The following article has been written by Ishani Samajpati, pursuing B.A. LL.B. (Hons) under the University of Calcutta. This article offers a detailed insight on the concept of distributive justice as well as the various theories and significance of it.

This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar.


A fair and just society fulfils the need of equality, fairness and proper distribution of goods, wealth and services for everyone so that the society runs smoothly. The area of moral philosophy that considers the proper distribution is known as distributive justice. It is also a type of social justice since it concerns equal access to resources and equal rights and opportunities.

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In other words, distributive justice is a kind of social justice which seeks to ensure just and proper distribution of not only goods, wealth and services but also of rights and opportunities.

In a society with limited resources, the issue of fair allocation is challenging as well as an issue of multiple debates and contentions. Here, distributive justice acts as a key ethical principle which applies to the provision of social goods. It also involves the evaluations of the fairness of the allocation of  resources and the desirable outcomes across people.

What is distributive justice

Distributive justice is concerned with the measurements that should be used to allocate the resources of the society. It also decides fair distribution of the burdens and benefits of social cooperation among persons with various needs and claims. 

According to Aristotle, distributive justice implies that the state should divide or distribute goods and wealth among citizens according to merit.

Distributive justice includes issues such as affirmative actions such as recruitments and promotion in government actions, admission to public educational institutions, seats in legislature, welfare, free education and other goods and opportunities and they are distributed amongst the members of the society.

The goods that one might possess include the following:

  • Economic goods such as incomes and property.
  • Opportunities for development such as healthcare, sanitation, education, clean water for drinking.
  • Recognitions in the society such as honour, job promotions and social status.

The state should distribute goods, resources and wealth to the people depending on various aspects and distributive norms.

In the presence of enough goods, opportunities and status for everyone in the society, issues of distributive justice are less likely to arise.

Scope of distributive principles

The distributive principles vary according to the different criterias or areas in the following manner:

  • Subject matter relevant to distributive justice (The subject matter may include goods, services and opportunities like income, wealth, jobs, welfare, utility, etc.)
  • Nature of the recipients of the distribution such as individual persons, groups of persons, any reference classes, minority groups etc.
  • The basis of the distribution (equality or maximisation according to individual characteristics)

The topic of distributive justice gained more prominence after the realisation that the laws and policies framed by any specific government affects the distribution of resources and opportunities, specially in terms of the economic benefits and burdens. 

The practical application of distributive justice theory is to provide moral guidance for the allocation of resources and the distribution of benefits and burdens in society as well as the political processes and structures that affect the allocation and distribution.

The basic principle of distributive justice is that equal work should produce equal outcomes and some people should not accumulate a disproportionate amount of goods.

Principles of distributive justice

In his book Global Distributive Justice: An Introduction, the author Christopher Armstrong has distinguished between general distributive justice and principles of distributive justice. According to him, distributive justice is the method by which the benefits and burdens of the lives of individuals are shared between members of a society as a whole. Whereas, the principles of distributive justice dictate how these benefits and burdens ought to be shared or distributed throughout the society.

Societies with limited resources face the question of how those benefits ought to be distributed or the resources to be allocated. The common solution to this question is to distribute resources in a reasonable manner so that each individual receives a ‘fair share.’ 

American social psychologist and researcher Morton Deutsch, in his book Distributive Justice: A Social-psychological Perspective, distinguished three basic principles that people endorse as fair depending on the particular social goals that are relevant to a particular relationship or social context.

There are various principles of distributive justice. They vary according to the perspectives of the thinker. The various principles of distributive justice are as follows:


One of the simplest principles of distributive justice is equality. It states that irrespective of their contributions, all members of the society should be given an equal share of the rewards. Allocation of the resources should be absolutely equal. 

It is also referred to as ‘Strict Egalitarianism’ which states that all human beings should be morally equal and  resources should be equally distributed and everyone should have equal access to goods, services and opportunities.


Need-based principle of distributive justice states that everyone should not get the same share because everyone’s needs are not the same. Those in greatest need should be provided with the resources to meet those needs. The allocation of resources should be based on the individual needs and not on equality.


According to this principle, distribution of resources should be based on what an individual deserves and not on what an individual needs or deserves. The merit-based distribution, by default, advocates for unequal allocation of resources. It rewards hard work and punishes trouble-maker.


The distribution of resources should be proportional to the individual contribution. The resources to be allocated should be based on the contributions they make. This principle of distributive justice is similar to the merit-based allocation of resources.


This principle is also similar to the principle of merit or contribution. It is based around the concept that equal amounts of work produces equal outputs. If two individuals perform equal amounts of work for equal time, according to the proportionality principle of distributive justice, they are entitled to equal amounts of resources and should be allocated to acquire the same amount of goods accordingly. 


The equity principle of distributive justice is a combination of merit, contribution and proportionality principle. This principle states that the outcomes of the individuals should be based on their inputs and they are entitled to the allocation of resources accordingly. 

Just like the need-based principle of distributive justice, the principle of equity also clearly supports an unequal distribution of resources.

But the only difference is that it states that the ratio of any individual’s inputs to outcomes should be equivalent to the persons with whom the contribution of the individual is being compared. In simple words, individuals with equal contributions should be treated equally and unequals should be treated unequally.


The power-based principle states that the individuals with more power are entitled to receive more resources, goods and opportunities than those with lower or no power.

This principle openly supports unequal distribution of resources in a way harmful to society. There will be a tendency by the powerful and influential individuals to use and exploit resources based on the power and influence they have in the society.


The responsibility-based principle states that individuals with more goods, opportunities and resources should share with those who have less.

The responsibility-based principle of distributive justice gives rise to the question of how one can incur an obligation to help another just because one is in a better position.

Based on this principle, the government also compels the individuals by means of taxation from those who have more in order to assist those who have less.

Theories of distributive justice

Theories of distributive justice specify the meaning of just distribution of goods and fair share of resources among members of society. The main theories behind distributive justice are enumerated below. 

Rawls’ theory of distributive justice

The most simple approach, in regards to the theories of distributive justice, was made by the Twentieth century American political philosopher John Rawls in his books A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism. His theory of justice is one of the best-known modern conceptions of distributive justice. The basic tenets of his theory are as follows:

Justice as fairness

In his book “A Theory of Justice”, John Rawls introduced a concept of justice as fairness. He held that an adequate amount of justice cannot be derived from utilitarianism, which promotes “the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people”.

The doctrine of justice as fairness consists of two main principles. They are liberty and equality. Equality is subdivided into 

  • fair equality of opportunity; and 
  • the difference principle.

This doctrine is appropriate for the forms of government which neglects the basic rights and interests of the minority.

Two principles

In his books “A Theory of Justice” and “Political Liberalism”, Rawls further provides a precise interpretation of his two principles of justice. According to him:

  • Each person has an equal claim to equal basic rights and liberties including equal political liberties, which is compatible with for all. Only those liberties which are compatible for all are to be guaranteed their fair value.
  • Social and economic inequalities should satisfy two conditions of fair equality of opportunity and the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.

Fair equality of opportunity

  • Each person should have equal rights in society and basic liberties. The rights and liberties should be compatible with all.
  • Social and economic liberties should be distributed in such a way so that it becomes the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged.
  • Liberties should be present in the offices and positions. They should be open to all under the condition of fair equality of opportunity.

The difference principle

The difference principle is influenced by the varying nature of wealth in any economy. In any society, every individual does not own the equal amount of wealth which leads to the difference. Hence, distributive justice should aim to balance the difference of wealth between varying individuals.

Inequalities in the allocation of goods are only permissible if they are used to the benefit of least advantaged members of the society.

Veil of ignorance

  • Rawls imagined a hypothetical situation consisting of a group of individuals completely unaware of their social and economic needs and ignorant of their origin, i.e. the places they come from.
  • The group of people are also ignorant of their basic needs and the requirements for a “good life”.
  • Rawls termed this situation as the “veil of ignorance”. Situated behind this, the group of people cannot be influenced by self-interested desires to benefit some social groups.
  • This will ensure fair distribution and proper allocation of resources.

Dworkin’s theory of distributive justice

Ronald Dworkin, an American philosopher, provided one of the most detailed theories to Rawls’ challenge. Dworkin termed his theory as ‘Resource Egalitarianism.’ His theory is often identified as one of the earliest theories in the luck egalitarianism. Contrary to Rawls, Dworkin presented his key principles in terms of distinctions between ‘ambitions’ and ‘endowments’. 

Equality of opportunity and luck egalitarianism

Apart from the economic distribution of material goods and services, the proper and fair distribution of opportunities is also important to people. 

John Rawls also described his Difference Principle with a principle of equality of opportunity. To combine any market distributive mechanism, distributive justice theorists often explain from the perspective of some form of equality of opportunity among the general population. 

Equality of opportunity is different from ‘equality of outcome’ in case of strict egalitarianism, which is a concept of radical equality. Strict egalitarianism dictates that the resources should be allocated equally to each individual, often on grounds of morality.  

In contrast to this, the luck egalitarianism maintains that inequalities in the society are unfair or unjust. But, when the inequalities are the responsible choices of the individuals, they are fair or just. 

Luck egalitarianism is interpreted, brings forth a theory of distributive justice which states that the basic purpose of equality is to provide compensation for the inequalities and balance them in the society, especially those inequalities caused due to the undeserved bad luck such as being born with poverty, having difficult family or financial circumstances, having a fatal accident or suffering from illness.

Luck egalitarianism is also known as the ‘level playing field’ since it elevates the role of equal opportunity by distribution. In this way, inequalities are only just when they flow from one’s choices or from factors for which one can reasonably be held responsible.

Equality of resources

According to Dworkin’s theory, equality of resources is an egalitarian method of distribution of resources. The mechanism and intention behind this distribution method, as illustrated by Dworkin is that it “distributes or transfers resources among them until no further transfer would leave their shares of the total resources more equal”.

It treats the abilities of individuals and external resources as arbitrary and does not make any adjustments for their preferences. 

Contrary to Rawls’ theory, Dorkin’s approach is more ‘ambition- and endowment-insensitive’ . In this case, the distinction between sensitivity of ambition recognises differences due to varying ambitions. On the other hand, sensitivity of endowment recognises differences that arise due to the varying endowments.

Initial resources

According to Dworkin, inequalities that are caused due to voluntary and individual choices are acceptable. But if the inequalities result from disadvantages, they should be eliminated.

However, initial equality of resources is not enough for providing individual justice. Here, the luck factor comes into play. One may fare better than another because of luck while the other person may not succeed because of not being favoured by luck even if everyone starts from the same position.

In this case, the unsuccessful person should be provided with a helping hand to achieve the same position as the successful one by proper allocation and fair distribution of resources. 


Dworkin has held people responsible for the results of their choices regarding matters which they can control but do not choose to control. On the contrary, they are not responsible for matters beyond their control. 

Furthermore, Dworkin has coined two terms “option luck” and “brute luck” regarding matters which are beyond the controls and distinguished between them. According to him, option luck is “a matter of how deliberate and calculated gambles turn out”. On the other hand, brute luck is “a matter of how risks fall out that are not in that sense deliberate gambles”

Individuals are responsible for the outcomes of the option luck, but not of brute luck.


Dworkin has explained that the problem of achieving egalitarian justice varies due to natural differences in individual talent.

The main reason why the varying talents create a problem in equal distribution  is that because of the inequality of talents, equality of resources is disturbed. This difference arises solely because of arbitrary differences in talents and not due to any other factors.

Welfare-based principles: Utilitarianism

Welfare-based principles are concerned with the idea of the moral importance of welfare of people. Equality of resources, liberty, distribution and allocation are termed as derivative concerns in welfare-based principles. The factors are relevant only if and so far they affect the welfare of the members in the society. All distributive questions are settled entirely depending on how the distribution affects welfare.

Utilitarianism is one of the relevant distributive theories in case of welfare-based principles. However, the proponents of this theory focus more on ‘utility’ rather than ‘welfare’.  

Jeremy Bentham is considered to be the historical father of utilitarianism. According to him, 

  • Pleasure was the only thing with intrinsic value.
  • All other things are of importance insofar as they contribute to the experience of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Actions are right if they cause pain and alternatively, they are wrong if they cause pain.
  • His successor, John Stuart Mill, broadened this theory of intrinsic value to include happiness, or fulfilment. 

Utilitarianism holds that the maximisation of happiness ultimately determines what is right and what is wrong. It must examine a number of factual issues in order to determine for themselves which economic system will be the best to promote social well-being and happiness.

Libertarian principles: Nozick’s theory of justice

Robert Nozick, a renowned American philosopher, became famous for his book Anarchy, State and Utopia written in response to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. In the very beginning of his book, he proclaimed that “individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)”

Natural rights and individual inviolability

Nozick took inspiration from 17th century English philosopher John Locke’s ‘theory of natural rights’ and 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s ‘individual inviolability’  to explain his theory. According to Nozick, individuals have their natural rights which cannot be violated or infringed upon and no one can violate them to achieve, in this case, for the welfare of other people in the society, as proposed by John Rawls, is immoral.

Minimal state and limited government

Libertarianism advocates for minimal government interference. According to this theory, there should be no government regulations, no state-owned property, no welfare schemes but the police, laws and court system may be present. 

According to Nozick, “the minimal state is the most extensive state justified.” and if the state seeks a greater role rather than the narrow function of providing protection against force, theft, fraud and enforcement of contracts, it is crossing the boundary and violating individual rights.

Boundary crossings

Nozick’s theory hints at a bigger problem regarding how the state could possibly be justified to make the citizens pay taxation, follow rule of law and whether it is a violation of natural rights.

Nozick has termed the limit of interference as boundary crossing. Crossing the line and infringing upon an individual’s personal freedom is only permissible with consent. This is the Anarchist view.

According to an Anarchist, because of the inviolability of individuals, no state can be justified.

Entitlement theory

Nozick analysed extensive tax collection as forced labour. Individuals acquire their holding through their labour, and each person’s possession of self-ownership should be enjoyed by them. This is known as Nozick’s entitlement theory which assures property rights as well as individual rights.

Distribution based on merit

Nozick totally disregards Rawls’ theory of “justice as fairness” as according to him, it causes inequality in terms of the average gains made by individuals since less-endowed get more than the deserving talented ones. Hence, distribution should be based upon merit.

The significance of distribution procedures and outcomes

The different principles of distributive justice targets different goals and outcomes. The main aim behind distributive justice is to help any society to function effectively. To achieve this, it is important to look after the well-being of its members.

Different targets of different principles

The principles of distributive justice such as equality targets to make individuals equal in all terms and opportunities. Whereas, the principle of equity motivates one to be rewarded for one’s productivity. Lastly, need-based principles seek to ensure everyone’s basic and essential needs, reducing the probability of criminal and political violence. 

Central criterion of distribution

The principles of distributive justice completely contradict one another. Hence, any one of the principles is considered as the central criterion of distribution. Depending on the principle adopted, an economic system is characterised by equality, competition, or social welfare.

Difference of opinion of distribution procedures and outcomes

Some thinkers are of the opinion that the final outcome defines the success of the principle of distribution, while others think that the rules followed in determining that distribution is important rather than the outcome. The procedures used to the distribution may be unjust, while the outcome may result in fair allocation of resources. Similarly, a fair procedure may end up in an unfair distribution of resources. Others are also of the opinion that in case of distributive justice, both the procedure and outcome are equally significant.

Importance of distributive justice

The sole purpose of distributive justice is not to achieve any particular result of distribution, but to ensure a fair distribution and equal allocation of resources. Distributive justice is gaining more importance day by day.

  • Distributive justice provides a philosophical and moral guidance to ensure social justice and bring equalities among individuals.
  • According to the theory of relative deprivation, a sense of injustice is aroused when individuals believe that they are deprived of essential things and basic rights to sustain life, the individuals, together, by forming a group may start to challenge the system giving rise to such a state of affairs. Distributive justice prevents such turmoil in the society by ensuring fair distribution and proper allocation of resources in the society.
  • The difference principle allows the greatest benefits to the least advantaged which allows the least advantaged social group to prosper.
  • Distributive justice targets towards balanced empowerment eg. economic empowerment, political empowerment, social empowerment of women etc.
  • By means of distributive justice, the reservation policy in India was framed in order to give special preference to the sections of societies or the communities which were earlier deprived of equal opportunity for centuries. For example, reservation to SC/ST communities, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Transgenders, Persons with Disability, etc are all based on distributive justice.

Criticisms of distributive justice

The main criticism of distributive justice is that there is no need to achieve further equal distribution of resources since all human beings are born with the basic rights. Further, there is no specific principle to direct the allocation of resources which is the main notion of distributive justice.

  • Distributive justice fails to achieve social justice properly due to the lack of specific guidelines and directions. 
  • While distributive justice is a form of social justice, sometimes it may conflict with social justice as a whole due to different targets. Distributive justice targets to achieve the welfare of an individual. whereas,  social justice is related to the welfare of a social group. 
  • There is no specific theory or principle of distributive justice, which might create conflict in different social justices. For example,the feminists rights are sometimes in conflict with transgenders’ rights. Again, the rights of the trangender often conflict with the rights of the LGBTQ communities. 
  • The whole notion of distributive justice can be very confusing and complex sometimes. This phenomenon can also be best explained in the Indian social perspective where the complex question arises whether a rich and affluent person from SC/ST community should continue to use the benefits of reservation based on caste and whether a poor person from an upper caste is entitled to reservation based on economic situation.
  • According to libertarian scholars, distributive justice is just an illusion and it is never possible to ensure ‘equal shares for all’.

Relevance of distributive justice in current times

Global distributive justice, by the application of difference principle would help to eradicate the differences between the riches and the poors.

According to Beitz, an American political theorist, the global economic inequality can be solved through the use of global distributive justice. This can be done by extending the views of Rawls’ in an international perspective.

Beitz held the view that money and resources should be transferred up until the point where individuals across the globe have equal schemes of basic liberties and primary goods.

Equality is the fundamental principle of distributive justice and it helps all members of a particular society to have equal rights and consideration on resources.

Proper attention is being given to ensure fair allocation of distributive effects of economic development policies in modern times.

Distributive justice in Indian scenario

Modern Indian legal system is closely based on the British common law system where the Western ideas of justice and fairness are deeply embedded. Even during the British Raj, in 1933, British Prime-Minister Ramsay Macdonald started the ‘Communal Award’ which provided separate electorates for Muslims, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans and the Dalits. 

Post-independence, the concept of distributive justice in Indian jurisprudence has been ingrained in  The Constitution of India . Article 14 of the Indian Constitution guarantees equality before law and states that every person is ‘equal before the law’.

The reservation system in India is one of the best examples of distributive justice. Though the applicability of it is highly debatable in recent times, at the beginning, the reservation system was started to eradicate the social gaps between  various castes and also to bring the secluded tribes into the mainstream society by means of reserving their places in every sphere.

The first backward classes commission after independence is known as Kaka Kalelkar Commission. By the recommendation of this Commission, the Indian government ensured the rights of the various scheduled castes and tribes.

In 1979, the Mandal Commission was formed to identify various socially socially or educationally backward classes in India. Based on the report of this commission, the government ensured another additional 27% of government positions for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). This implementation led to violent protests but was finally confirmed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of Indra Sawhney v. Union Of India And Others (1992).

The huge debates regarding the due process of law in cases like A.K. Gopalan v. The State Of Madras (1950) and Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978) was sourced from distributive justice by which the freedom and equality has been ensured by the Constitution of India.


Distributive justice not only plays a significant role in providing a moral guidance of the allocation of resources and fair distribution of goods and opportunities but also ensures that they are performed properly by influencing the rules, regulations and policies of the government.

Distributive justice gains more prominence in a society with unequal division of resources. The necessity of distributive justice and its various principles are also the subject matters of debates and controversies.

The various principles of distributive justice such as equity, equality, need, proportionality, contribution, responsibility etc., besides being relevant in the context of distributive justice, also play a significant role in various issues under social justice.

Irrespective of the theories behind it, the main notion of distributive justice is that fair distribution and equal treatment is a matter of giving individuals what they deserve in any civilised society should be implemented for a better society.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on distributive justice 

  1. What is the main role of distributive justice in society?

Distributive justice concerns the principles appropriate for assessing the distribution of social benefits and burdens,  particularly wealth, income, status and power.

  1. What is the difference between retributive and distributive justice?

Retributive justice ensures justice by means of providing punishment to the offender whereas distributive justice focuses on removing the inequalities in society by concentrating on fair allocation of resources. 

  1. What is the most relevant theory of distributive justice?

John Rawls’ theory of distributive justice is considered to be the most relevant theory.

  1. What is meant by distributive fairness?

Distributive fairness is defined as the perceived fairness of how costs and incentives are distributed across the members in a group, community or society.


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