Distributive social justice: the set of moral, social-institutional, and/or political principles, processes, and structures that determine the distribution of benefits and burdens in capitalist, liberal, democratic nation-States. (John Rawls)
Controversy: Although distributive social justice is the dominant and indeed hegemonic normative system of apportioning benefits and burdens in capitalist, liberal, democratic nation-States, in fact it’s paradoxical.
In their Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Distributive Justice,” Julian Lamont and Christi Favor quite correctly although somewhat tautologously note that
[p]rinciples of distributive justice are … best thought of as providing moral guidance for the political processes and structures that … [determine] the distribution of benefits and burdens in [capitalist, liberal, democratic] societies, and any principles which do offer this kind of moral guidance on distribution, regardless of the terminology they employ, should be considered principles of distributive justice.
In this entry, I’ll present and elaborate a basic problem, indeed, a paradox, about distributive social justice in any social institution or State, but especially including contemporary ultra-capitalist, neoliberal, quasi-democratic States like the USA—as enshrined philosophically, for example, in John Rawls’s highly influential and indeed, as regards Anglo-American political theory since the 1970s, hegemonic Theory of Justice.
The basic problem is what I call The Paradox of Distributive Social Justice.
Simply put, The Paradox is that insofar as principles of distributive social justice are applied to an oppressive social system in order fundamentally to change it or end it, then even despite its ideological overlay of “justice-as-fairness,” this actually turns out to be the most effective way to perpetuate the oppressive system itself.
More explicitly, with the ideological overlay in shudder-quotes:
Suppose that an oppressive social system OSS exists in any State, such that there is an oppressor class who collectively and individually greatly benefit from OSS, and also an oppressed class, who collectively and individually greatly suffer under OSS. And further suppose that the leading members of the oppressor class in OSS recognize, at a given time, that OSS is in serious danger of collapsing if things go on in the same way. So the leading members of the oppressor class calculatingly and prudently create a “fair and therefore just” system of compensating a certain non-trivial but still strategically small number of more-or-less randomly-selected members of the oppressed class, by giving them access to some or all of the benefits enjoyed by the oppressor class. Then this “fair and therefore just” distribution of compensation for oppression not only does nothing to fundamentally change or end OSS, it actually turns out to be the most effective way of perpetuating OSS.
An important corollary of The Paradox is that if the leading oppressors fail to act in this calculating and prudent “fair and therefore just” way, then their oppressive social system eventually collapses.
For example, let OSS be the enslavement of black people in the USA in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
Then The Paradox guarantees that if, in the early 19th century, the leading Southern American slave-masters had, contrary to actual fact, seen the writing on the wall, then calculatingly and prudently created a “fair and therefore just” system of admitting a certain non-trivial but still strategically small number of more-or-less randomly selected slaves either into the oppressor class of slave-masters, or into a complicit class of fairly well-paid, fairly high social-status bureaucrats, professionals, managers, or skilled laborers who served the class of slave-masters, then the USA would never have experienced the Civil War of 1860-65, and would still be a slave State, at least throughout most of the South.
Of course in actual fact the slave-masters did not do this, so the oppressive system of slavery in the USA collapsed—although, to be sure, a new non-slavery system of racist oppression soon arose to take its place, during the Jim Crow period, and has continued to exist and evolve ever since, an oppressive system that’s nowadays called systemic racism.
Now, let OSS be capitalism in Europe and North America from the end of the 18th century onwards.
Then we can ask: Why didn’t post-18th century capitalism in Europe and North America collapse due to its internal dialectical social and economic contradictions by the end of the 19th century or early 20th century, as Marx had fervently hoped and confidently predicted?
The answer, clearly and distinctly, is provided by The Paradox.
The leading late 19th and early 20th century capitalist bosses, rightly worried about communism, calculatingly and prudently created a “fair and therefore just” system of admitting a certain non-trivial but still strategically small number of more-or-less randomly-selected members of the working class or below, aka the proletariat or lumpen proletariat, either into the oppressor class of capitalist bosses, or into the complicit class of fairly well-paid, fairly high social status bureaucrats, professionals, managers, or skilled laborers, who serve the class of capitalist bosses.
They called it “upward social mobility” and then more recently, “equal opportunity,” and currently—when it’s combined with principles of distributive racial social justice— “diversity and inclusion.”
As a consequence, distributive social justice not only did nothing fundamentally to change or end capitalist oppression, it actually turned out to be the most effective way of perpetuating it.
Here, then, is the philosophico-political moral of The Paradox:
You can never fundamentally change or end an oppressive social or political system by buying off more-or-less randomly selected small numbers of its victims in a “fair and therefore just” way; in fact, this is the most effective way of perpetuating the very system you’re purportedly trying to ameliorate.
Therefore, for example, paradoxically, and perhaps most counterintuitively, widely applying the distributive racial social justice principle of “diversity and inclusion,” is in fact the most effective way of perpetuating systemic racism.
For, how could admitting a certain non-trivial but still strategically small number of more-or-less randomly-selected victims of systemic racism into the lower or higher echelons of an immoral social system that oppresses all victims of racism, thereby providing that new elite group with benefits that the other victims of racism—i.e., the majority of those oppressed by that immoral social system—so obviously lack and are systematically prevented from ever obtaining, ever fundamentally change or end systemic racism?
By way of concluding, I should also say that I strongly believe that there’s a completely adequate solution to The Paradox.
In order fundamentally to change or end any oppressive social system, what’s required is devolving and dismantling that social system in a step-by-step way—thereby exiting it—together with the design, creation, and maintenance of a set of essentially different, coherently interlinked social institutions that collectively guarantee absolutely universal sufficient respect for human dignity and thereby also collectively provide the means for satisfying everyone’s true human needs.
But because this is also a radical solution that requires jettisoning the theory, morality, politics, and ideology of distributive social justice altogether, as well as devolving, dismantling, and exiting the coercive authoritarian and inherently oppressive social system of capitalist liberal democratic Statism itself—namely, dignitarian cosmopolitan anarcho-socialism —I very much doubt, to put it mildly, that it will attract much support from, for example, contemporary American ultra-capitalist neoliberal quasi-democratic right-conservatives, neofascists, right-libertarians, centrists, left-liberals, faux-“progressives,” etc., etc.
So, short of that radical solution, The Paradox stands.
J. Lamont and C. Favor, “Distributive Justice,” in E.N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), available online at URL =
J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971). ↩︎
Usually there are also hidden criteria that pre-select prospective oppressed-class beneficiaries for docility and obedience—e.g., having a “squeaky clean” police record. ↩︎
See, e.g., C. Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016). ↩︎
This is confirmed, at least for the USA, by empirical data about about the size and specific constitution of the American working class during the 20th and 21st centuries. See, e.g., A. Rowell, “What Everyone Should Know About America’s Diverse Working Class,” Center for American Progress Action Fund (11 december 2017), available online at URL =
See R. Hanna, “Radical Enlightenment: Existential Kantian Cosmopolitan Anarchism, With a Concluding Quasi-Federalist Postscript,” in D. Heidemann and K. Stoppenbrink (eds.), Join, Or Die: Philosophical Foundations of Federalism (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), pp. 63-90, also available online in preview at URL =
https://www.academia.edu/6994230/Radical_Enlightenment_Existential_Kantian_Cosmopolitan_Anarchism_With_a_Concluding_Quasi-Federalist_Postscript; R. Hanna, “Exiting the State and Debunking the State of Nature,” Con-Textos Kantianos 5 (2017), available online at URL = https://www.con-textoskantianos.net/index.php/revista/article/view/228; R. Hanna, Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 4) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), also available online in preview at URL = https://www.academia.edu/36359665/The_Rational_Human_Condition_4_Kant_Agnosticism_and_Anarchism_A_Theological-Political_Treatise_Nova_Science_2018_; and R. Hanna, “On Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: Optimism For Realists, Or, Neither Hobbes Nor Rousseau,” (Unpublished MS, 2020), available online at URL =