Yesterday we began our refresher course on social justice. We looked at what social justice is. Today we look at what social justice is not, that is, how it is distinguished from individual justice and, especially, individual charity. This can get a little complex. The most important thing to realize here is that there is a difference between individual goods and social goods, and thus individual justice and social justice.
Individual goods are things that directly meet our personal wants and needs, or those of the people for whom we are responsible, usually members of our family, such as children and spouses. Such individual goods may be either tangible or intangible, material or spiritual.
Ordinarily, and limiting this discussion to those individual goods in the form of marketable goods and services, we obtain goods and services by producing them. Either we produce goods and services ourselves, for our own consumption, or we produce goods and services to exchange for goods and services produced by others so that we can consume them.
This is commutative justice, the justice of contracts or exchange, the justice of individual to individual. It works this way. I have a good or service worth five cows that I do not want or need to consume, but that you do want or need to consume. You have a good or service worth five cows that I want to consume, but that you do not want to consume. Both things being worth five cows, we trade, thereby obtaining what each of us wants or needs.
How do we know, however, that what each of us has is worth five cows? That is a matter for distributive justice.
Distributive justice is the justice of how parts relate to the whole. To determine the value or price of anything marketable, i.e., anything that can have a price, each “part” of (participant in) the market for a thing (each consumer of that thing) “votes,” that is, gives his, her, or its subjective opinion as to the value of one thing (a part of the market) relative, pro rata, or proportionate to all other things available for trade to that consumer (the whole of the market) measured by the utility of each thing to the consumer.
The aggregate of all these subjective opinions (votes), when totaled, result in as objective as possible a determination of the real value (price) of a thing compared to all other things for which the consumer could trade. Because the determination of values of things in the market is “distributed” proportionately among all possible consumer choices based on relative inputs (i.e., what each consumer has available for trade relative to what all other participants in the market have available for trade, combined with each consumer’s perceived utility of a thing relative to the perceived utility of that thing of all other participants in the market), the determination of value comes under distributive justice.
Similarly, when individual participants in the market join together in a productive activity, such as going into a business partnership, they come to some agreement as to how the profits will be divided or the losses suffered. Unless all the participants are fully informed and freely agree that the distribution of profits and losses is commensurate with the relative value of each participant’s contribution, however, there will be the perception of injustice.
Thus, distributive justice governs the determination of a just price or value for something, while commutative justice governs the delivery or exchange of a thing for which the value has been justly determined.