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Commutative and Distributive Justice

November 27, 2011

Thomas Aquinas divided justice into two parts: commutative and distributive. The rules of commutative justice are precise and accurate. They concern the situations where one individual acts against another. The crime, the perpetrator and the victim are all identifiable to everyone. For example, if someone assaults you or steals from you, their action is a violation of commutative justice. You are the victim, they are the violator and the crime is the assault or theft. Distributive justice is “loose, vague and indeterminate.” It can not be reduced to rules and there is neither criminal nor crime when it is violated. Distributive justice involves the fulfillment of positive liberties, which are often costly. For example, health care is a positive liberty. If someone dies of a treatable disease, that is a violation of distributive justice. However, no individual is directly responsible for the violation, and no rules need be violated. If someone involuntarily starves, it is possible no one at all will be arrested for that violation of their rights.

Distributive justice requires resources to satisfy. For everyone to eat, someone needs to grow enough food, which requires scarce resources, such as land, fertilizer, seeds, etc. When a government decides to redistribute, it must take before it can give. Who should shoulder the burden? What level of wealth should be redistributed? Society does not have enough scarce resources to satisfy any specified wealth level for everyone. There simply might not be enough food, shelter or health care to go around, depending on the wealth level of the society. The demands of distributive justice must therefore be scaled to the resources available to the society.

Where do the boundaries of one society begin and another end? What about poor in other countries? Government welfare programs typically extend only to the borders of the nation-state. If welfare were totally motivated out of charity, this would clearly not be the case. Is it really true that there are only deserving poor within one’s own country and no where else in the world? Surely there is someone in India or Africa who could use the money more, given that incomes in the developing world are 10 to 100 times lower than those of the OECD countries. People in rich countries are hesitant to even let poor immigrants live near them, which would do far more for improving their lives than any handout. So why do people seem to care so much for some people living thousands of miles away, but not at all for someone closer, but across a political border?

One explanation might be that welfare is not altruistically motivated, but is instead a way for the elites to buy the allegiance of the poorer members of the society. Because while the poor may not have economic power, they still might have violent power. If they don’t get a slice of the pie, they can still throw the pie out the window. Another explanation is that moral impulses only extend to the borders of the nation state. Other countries are “them”, not “us” and so have no moral claims on “our” resources. Welfare may be a way to avoid more serious moral commitments. When people do one moral act, they often check off “moral action” from a mental checklist. Voting for a political candidate that promises more spending on the poor might make people less likely to donate money themselves or volunteer at a homeless shelter. It may seem far fetched, but the effect has been observed. We can give to charity cheaper since political charity allows people to think that they did their part simply by voting for a politician who redistributes resources by force from someone else.

Ultimately, there are many reasons to desire charity for others. It is both instinctual and right to want to help those in need, but the exact level of help, how it is provided and who pays for it are all factors which are controversial. I do not believe that the debate will ever be settled, and each person needs to think about the various details of distributive justice rather than simply reacting on a instinctual level alone.

Further Material
This video emphasizes commutative justice:


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