Distributive justice

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Distributive justice concerns the nature of a socially just allocation of goods. A society in which inequalities in outcome do not arise would be considered a society guided by the principles of distributive justice. The concept includes the available quantities of goods, the process by which goods are to be distributed, and the resulting allocation of the goods to the members of the society.

Often contrasted with just process, which is concerned with the administration of law, distributive justice concentrates on outcomes. This subject has been given considerable attention in philosophy and the social sciences. Distributive justice is fundamental to the Catholic Church's social teaching, inspiring such figures as Dorothy Day[1] and Pope John Paul II.[2]

In social psychology, distributive justice is defined as perceived fairness of how rewards and costs are shared by (distributed across) group members.[3] For example, when workers of the same job are paid different salaries, group members may feel that distributive justice has not occurred.

To determine whether distributive justice has taken place, individuals often turn to the distributive norms of their group.[3] A norm is the standard of behaviour that is required, desired, or designated as normal within a particular group.[4] If rewards and costs are allocated according to the designated distributive norms of the group, distributive justice has occurred.[5]

Types of distributive norms[edit]

Five types of distributive norm are defined by Donelson R. Forsyth:[3]

  1. Equity: Members' outcomes should be based upon their inputs. Therefore, an individual who has invested a large amount of input (e.g. time, money, energy) should receive more from the group than someone who has contributed very little. Members of large groups prefer to base allocations of rewards and costs on equity.[citation needed]
  2. Equality: Regardless of their inputs, all group members should be given an equal share of the rewards/costs. Equality supports that someone who contributes 20% of the group’s resources should receive as much as someone who contributes 60%.
  3. Power: Those with more authority, status, or control over the group should receive more than those in lower level positions.
  4. Need: Those in greatest needs should be provided with resources needed to meet those needs. These individuals should be given more resources than those who already possess them, regardless of their input.
  5. Responsibility: Group members who have the most should share their resources with those who have less.

In organizations[edit]

In the context of organizational justice, distributive justice is conceptualized as fairness associated with outcomes decisions and distribution of resources. The outcomes or resources distributed may be tangible (e.g., pay) as well as intangible (e.g., praise). Perceptions of distributive justice can be fostered when outcomes are perceived to be equally applied (Adams, 1965).


Distributive justice affects performance when efficiency and productivity are involved (Cohen-Charash & Spector, 2001). Improving perceptions of justice increases performance (Karriker & Williams, 2009). Organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs) are employee actions in support of the organization that are outside the scope of their job description. Such behaviors depend on the degree to which an organization is perceived to be distributively just (Cohen-Charash & Spector, 2001; Karriker & Williams, 2009). As organizational actions and decisions are perceived as more just, employees are more likely to engage in OCBs. Perceptions of distributive justice are also strongly related also to the withdrawal of employees from the organization (Cohen-Charash & Spector, 2001).


Distributive justice considers whether the distribution of goods among the members of society at a given time is subjectively acceptable.

Not all advocates of consequentialist theories are concerned with an equitable society. What unites them is the mutual interest in achieving the best possible results or, in terms of the example above, the best possible distribution of wealth.

Environmental justice[edit]

Distributive justice in an environmental context is the equitable distribution of a society's technological and environmental risks, impacts, and benefits. These burdens include air pollution, landfills, industrial factories, and other environmental burdens. Distributive justice is an essential principle of environmental justice because there is evidence that shows that these burdens cause health problems, negatively affect quality of life, and drive down property value.

The potential negative social impacts of environmental degradation and regulatory policies have been at the center environmental discussions since the rise of environmental justice.[6] Historically, environmental burdens fall on poor communities that are predominantly African-American, Native-American, Latino, and Appalachian.[7]

In policy positions[edit]

Distributive justice theory argues that societies have a duty to individuals in need and that all individuals have a duty to help others in need. Proponents of distributive justice link it to human rights.

Many governments are known for dealing with issues of distributive justice, especially countries with ethnic tensions and geographically distinctive minorities. Post-apartheid South Africa is an example of a country that deals with issues of re-allocating resources with respect to the distributive justice framework.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Zwick, Mark and Louise (2005). The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins. Paulist Press. ISBN 978-0809143153.
  2. ^ "Catechism of the Catholic Church - Social justice". www.vatican.va. Retrieved 2018-11-03.
  3. ^ a b c Forsyth, D. R. (2006). Conflict. In Forsyth, D. R. , Group Dynamics (5th Ed.) (P. 388 - 389) Belmont: CA, Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
  4. ^ Farlex (2013) Norm. Farlex clipart collection. Retrieved March 13, 2013 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/norm
  5. ^ Deutsch, M. (1975). Equity, equality, and need: What determines which value will be used as the basis of distributive justice?. Journal of Social Issues, 31, 137–149.
  6. ^ McGurty, Eileen (1997). "From NIMBY to Civil Rights: The Origins of the Environmental Justice Movement". Environmental History. 2 (3): 301–323. doi:10.2307/3985352.
  7. ^ Shrader-Frenchette, Kristin (January 2006). Environmental Justice: Creating Equity, Reclaiming Democracy. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. p. 24. ISBN 9780198034704.


  • Cohen-Charash, Y., & Spector, P.E. (2001). The role of justice in organizations: A meta-analysis. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 86, 278–321.
  • Phelps, Edmund S. (1987): "Distributive justice," The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, v. 1, pp. 886–88.
  • Karriker, J.H.; Williams M.L. (2009). "Organizational Justice and Organizational Citizenship Behavior: A Mediated Multifoci Model". Journal of Management 35, 112.
  • Konow, James (2003): "Which is the fairest one of all?: A positive analysis of justice theories", Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 1188–1239. [1]
  • Laczniak, Gene R.; Murphy, Patrick E. (2008): “Distributive Justice: Pressing Questions, Emerging Directions, and the Promise of Rawlsian Analysis”, Journal of Macromarketing; Mar2008, Vol. 28 Issue 1, p5–11, 7p, 1 diagram.
  • "Principle of Distributive Justice", Ascension Health. 28 Feb 2009
  • Maiese, Michelle. "The Notion of Fair Distribution" Beyond Intractability. June 2003.

Further reading[edit]

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