[commentary] The Usefulness of Social Theory during Small Talk: Distributive Justice


[commentary] The Usefulness of Social Theory during Small Talk: Distributive Justice

April 2017

Part I. A Theory of Distributive Justice

Within legal philosophy, the question of “what kind of distribution of wealth in society is most just” is a huge one. It generates immense debate and attention.

The basic options are:

1) Feudalistic- inequality is okay, people are born into different castes, that’s just the way the world is

2) Formal- economic and political institutions should not be biased to any one group

3) Meritocratic- its not enough to have “formally” equal institutions, we must also make up for past wrongs, but after that- people who work harder deserve more

4) Egalitarian- doesn’t matter who works harder, there should be total equality

I think it’s good to have this sort of typology in one’s head.

Part II. A General Theory of Justice

Sandel also proposes a more fundamental typology that can be effectively used to understand the mental reasoning used by all four camps. Sandel argues that justice is a negotiation between the three equally revered ideals of freedom, welfare, and virtue. Depending on how much weight is placed on each of these, one arrives at one of the four above respective camps. Justice is in many ways a trilemna.

Part III. Applying Theory to Cooler-room Talk

I mention the above two typologies because two weeks ago, J and I were hanging out in the kitchen and we were discussing the news. I mentioned that a part of Trump’s tax returns was finally leaked. As he stirred his dinner that was on the pan, he asked me very simply “What do you think about that?”, and I was not able to provide a strong balanced response. I responded with hees and haws.

In future instances, I will respond by invoking Sandel’s four part typology of distributive justice as well as his three part typology of justice more generally.

If one believes in a feudalistic system of distribution, Trump’s evasion of taxes is completely justified. The rich are rich for a reason. Even if he paid those taxes, the government would waste those funds on poor people who are poor for a reason. Classes are inevitable, and one shouldn’t get too worked up about class systems and taxes that reflect that.

If one believes in a formal system of distribution, Trumps’s evasion of taxes is wrong, but I might sympathize with Trump because taxes for the rich and the poor should be equivalent. 

If one believes in the meritocratic system of distribution, Trumps’s evasion of taxes are wrong, and no sympathy is aroused because taxes should be progressive to account for structural disadvantages/advantages.

If one believes in an egalitarian system of distribution, Trump’s evasions are wrong, and the system has bigger problems than just taxes. The larger structures of Capital must be addressed. A discussion of meritocracy is not even possible.