Distributive Justice: Definition, Theory, Principles & Examples

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  • 0:01 Distributive Justice Defined
  • 1:10 Equality
  • 2:15 Proportionality & Fairness
  • 3:24 Examples
  • 4:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Anthony Jordan

Anthony has taught Political Science at the university level and is working on his Ph.D. in Political Science.

This lesson will define distributive justice and explore aspects of it such as its theoretical practice and import principles. Examples will be provided, and a test will follow.

Distributive Justice Defined

Part of being a member of a modern society is accepting that all goods will be distributed through society by some means. This is not a concept that is universal throughout history. In kingdoms and empires, the monarch would own all goods, but permit his or her people to enjoy them in his or her name. There is no central power which owns all goods in Western society. Distributive justice addresses who owns these goods and how they are acquired.

Distributive justice is a concept that addresses the ownership of goods in a society. It assumes that there is a large amount of fairness in the distribution of goods. Equal work should provide individuals with an equal outcome in terms of goods acquired or the ability to acquire goods. Distributive justice is absent when equal work does not produce equal outcomes or when an individual or a group acquires a disproportionate amount of goods.

As one could probably see in the definition of distributive justice, there are many principles at play. This lesson will focus on three: equality, proportionality and fairness.


Equality affects two areas of distributive justice: opportunities and outcomes. Equality of opportunity is found when all members of a society are allowed to participate in acquiring goods. No one is blocked from acquiring more goods. Acquiring more goods would be a sole function of will, not because of any social or political reason.

Equality of outcome is more relative. It does not guarantee that all members of a society will receive the same number of goods. It does guarantee that equal work will produce an equal amount of goods.

A good way to think about equality is that it establishes an equal floor more than an equal ceiling. Everyone needs a certain number of goods to survive. Equality ensures that every member of society has a basic number of goods regardless of how much work they have done. If this floor is established and there are no limits to the ability of one to acquire goods except for his or her own will, then distributive justice can be said to be present.


Proportionality is similar to the equality of outcome. It is based around the idea that equal work produces equal outcomes. It is found more often in relative circumstances. If two workers performed the exact same job for the exact same length of time (with a similar amount of experience), then, if distributive justice is at play, both workers will be able to acquire the same amount of goods.

Proportionality is the most relative of the three principles. Proportionality loses its power when one compares different types of work. Is twelve hours of working in a mine equal to twelve hours of working in an office? It is doubtful that all members of society would give the same answer.

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