Distributive justice today

Basic Information

Course 2017/2018
Paula Casal
Law School, Area of Legal and Political Philosophy
Universitat Pompeu Fabra
Module 7. Issues in Contemporary Theoretical and Practical Philosophy


Wednesdays, 15:00-18:00
UPF; 13.104


This course examines some of the central debates about distributive justice that have taken place in Anglo-American political philosophy since the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971. Rawls’s work has stimulated responses from the right, most notably from Robert Nozick, a libertarian, as well as from the left, including authors like G. A. Cohen, feminists like Susan Okin and other liberal egalitarians like Ronald Dworkin and Amartya Sen.

These responses can be organized via three main debates. The first concerns the search for the correct principles of distributive justice. For example, is it important to distribute benefits equally or is all that matters that people have enough? The second, known as the debate on “the currency of justice”, concerns what should be distributed equally (or according to whatever turns out to be the right principle or combination of principles) in a just society. Is it primary goods, as Rawls argues, or resources, as Dworkin advocates? Is it welfare, as Cohen believes, or is it what Sen describes as capabilities and functionings?

The third and more extensive debate in distributive justice concerns the scope of application of whatever combination of principles and currencies turns out to be correct. Many employ the term “distributive justice” as if it was coextensive with social justice. However, those terms aren’t equivalent. One important reason is that discussing the ethics of distribution is relevant at both micro- and macro-levels. For example, Cohen has argued that those principles should apply all the way down to individuals and even specific actions, including those concerning occupational choice. He appeals to the feminist slogan “the personal is political” which those concerned with gender equality have also employed to argue in favor of including the family as a legitimate site for distributive justice. Distributive justice, thus, has sub-social applications. It also has supra-social applications, as it can also apply across countries, generations, and even species.


Participants are expected to (i) attend the sessions (or provide a justification); (ii) read at least one paper a week (the most recommended item is marked *) and participate in a reading-related discussion; and (iii) write an essay of under 2,000 (including notes, excluding abstract and bibliography). Students can write an essay on any topic they want providing the essay concerns distributive justice, employs the course material, has been agreed and does not look like a recycled version of a pre-existing paper. Essay titles may come from a list of Sample Titles or be invented by the student. The challenge is to say something about distributive justice in the given number of words. Essays with unauthorized topics or with the wrong length may be penalized and given no comments.

Completed essays should be submitted to paula.casal@upf.edu and cc to the MA administrator 2 weeks after the course ends and include a Word Count. Students should not count on excess words being read. Essays that are late, or exceed or have no Word Count will receive no comments and may be subject to a one point penalty for every 48 hours delay, whilst class participation (attendance, presentations and discussions) raise the course mark by 1 point. Students can collectively chose the participation model during the first day, and change it at any time.



Intended Learning Outcomes:

CB6 – Students should be able to critically understand central texts about distributive justice in a way that puts them in a position to develop and apply original ideas.  

CB9 - Students should be able to communicate their knowledge and their arguments to specialized audiences in a clear and articulate way.  

CG2. Students should be able to design, create, develop and undertake new and innovative projects in their area of ​​expertise. 

CG3. Students should be able to engage both in general and specific discussions about distributive justice. They should be able to conduct a philosophical discussion (orally and in written form), by putting forward, for example, general arguments or specific examples, in support of one’s position. 

CG4. Students should be able to work both independently and in a team, in an international environment. 

CG5. Students should be able to identify methodological errors, rhetorical, conventional and uncritical assumptions, vagueness and superficiality. 

CE1. Students should be able to critically engage with the concepts and methods of contemporary political philosophy.

CE2. Students should be able to identify the core arguments and theories of contemporary political philosophy.

CE4. Students should be able to assess the writings of leading contemporary philosophers in the field of political philosophy.

CE5. Students should be able to identify and critically engage with the current state of a particular philosophical debate, and form a reasoned view, even if provisional, about it.


I. Introduction.

* J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism. (Any edition).


II. Equality or Priority?

*Derek Parfit, “Equality or Priority?”, The Ideal of Equality ed. Matthew Clayton and Andrew Williams (Palgrave MacMillan 2002)

Larry Temkin, Inequality, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), Ch. 9.

Michael Otsuka and Alex Voorhoeve, Why it Matters if Some are Worse Off than Others” Philosophy and Public Affairs (2009)


III. Equality or Sufficiency?

*Paula Casal, “Why Sufficiency of Not Enough”, Ethics (2007)

Harry Frankfurt, “Equality as a Moral Ideal”, Ethics (1987)


IV. Equality of what?

*Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue (Harvard University Press, 2000), Chs. 1 and 2.

Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984) Appendix I “What Makes Someone’s Life Go Best”

Amartya Sen “Equality of What?” in http://www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/ and Equal Freedom ed. Steve Darwall (University of Michigan, 1995

G. A. Cohen “On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice”, Ethics (1989)


V. The rejection of distributive justice

* Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, (Basic Books, 1974) Ch.7


VI. The egalitarian ethos

* G. A. Cohen (1995). “The Pareto Argument for Inequality” Social Philosophy and Policy, 12, pp 160-185. doi:10.1017/S026505250000460X.

G. A. Cohen, “Incentives, Inequality and Community, http://www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/

Rescuing Justice and Equality, (Harvard UP, 2008)


VII. Justice within the family

*Susan Okin, Justice, Gender and the Family (Basic Books, 1989) Ch. 7.

Catharine MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Harvard UP, 1991

Jennifer Saul, Feminism (OUP, 2003)

Alison Jaggar (ed.) Living with Contradictions (Westview 1994)


VIII. International and global justice

*Paula Casal “Global Taxes on Natural Resources” with replies from Pogge and Steiner”, Journal of Moral Philosophy (2011)

Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights (Polity, 2008) ch. 9.

Hillel Steiner, “Just Taxation and International Redistribution” NOMOS XXXVII (1999)


IX. Inter-generational distributive justice

*Joseph Mazor, “Liberal Justice, Future People and Natural Resource Conservation” , Philosophy and Public Affairs (2010).

 Axel Gosseries and Lucas Meyer, Intergenerational Justice (Oxford University Press, 2009)


X. Justice across species

*Peter Vallentyne, “Of Mice and Men: Equality and Animals”,    Egalitarianism ed. Nils Holtug and Kasper Lippert Rasmussen (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, Zoopolis. A Political Theory of Animal Rights (OUP, 2011).

Oscar Horta, Zoopolis, Intervention and the State of Nature, Law, Ethics and Philosophy 1, 113-25.