3.1.4 Distributive justice

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Unit 3 Contents


You recently re-read the page in Unit 1 about justice (1.3.1).  This introduced the important distinction between distributive justice and retributive justice.

On this screen we shall focus on distributive justice.  You will recall that this is about who has what and how much.  It is to do with the distribution of goods among people and groups, whether on a small or large scale.

The Catholic Church has long been committed to distributive justice.  This was expressed in, for example, the writing of St Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.  He described distributive justice in terms of “the order of the whole towards the parts… [the distribution] of that which belongs to the community in relation to each single person”.1. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it in a similar way: distributive justice is to do with “what the community owes its citizens in proportion to their contributions and needs” (#2411).

It is clear that, for Aquinas, those with authority in a community have responsibility for distributive justice, whether in a political society or a family.2. The Catechism is unambiguously clear that government has such responsibility.  Under the heading ‘Duties of civil authorities’, it says,

Those in authority should practice distributive justice wisely, taking account of the needs and contribution of each, with a view to harmony and peace. (#2236)

This commitment to distributive justice, including to the role of government in bringing it about, was expressed strongly in the founding document of modern CST, Rerum Novarum (1891).  This page will introduce and outline this pivotally important statement.

But before we turn to Rerum Novarum, it will be valuable to introduce another distinction, that between ‘distributive justice’ and ‘commutative justice’.  We should also bring in our study in Unit 2 of the Hebrew Scriptures on justice.

Commutative justice

Consider this example.  If Robert is employed but is receiving a wage that is so low that it can finance only his mere survival, rather than giving the possibility of meeting his family’s needs, he is not getting what he is due in pay from work.  At least, this is how CST would see it, because CST affirms employers have a duty of justice to pay, not merely a subsistence wage, but a ‘living wage’ – one high enough to enable a person to take proper care of their dependents.  (We shall look at Rerum Novarum’s call for such a wage level shortly.)

Therefore CST would certainly see Robert’s rate of pay in that case as unjust.  However, this injustice does not, in principle, require government action to put right.  If Robert’s employer had from the start paid a ‘living wage’, government would not need to do anything to ensure there is justice.  There would already be justice in the particular transaction between the employer and Robert.

Justice in particular transactions among people and groups – when they are selling and buying goods and services, as well as in contracts of employment – has a special name: ‘commutative justice’.

Distributive justice is about the ‘big picture’, the distribution of goods across a whole society.  Commutative justice is about specific exchanges of goods between particular people and organizations within society.  As the Catechism puts it, commutative justice “regulates exchanges between persons and between institutions… [and] requires safeguarding property rights, paying debts, and fulfilling obligations freely contracted” (#2411).

To the extent that there is commutative justice in a society, thanks to justice in people’s everyday transactions, those who govern don’t need to do anything directly to ensure that there is distributive justice overall.

But in all societies in practice, there are some specific transactions which are unjust, often many.  A main reason why action for distributive justice is needed is commutative injustice. We can say that, after all particular transactions have taken place, distributive justice is what remains to be done across a society, and this is government’s responsibility.3

In the case of Robert, his employer’s action means the wage transaction between them is commutatively unjust.  Assuming Robert doesn’t have other income or wealth, it unjustly leaves him and his family in poverty.  Action for distributive justice is needed to overcome this.

Of course, one reason why some people will act justly in particular transactions is that they know there are laws against unjust treatment.  If a legal minimum wage is introduced which is higher than Robert’s pay, that might well be the single reason why his employer increases his pay.  In such ways, laws requiring commutative justice can be seen as preventing distributive injustice.

In summary, commutative justice is about what is due in particular transactions.  Distributive justice is about what is due across a whole society.

This distinction is closely related to a point made in the page on justice in Unit 1 which you re-read recently (1.3.1).  Justice is both a special responsibility of governments and a virtue that people need to have.  For a just society to exist, it is not enough for government to act justly.  No government can quickly bring justice to a country in which most people are unjust and act unjustly as a matter of routine.  Rather, citizens need to practise justice – both to do what is just and to be just.  Seeing the same point in a different light, the practice of both commutative justice and distributive justice is necessary.

‘Distributive justice’ in the Hebrew Scriptures



We have been focusing on the meanings of distributive justice and commutative justice.  These English words have their roots in Latin.

In Unit 2, when studying the ‘just government strand’ in the Bible, we gave attention to two Hebrew words for justice.  Can you recall what these are?


It will be helpful if we draw on our study in the last unit of the ‘just government strand’ in the Bible.  There we saw that, in the Hebrew Scriptures, tzedakah means justice or righteousness in a more general sense than the specific enacting of judgment in court that mishpat refers to (2.2.4).

Tzedakah is close in meaning to distributive justice, although its connotations are wider, perhaps incorporating commutative justice.  Jonathan Sacks, a well-known Jewish commentator, argues that, even though tzedakah is not fully translatable, its primary meaning is ‘distributive justice’.4. Explaining this, he says:

There must be justice not only in how the law is applied, but also in how the means of existence – wealth as G-d’s blessing – are distributed. That is tzedakah.5

While the Hebrew Scriptures certainly see the political ruler, the Israelite king, as having responsibility for tzedakah (e.g. in Ps. 72), they also present this as a duty everyone has (see e.g. Prov. 21:21).  This helps to explain why a main meaning of tzedakah in Jewish tradition since biblical times is giving to those in real need, but with this seen as an obligation of justice, not an optional extra.  Tzedakah can be understood, then, as communicating a vision of a just society, which all are responsible for bringing about, whether through political rule, everyday transactions, or giving to people in need.



Jonathan Sacks also says this in explaining tzedakah:

One can imagine a society which fastidiously observes the rule of law, and yet contains so much inequality that wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few, and many are left without the most basic requirements of a dignified existence. There may be high unemployment and widespread poverty. Some may live in palaces while others go homeless. That is not the kind of order that the Torah contemplates.6

Tzedakah stands in opposition to that kind of society.  What do you think is the relationship between what government should do and what citizens should do in bringing about tzedakah or distributive justice?


We shall bring in the Bible’s other Hebrew word for justice, mishpat, on the next screen.

Rerum Novarum

Let us now connect that outline of what ‘distributive justice’ means, and of how it is related to ‘commutative justice’, with Rerum Novarum.  What the Church found it had to call for in 1891, in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, was both of these.

The other VPlater module, Module A, gives you an opportunity to study the whole of Reurum Novarum.  Unit 4 there gives an extended exposition of this ground-breaking document (see 4.2).  We shall look at one page in that unit in a moment.

Rerum Novarum (RN) can be seen as having four main parts, as follows:

Part 1:  A natural right to private property (##4-15)

Part 2: The role of the Church in teaching and charity (##16-31)

Part 3: The role of government in ensuring just working conditions (##32-47)

Part 4: Workers have a right to form associations/unions (##48-61)7

As this shows, parts 2, 3 and 4 of the encyclical were about the responsibilities, respectively, of the Church, of government, and of workers themselves, in tacking the crisis of the condition of labour.

In part 2 of RN, Pope Leo first defended the legitimacy of the Church speaking on issues about working conditions. After establishing this, he went on to set out plainly the duties of both the worker to their employer and of the employer to the worker.  In other words, he emphasized the ways in which commutative justice should characterise the relations between employers and workers.  He said this:

[T]he following duties bind… the worker: fully and faithfully to perform the work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon; never to injure the property, nor to outrage the person, of an employer; never to resort to violence in defending their own cause, nor to engage in riot or disorder…

The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character. They are reminded that, according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honourable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers – that is truly shameful and inhuman. Again justice demands that, in dealing with the working man, religion and the good of his soul must be kept in mind. Hence, the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings. Furthermore, the employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their sex and age. His great and principal duty is to give every one what is just.

(Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, #20, italics and para. break added)

It was only after emphasizing commutative justice in this way, that the encyclical went on, in part 3, to state some of the responsibilities of government, and thereby what distributive justice demanded.  To see this, read the page in Module A which summarises what RN said on the role of government. (Then return to this screen.)


Reading (3pp)

VPlater Module A, 4.2.6, ‘RN part 3: The role of government in ensuring just working conditions (##32-47)’



This page gives the option of reading the text of part 3 of RN directly.  You might wish to take this opportunity as no readings from RN are set later in this module. (This is because of the focus on it Module A.)


That screen includes a couple of quotations which give a flavour of how radical a document RN was in its nineteenth century context.  Leo XIII called for state-backed bodies (‘societies or boards’) that would ensure that wages are “sufficient to enable [a worker] comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children”, and thereby prevent his “employer or contractor” making him “the victim of force and injustice”.

Pope Leo XIII’s call here seems to have assumed that his earlier appeal to workers and employers freely to do commutative justice in their relations with one another would (at least in part) fall on deaf ears.  Therefore, government’s responsibility for distributive justice meant it had to use law to require commutative justice, not least just wages.

This part of RN represents the starting point, even a kind of benchmark, in study of what modern CST has to say about the responsibility of government for distributive justice.

In the next part of this unit, we shall look at how this developed in the next major CST document, Quadragesimo Anno, which marked the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum in 1931.

To sum up here, the fundamental responsibility of government is to do justice, and the term ‘distributive justice’ describes one large part of its role.  In the context of Europe after the Industrial Revolution, RN spelt out some of what this meant in practice, in relation to working life and business.

An important caveat must be introduced.  Recognizing that the role of political authority includes distributive justice does not immediately justify any views on what specific government policies are most effective for bringing it about.  It is perfectly possible that people in government who are fully committed to distributive justice will back policies which don’t work or even make things worse.  It is not enough that someone’s heart is in the right place.

Particular government policies and programmes are only means, and sometimes they can have unforeseen consequences and so not achieve their objectives or make things worse.  For example, accepting government’s responsibility for distributive justice has led to introduction of social security systems, and over the past century these have kept many millions of people out of absolute poverty. Nevertheless many now agree that some ways of running them tend to leave people in a ‘poverty trap’ and also can, over time, encourage a damaging dependency on state provision.  Such problems of course don’t justify not having social security provision, but they simply point to the difficult challenge of developing effective public policy.

We shall return to such practical issues in Unit 5, but the general point about the mistake of leaping from distributive justice to particular policies is important enough to introduce here.



End of 3.1.4

Go to 3.1.5 Retributive justice and the rule of law

Module B outline

Copyright © Newman University. If you wish to quote from this page, see Citation Information. N.B. If you are a student and make use of material on this page in an assignment, you are obliged to reference the source in line with the citation information.

  1. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIaIIae, Q. 61, Art. 1 (accessible at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3061.htm#article1, at 13 June 2013)  

  2. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIaIIae, Q. 61, Art. 1, ad. 3 

  3. Of course, in reality an end-point when ‘all particular transactions have taken place’, is never reached; moves seeking distributive justice are required as people’s dealings with one another are going on. 

  4. Jonathan Sacks was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. 

  5. J. Sacks, ‘Covenant and Conversation – Tzedakah: the Untranslatable Virtue’, OU Torah, published by Orthodox Union,  Re’eh 27th Av 5767 (11 Aug. 2007), accessed (12 July 2013) at http://www.ou.org/torah/article/covenant_and_conversation_tzedakah#.UeAd3_ksnHl 

  6. Sacks, ‘Covenant and Conversation’, cited above. 

  7. The exposition in Module A, Unit 4, follows this distinction of RN into four parts; see the contents page for the relevant part of Unit 4: http://www.virtualplater.org.uk/?page_id=1589

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