Distributive justice today

Basic Information

Course 2021/2022
Paula Casal
Law School, Area of Legal and Political Philosophy
Universitat Pompeu Fabra
Module 7. Issues in Contemporary Theoretical and Practical Philosophy


Tuesdays, 15:00 -18:00
40.246, Campus Ciutadella, Universitat Pompeu Fabra


This module 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.

Topic organization

Responses to Rawls 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. Each application will be discussed in a different session.


FormatIn previous years, participants were expected to (i) attend the sessions having read at least one paper to participate in a student-led discussion, and (ii) write an essay of under 2,000 words  (including notes, excluding abstract and bibliography). Both the format of the discussion and the most recommended item, marked*, changed during the year depending on students’ preferences.

Participation: Students can collectively select the participation model during the first day and change it at any time. The most successful format from past years involves a discussion with rules invented by two or three students (different ones each week) who will also evaluate the discussion and the performance of different teams, and sometimes give real or imaginary awards to participants for all sorts of reasons. Normally, after some clarificatory questions, different groups defend randomly allocated philosophical positions following invented rules that try to get everybody involved. Students will also participate by voting on positions they find most plausible and in various other ways.

Class representative: the students should choose before or after the first session a class representative who will have all the emails, including those from non UPF students, and tell me if the students want to change the participation model, discuss a topic in particular in more depth, spend an hour or more on how to write a good essay, change the deadline, etc. 

Competences and skills acquire in the theoretical part

Acquiring knowledge of the main schools of thought and political ideologies, as well as knowledge of general values and principles.

Gaining the necessary background information to produce novel research papers on distributive justice.

Learning to present the most persuasive version of every view, and to distinguish it from closely related variants.

Learning to explain different arguments to specialized and non-specialized audiences in a clear, engaging, and rigorous manner, avoiding ambiguity, and unnecessary jargon, or other pointless complications.

Using abstract theoretical concepts and principles to discuss specific problems of distribution from real life.

Competences and skills acquired in the practical part

Designing, organizing and leading a class or debate on an appropriately wide or narrow topic.

Debating in public in a convivial and respectful manner, with both rhetorical efficacy and a sense of humor, employing theoretical concepts in distributive justice rigorously.

Developing the capacity to identify the most powerful arguments and counterarguments in a paper and in a discussion.


Essays: Students can write an essay on any topic they want providing the essay concerns distributive justice, employs the course material, has been agreed in class by week 8, and does not look like a recycled version of a pre-existing paper. Titles may come from a list of Sample Titles or be invented by the student. Essays with unauthorized topics will receive no comments and be particularly scrutinized for plagiarism.

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. Excessively long essays will be penalized, particularly if the essay could easily be shortened, as the challenge is to say something about distributive justice in the given number of words, and whoever exceeds the limit is already failing this aspect of the challenge. Late essays will receive a one point penalty for every 48 hours of unjustified delay, and no comments whilst class participation can raise the course mark by 1 point.

Marking criteria

The UK marking system is roughly this one, taken from the Politics Department at Keele.

85%          Quite exceptional. All of 80% qualities plus even greater complexity and sometimes originality of argument and analysis. Some professional qualities. (It is conceivable that the work, with some revision, could form the basis of a publishable paper.)

80%         Outstanding first class. All of 70% qualities plus evidence of both wider reading and complexity and independence in argument and analysis.

75%         Clearly First class.  All of 70% qualities plus either evidence of extra reading around the subject (research), greater independence of thought, or complexity of argument and analysis.

70%         First class.  Directed exactly to the point of the essay question, covering the required literature, well- structured , well argued, and clear.

65%         Clear Upper Second.  All of 60% qualities plus some signs of independent thought in respect of argument or analysis.

60%         Upper Second.  Answers the question set and makes a sound, clear argument through good use of the literature, demonstrating an appreciation of the complexity of the issues involved.

55%         Middling II. All of 50% qualities but evidence of more thorough reading, but either not quite appreciating the central issues or covering only some of them.

50%         Lower Second.  A clear attempt to answer the question set but some misunderstanding which indicates a failure to appreciate the point of the question. Usually the result of inadequate preparation.

45%         Third. Not covering the literature or answering the question, but showing redeeming qualities above the third.

40%          Lower Third. Rushed, under prepared, superficial, or ill thought out. Although it makes some attempt, it does not adequately answer the question or show understanding of the issues involved.

Under 40% is a fail for an essay. The range downwards covers cases from ‘utterly hopeless’ to ‘an insult to the reader’. 

The fail range also covers various forms of plagiarism, which will be investigated thoroughly and penalized heavily. 0% will be given to work copied or being straightforwardly transcribed with insignificant changes from a book, article, someone else’s essay, or from online sources. 

SPAIN does not follow this system. You will receive marks for your individual modules, the tesina, and overall mark for your M.A. on a scale of 0-10, rather than in percentage marks. 

A 5 is necessary to pass. he other important characteristic of Spanish grading is that the full range of marks is used: it is rare but feasible to have an 8, a 9 and even a 10, and a 7 is not even rare. The rationale for this is sometimes that once you jumped really high, every extra millimeter is much harder to overcome and so should be highly rewarded, as in the Olympics. However, there may be different justifications for the marks.

9-10   Sobresaliente (stands above the others)

7 -8      Notable  (noticeable or remarkable) 

6           Bien (good)

5            Suficiente (merely sufficient to pass)

4          Insuficiente or Suspenso (not quite enough, fail)

0-3      Muy deficiente (very deficient)



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.

Other considerations


In anticipation of something like Covid-19 happening, I asked the UPF to film my lectures a couple of years ago, as I delivered them to our MA students. The students consented and asked clarificatory questions during the lectures, as in any year. This gives us various options to deal with pandemics. For example, in 2020 students decided to watch the lectures in their own time and use all the contact time for questions and getting help with their essays.

The Fall 2018 students kindly compiled a dossier of all the clarificatory activities, dilemmas, debates, quizzes, cahoots and discussions they organised, which future students can now consult to devise the activities they want to engage in.

In addition, I have also prepared a written summary of each lecture with the main points and a list of questions at the end of each lecture which students can use to see if they have understood the material correctly. I have also prepared another document with a very long list of questions on the material which can also be used for self-assessment purposes or to obtain ideas for essays.

Finally, I also have a detailed document with essay writing tips, divided in sections that follow the chronological essay writing order (from how to pick a topic, to proofreading the bibliography) which we can discuss in the zoom sessions, using some of the ideas for essays they have in mind.