Aristotle on Distributive Justice

In the third section of the fifth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle continues his examination of the virtue of Justice, particularly distributive justice.

This has to do with those goods (not just physical goods, but privileges and the like) that are the common property or the creation of the polis as a whole. How should these be divvied up? How do you know what your fair share is?

The crux of the matter seems to be this: when two people are contending for the same sort of good, they ought to be granted a proportion of this good that is equivalent to their proportion of just claim to it.

Of course, this is easily said, but it is less easy to determine what this just claim is (or to determine the quantitative numerical values of qualitatively different goods, or to proportionally dole out things that are unique and indivisible, and so forth). Different political systems have different ideas of what a fair share of the privileges of the state means. Democrats think that all citizens should have an equal share, and everyone else no share or a limited share. Others (believers in oligarchy, aristocracy, etc.) think that privilege ought to be in some way proportionate to wealth, fortune of birth, or nobility earned by virtue. “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need” would be another possible formulation of this rule of proportionality.

Whichever rule you choose, you then enact justice by divvying up goods according to that rule, so that if persons A and B stand in a ratio A∶B by whatever standard you have chosen (need, nobility of birth, wealth, citizenship, etc.) then the good should be divvied out in a ratio C∶D so that (A+C)∶(B+D) = A∶B; in other words, so that divvying up the goods respects and maintains the original ratio of the people vis a vis each other.

Aristotle discusses this variety of justice with regard to coercive political institutions, but it could also be applied to voluntary ones. For instance, people who pool their funds to buy a shared vacation home may decide that they want to divvy up the time each individual can reserve the use of the home in proportion to the amount of money each person initially added to the shared pool. Or a group of people who decide to found a private library may decide that anyone who pays a fee or donates a certain number of books in order to join the library has an equal right to check out books from the library. A company that “goes public” and sells shares of itself may hand out dividends to people in proportion to the number of shares they hold. These would all fall under the same “distributive justice” heading.

In any case, Aristotle does not yet take sides as to which scheme of justice (democratic, aristocratic, oligarchical, or whatever) is best, he merely is saying that whichever system is in place, distributive justice mandates distributing public goods according to the demands of that system, so that the political distribution of goods perfectly respects the political status of people vis-a-vis each other. It assumes that political systems are rational and have certain distributive ideals built into them, and simply requires that they live up to those ideals, whatever they are.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

The philosophy of distributive justice remains a fascinating subject. ’s Nobelesque Prize in Economics, awarded a couple of days ago, was shared by Elinor Ostrom, who has investigated how groups of people develop protocols to regulate access and rights to common resources. From the prize announcement:

Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concludes that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories. She observes that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest, and she characterizes the rules that promote successful outcomes.

Aristotle, I think, would love this sort of empirical research into the way real communities have developed norms of distributive justice.