism states that the fewer valuable goods an individual has, the more additional goods matter: e.g., an extra $1000 matters more to someone in poverty than a billionaire.[11] So, if I can provide a single benefit either to someone with a low level of well-being or to someone with a high level of well-being, it makes sense to give it to the person with a lower level of well-being. This view is called prioritarianism.

Prioritarianism is not concerned with inequality per se: it means that redistribution should often flow towards those who have less. Prioritarians give weighted, but not absolute, priority for the least well-off. This does imply, however, that if we could greatly benefit the rich at a small cost to the poor, that gain could outweigh the reasons we have for benefiting the poor. But in most realistic cases, prioritarians will help the least-well off first.

Yet many people believe it is especially important that people not live in poverty, which is a different claim than that we should give weighted priority to their needs. That brings us to the third proposal: sufficiency.

3. Sufficiency

This third proposal is that everyone should meet some minimal level or threshold of some valuable goods, such as income, education or healthcare. Everyone should at least have enough to reach that threshold.[12] This is called sufficientarianism.

Its plausibility depends on how it is developed: what counts as ‘having enough’? Common answers are that people must be able to meet their basic needs or be content with what they have.[13] Those answers raise questions of their own, such as about the vagueness of what it means to have ‘enough.’[14]

Some defend sufficientarianism on the grounds that we care about inequality because some people are very badly off: when we find cases of disturbing inequality, such as homelessness in a wealthy society, the thing that is objectionable is not the difference in wealth, but the fact that the homeless are so badly off.

An important objection to sufficientarianism is that it favors lifting people above the threshold over any other possible benefit for others: e.g., a benefit to one person just below the threshold is always preferable to benefiting a thousand people just above that threshold. Many disagree.

4. The Libertarian Alternative

A final view on distributive justice is that we must focus on how distributions come about, not the distribution itself. This is advocated by libertarianism.

Robert Nozick gives the now-famous Wilt Chamberlain example.[15] Nozick has us imagine people freely giving Wilt $1 of their own money to watch him play basketball. In this case, Wilt is legitimately entitled to this money and so it would be unjust for the government to take some of his money, under threat of force, to redistribute it.

Nozick, then, argues that if people’s rights are respected in acquiring and transferring goods—ruling out, e.g., acquiring or transferring goods using force, theft, or deceit—then we cannot object to such distributions as being unjust, no matter what the distributions end up looking like.

Libertarianism has been heavily criticized.[16] And it is questionable whether the current distribution of, say, income, education, and healthcare, is brought about by the kinds of voluntary transactions libertarians require.

5. Conclusion

Regardless of which view on distributive justice one endorses, our current world does not live up to that ideal. Our world is a world of inequality and insufficiency, but also of waste and excess. Despite their disagreements, these theories all agree that current distributions are far from just and so thoughtfully engaging these issues can only help bring us closer to justice.


[1] See the Forbes World’s Billionaires List.

[2] According to the World Bank, 689 million people lived in such poverty in 2015, meaning they lived on less than $1.90 a day. And according to Oxfam, just over 2000 billionaires possess as much wealth as the poorest 60% of the world’s population. See World Bank, “Poverty overview”; Oxfam, “World’s billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people”.

[3] See, for example, Sen 1980; Dworkin 1981a; 1981b; Cohen 1989; Gheaus 2009; Rose 2014.

[4] Such distributive principles are often called “patterns” of distributive justice. Such patterns specify who should get what of goods such as income or wellbeing. They are referred to as ‘patterns’ because they indicate what “shape” or “form” the distribution of those goods should take. There are other important questions of distributive justice as well, but we will not cover them here. For example, there is the question among whom we are distributing those valuable goods (e.g. regionally, nationally, or globally), and which institutions are in charge of this distribution (e.g. the state). Here, however, we focus on the pattern of distributive justice.

[5] See Temkin 2003; Holtug and Lippert-Rasmussen 2007.

[6] See, for example, Lippert-Rasmussen 2015; Meijers and Vandamme 2019.

[7] For endowment sensitivity, see Dworkin 1981b; Kymlicka 2002, chap. 3.

[8] Furthermore, it would seem to follow that it is better in at least some way that everyone is worse off under an equal distribution than that everyone is better off under an unequal distribution. See, for example, Parfit 1997.

[9] For an overview, see John Rawls’ ‘A Theory of Justice’ by Ben Davies.

[10] See Rawls 1971; Van Parijs 2003. One might think that Rawls’ view is similar to prioritarianism. But there is an important difference. Rawls says that inequalities should be allowed only to benefit the least well-off. But prioritarianism does not say this, because it might well be that a distribution that gives weighted priority to people’s needs does not benefit the least well-off compared to an equal distribution.

[11] See, for example, Arneson 2000; Holtug 2007.

[12] See Frankfurt 1987; Casal 2007; Shields 2012.

[13] See Casal 2007; Frankfurt 1987.

[14] For these and other objections, see Casal 2007; Shields 2012; Segall 2016; Fourie and Rid 2017.

[15] See Nozick 1974.

[16] See Nagel 1975; Cohen 1995; Fried 2004; Sobel 2012; Lowe 2020.


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About the Authors

Dick Timmer is a PhD Candidate at Utrecht University. He works in contemporary political philosophy, ethics and economics. His current research focuses on ‘limitarianism’, which is the view that people should not have more than a certain amount of wealth. He has recently published in Philosophia. www.dicktimmer.com and @dicktimmer

Tim Meijers is Assistant professor of moral and political philosophy at Leiden University. He writes about theories of justice, individual obligations, intergenerational justice, global justice, and reproductive rights. His work has been published in journals like Ethics & International Affairs; Canadian Journal of Philosophy; Economics and Philosophy; Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy; Journal of Value Inquiry and Human Rights Quarterly. www.timmeijers.com.

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