Skip to main content

To Every Man His Due: The Battle for Justice #6


The word Justice as it has been beautifully said, has a lofty but tragic sound. It has enkindled noble passion and inspired the practice of the finest generosity. Yet, it also reminds us of great wrongs and of widespread destruction and suffering. So much so that the whole history of mankind could be written under the heading: The battle of Justice.

Distributive Justice

Distributive justice comes to play because societies have a limited amount of wealth and resources. What comes to mind is the question of how those wealth and resources ought to be distributed.

Distributive justice is closely linked to political power. This is because the economic, social and political framework that each society has results in different distribution of benefits across members of the society exercised by the political government. The distinct nature of distributive justice has to do with the fact that relationship here is not between individuals, but between the individual and the social whole.

In this relationship, one party is greater than the other, the parties involved are not of the same rank; it is so not because many men are more than one man, but because the common good is of a different and higher order than the individual good. Government policies are oriented to the common good of the people, the structure of distribution of benefits are fundamentally for the social good.

Nevertheless, the individual is the party with a right to demand. He is the one to whom something is owed. Reciprocally, the social whole is the party higher in rank and yet bound by an obligation. The claim expressed by distributive is formally directed to the social whole, the sovereign, the ruler, the legislator. Man is the term of that obligation as the administrator of the common good, obliged to give to the singular members of the whole what corresponds to them.


It is important to make a distinction between what is owed to the individual as a subject of rights vis a vis the social whole and what is owed to the individual in commutative justice. The difference is found both in the thing owed to him and in the manner of its being owed. What is owed to the individual vis a vis the social whole is that which belongs to him and is rightfully his. However, what is owed to the individual in commutative justice is that which is communal, a participation in what belongs to all. How do we understand this in distributive justice?

In distributive justice, however, it can only be decided from the position of whosoever is responsible for the common good. He determines how the goods are distributed. However, what is owed cannot be denial and should be given.

In justice rendered to the individual, what is given as rightly due to the person is considered as just payment. It is totally handed on to the individual as his. However in distributive justice, what is given as rightly due is seen as distribution.

Also, in commutative justice, the just compensation is found in the consideration of the real value of the thing. What is just in the relation of the social whole to the individual, is determined according to the proportion of things to the person. As a result, the compensation is different in both types of justice; it is a relative compensation.

The true content of distributive justice is therefore founded on this: on the affirmation of genuine authority and in the recognition of the person to whom his right is absolutely due by the social whole. Distributive justice deals with the ways that the benefits and burdens of the society are shared between members of the society. The principles of distributive justice are therefore seen as providing moral guidance for the state or political processes and structures that affect the distribution of benefits and burdens in the society.

Scroll to Continue

The state is basically the primary and basic source of authority and therefore incorporates, realizes and administers the common good. The state is the representative of every individual in the society, the social whole. As a result of this, the state thus becomes the enforcer of distributive justice.


There are, however, things to which I have an irrevocable absolute claim, even before the state. This refers primarily to the right to life, health and freedom. Although these rights are inalienable, it is important to note that the rights of the individual, in his relation to the state, are not exclusively his. The state cannot strip the individual completely of these rights, however the state might have to curtail them in the interest of the common good.

In some given cases, the civil authority can legitimately deprive an individual his rights as regarding the laws of the state. For example if an individual defy the laws of the state by engaging in armed robbery, he is caught and his freedom is denied him until he fully answers to the crimes he committed. The spread of the corona virus made many states restrict the movements of citizens, also, a victim of corona virus cannot be allowed to roam freely but will be quarantined and restricted to an isolation centre. This authority that the state has over some inalienable rights in certain cases does not imply that the authority of the state endorses these rights to life and freedom, nor that it grants them.

There is, however, something inalienable in individual rights before the social whole. It is manifested in the conditions and limitations set for the encroachment of the state’s authority: power can only be wielded if the common good demands it. Yet, power cannot be compelled in the case of unjust laws because it is the guardian and executor of distributive justice. Individual have an inalienable right to be treated justly by the civil authority.

The essence of the state is to promote justice; and the purpose of power given to it is to be able to realize justice. With the powers of the state, if unjust, it would be the reign of injustice. No appeal to an abstract arbiter such as the conscience of mankind, the eyes of the world, the judgment of history, could change it. So, the state cannot but be just in the distribution of wealth and resources.

Various principles have been given for distribution of wealth, they include equality, equity and need. Equality deals with the distribution of goods equally among all. However we know that it will not result in an equal outcome due to the fact they we aren’t equal in possessions, some have enough while some barely have anything. If equity is adopted then wealth will be distributed according to individual’s productivity and contributions. This also is not completely perfect because there are no equal opportunities for everyone. If goods are distributed according to need, those who need more of a benefit or resource will more. It is said that this will reduce the inclination to do better.

To achieve a better distribution of resources, it is proposed that there should be a merger of workable principles to be used intermittently. For example, a combination of the principle of equity with the principle of need will reward people for their productivity and at the same time ensure that basic needs are met. However, goods can also be distributed according to social utility; that is, what is in the best interest of the society as a whole.


In a modern democracy, the direct subjects of distributive justice are the chosen representatives and delegates of the people, indirectly, the voters are. One peculiarity of the democratic form of government is the fact that the representatives of the social whole represent also and to a greater extent a particular group. Representatives belong to particular political parties and given community.

Therefore, if ruling means to administer the general good of everyone, then, democratic rule imposes a tremendous moral burden upon individuals, voters and delegates alike: the individual is obliged by an ideal image of just distribution without ceasing to be interested in his own particular right, that of his political party and community. Here lies the problem of representation, central to political philosophy.

What is the aim of distributive justice? It is the giving to a private individual his corresponding participation in the common good, in as far as what belongs to the whole is due to the part.

Related Articles