That Which is Right, and Just, and Fair 4

Justice as Fairness (continued)

Distributive Justice

It is easy to understand the concepts of general justice, universal justice, and even particular justice in relation to commerce and remediation; however, the concept of distributive justice is perhaps the hardest to define, describe, and understand. Everyone knows that various things at various times have to be distributed; yet, what makes any distribution right, just, and fair? Our understanding of equality and situation-relevant principles will help to determine fairness in matters of distribution.

A faulty understanding of equality and its relationship to justice will result in both injustice and inequality. One such faulty view is to think that everyone must be made equal. One adhering to said view might read the beginning lines of the Declaration of Independence24, believing them to be prescriptive. After all, if all people are created equal, but none are equal in every aspect, then something is wrong. That wrong of inequality must be righted via compulsory corrective means; however, in order to make people equal, the state must treat people unequally.25 In other words, compulsory Egalitarianism discriminates, limiting the freedoms of those who are different. Progressive taxation is a discriminatory means to equalize income levels. Such taxation discriminates in favor of the poor and against the wealthy. The wealthy in turn have less freedom to use their income within the market resulting in poor economic conditions for all income levels.

It is better to view the beginning lines of the Declaration of Independence as being descriptive, but not exhaustive. The equality described in the context of the document is that of rights. People are equal in their God-given rights before their fellow human beings (treat all people with righteousness and fairness, giving each his or her due).

Another Egalitarian view is to treat everybody equally. This view of equality is very close to the above interpretation of the Declaration of Independence. However, this form of Egalitarianism fails in two respects. First, it is impossible to treat everybody equally. Second, it would be unjust to treat everybody equally. Should a student who answered correctly half of the questions on an exam be given the same grade as a student who got all the answers correct? Should a lazy worker be given the same pay as a hard worker? Should someone at the end of the line be treated the same as the person at the front of the line at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles?

Formal Principle of Justice

Once again Aristotle helps to give definition to the perplexing problems of equality and distribution. His formal principle of justice states, “Treat equals equally. Treat unequals unequally.”26 Injustice occurs whenever someone who is equal to someone else is treated differently than that someone else. Injustice also occurs when someone who is different than someone else is treated the same. This formal principle helps, but does not guarantee justice.27 For example, a supervisor could treat all of her empoyees the same, but treat them poorly. The formal principle of justice needs relevant criteria for equal or unequal treatment. Said criteria have been called the material principles of justice.

Material Principles of Justice

Some criteria are inappropriate in most situations. It would be wrong in most instances to discriminate against someone based on age, sex, race, beauty, wealth, power, and social position.28 What makes a material principle inappropriate is the situation. In most situations, it would be wrong to discriminate based on age, sex, or race; yet, situations do exist in which such discrimination is just. If one is running for a beauty contest, age; sex; and beauty are appropriate material principles for distributing prizes. If a movie director was casting for a film about Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier, then it would be appropriate for the director to hire physically fit black actors. Again, the criteria must match the situation.

Criteria that are appropriate in most situations include “ability, past acheivement, effort, merit, desert, and need.”29 Of these appropriate material principles, social justice advocates uphold need as being the most important criterion. Yet, of all the appropriate material principles, need is the most fluid. Needs change. Needs may also turn into dependancies. Needs may be psychological, physical, or situational. Need is a good criterion for emergency services. Police should respond to a robbery before responding to a jaywalker. An emergency room should treat a gunshot wound victim before treating someone with a common cold. In emergency, time-critical situations, need is a good material principle. In non-emergencies, need is a terrible criterion.

In matters of distribution, treat equals equally and unequals unequally according to criteria relevant to the situation. If distributing pie at Thanksgiving, make sure to divide it such that all who want pie get some. If distributing grades to a class, make sure those grades reflect the performance of each individual student. If distributing medical care, treat severe live-threatening cases before the common cold. Use criteria appropriate to the situation to determine fair treatment in distribution.

Social Justice and Love

Some may be wondering, “Doesn’t the command to love one another require society to alter the market, alter judicial decisions, and alter the distribution of things? Doesn’t society need to contract with the state to enforce such an altering of things?” These questions stem from a confusion of justice and love. The late Ronald Nash described how this confusion, though intended for good, results in evil.

It should be obvious that in some senses, love and justice are closely related. but serious questions about the relationship… can arise in cases when justice is viewed as a necessary trait of government action… It often seems in such cases that evangelical liberals are prone to a confusion of justice and love. By its very nature, the state is an institution of coercion. It must operate through the use of force. Furthermore, if the state is to appear just, it must operate impersonally. Not to act impersonally would be to discriminate among persons. To the extent that governmental regulation and action is relevant to the particular sense of justice, that justice can only be effected through a state which uses force that is dispensed impersonally in accordance with the law. But this analysis of justice conflicts with the nature of love.

Love, by definition, must be given voluntarily; no one can be forced to love whereas the state always must resort to coercion. Moreover, love is always personal in the sense that it is directed at specific individuals. Such discrimination on the part of the state would be a paradigm of injustice. And finally, love should be willing to sacrifice, to go beyond the ordinary moral and legal requirements of a situation. A necessarily coercive state cannot serve as an instrument of love. The state’s required use of force is incompatible with the nature and demands of love. As soon as the coercive state enters the picture, love must leave.

When the Christian statist confuses love with justice, he is doing more than simply urging others in his society to manifest a compassionate love for the needy. He is in effect demanding that the state get out its weapons and force people to fulfill the demands of love… the spectre of the Inquisition is clearly visible in the background.30

In other words, Christians should seek to voluntarily exercise their faith through love, rather than forcing others to care for the poor and needy through government enforced redistribution of wealth. Such forced care actually results in resentment and even hatred of the poor and needy. The poor and needy do not need an impersonal government caring for them and angry tax-payers hating them. Social justice produces such class warfare. Unfortunately, most statists believe the answer to the problem of class warfare is more social justice and less commercial, remedial, and distributive justice. True justice reduces the tension between the haves and have-nots. In touting true justice and true love, Christians must be on the forefront in the marketplace of ideas. If Christians truly want to help the poor and needy, “we must act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:7-9). Our God voluntarily loved the worst of sinners in this way: He sent His Uniquely Begotten One to take the just penalty for their sins. Justice and love are in perfect harmony in the Triune God.


24. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
25. Nash, Social Justice and the Christian Church, 36.
26. Aristotle, Nichomochean Ethics, 81.
27. Nash, Social Justice and the Christian Church, 33.
28. Ibid, 34.
29. Ibid, 34, 35.
30. Ibid, 76.

About haroyce

Royce is an aspiring writer of fantasy, history, philosophy, and theology. He earned his BS in History from Cedarville College, and his MDiv from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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