Justice and Equality
(1) I adopt Aristotle’s classification of kinds of justice (or senses of the word “just”) into the generic and the particular, and of the latter into retributive and distributive justice.
(2) I agree with Rawls that the two last can be reduced to a single species, since retributive justice is simply the just distribution of the goods and evils arising from a system of rewards and penalties.
(3) But in order to show whether justice requires equality in distribution, more than formal or conceptual argument is required.
(4) Two arguments for this view are examined, the first invalid, the second cogent:
(4a) “Principles allowing grossly unequal distribution, or giving privileges to groups selected by, e.g. skin colour may be logically self-consistent.” But nobody who understands such principles and their logical consequences will accept them, because we are not prepared to prescribe universally (as moral judgement requires) that all, including ourselves were we in the victim’s positions, should be so discriminated against. This rejoinder rests on the formal properties (universalizability and prescriptivity) of the moral concepts.
(4b) Because of the diminishing marginal utility (DMU) of money and goods, the argument has to be expressed in terms of utilities rather than of money and goods. “Formal impartiality requires only that what an individual has a given portion of utility is irrelevant to the justice of the distribution. To establish a requirement of equal distribution we need a principle that it is unjust to give a man more who already has more than the others. Impartiality alone does not require this.”
(5) The most fruitful question to ask is not “What principles of distribution are the most just?”, but “What principles of distribution, if accepted as just by a society, will maximize total utility in that society?”
(6) Two arguments for egalitarian principle of distributive justice:
(6a) “DMU (an empirical not a formal principle) when combined with impartial benevolence (as required by universalizability and prescriptivity), yields an argument for equal distribution, because this increases total utility.”
(6b) “Envy and resentment. which are the product of inequality, are an added disutility: they lead to social strife, and total utility is increased by eliminating them.”
(7) Qualifications to egalitarian principle: the too abrupt levelling of incomes may cause greater disutilities than utilities: some inequalities are required to provide incentives to work, etc. But DMU does supply an argument for a fairly high degree of equality.
(8) Imagine a slave-society in which the slaves are contented. What could justify stirring up a revolution there? It would have to be shown (and in many cases could he shown) that the evils of the revolution itself and its aftermath would be less than the good which ensued from its success. It a partly empirical matter whether this is likely to be so, because what will actually happen is an empirical question.
(9) The same applies to transitions from capitalism to communism: it has to be shown that this would increase total utility, and this is a partly empirical matter.
(10) Thus what principles of justice, if accepted, will maximize utility in a society depends on the empirical characteristics of the society.
(11) If we asked this question and sought to answer it empirically, instead of asking, in the abstract, “What principles of distribution are just?”, we should he more likely to solve social problems.