3.3.4 Government’s responsibility for distributive justice: interim summary

Back to 3.3.3

Unit 3 Contents


At the start of this part of this unit (3.3.1), I posed the following question: if a major part of government’s role is to ensure there is distributive justice, what does this require in practice?

In the light of the last three screens, we are now in a position to put together the three main elements of the answer.

In order for government to fulfil its role of distributive justice, it has the following tasks:

(i)  recognition and protection of civil society bodies, in line with the principle of subsidiarity,  (3.3.1)

(ii)  upholding of human rights, both benefit rights and freedom rights (3.3.2)

(iii)  civic direction (3.3.3)

These three together enable us to see what a society in which there is distributive justice will look like.

In reaching the point at which this summary of the role of government can be given, we are at a significant moment in this unit, indeed in Module B as a whole.  This page can be seen as a pivot.

This said, I need to emphasise immediately: the last three screens give only an outline.  Much more can be said to fill in the details and to qualify what’s been said so far.  Much of the rest of the module will do exactly these things (in this unit and units 5, 6 and 7).

It might not be clear why each of the above three elements is a matter of justice.  Let us examine this further.



Can you see why each of those elements in the role of the government is a matter of justice?

This might be fairly obvious in relation to the first, namely, recognizing and safeguarding civil society bodies, and very obvious in relation to the second, upholding human rights.

But possibly it will be far from obvious in relation to the third, civic direction.


Let us look at each of these in turn.

(i)  Recognition and safeguarding of civil society bodies

As you know, the background to this part of government’s role is the principle of subsidiarity.  This insists that government must not take over the various groups, associations and institutions in civil society, but instead must recognize them and ensure that legal provisions relating to them reflect this recognition.

The way in government must do them justice is implicit in the word ‘recognition’.  To do justice is to render what is due (1.3.1).  But for anyone to do justice, they must know what is due, and to get a good understanding of this, they need to know about the person or group needing justice.  In practical terms relevant to subsidiarity, government needs to know what a marriage, a family, a business, a school, or a university, is. Using the term introduced in 3.2.4, government needs to understand the ‘vocational responsibility’ each has.  Only this can enable government to give recognition, and therefore to do justice, to civil society bodies.

(ii)  Upholding each person’s human rights

The way in which government does justice to each and every distinct human person is by ensuring that their human rights are upheld.   This means both freedom rights and benefit rights.

Of course, like civil society bodies, each person has responsibilities too.  The fact that the state’s role includes upholding human rights does not at all reduce the responsibilities we all have for our own lives and for treating one another justly.

(Module A, Unit 7, looks closely at the relationship of rights and responsibilities.)

Before we move on to the third element, it will be worth noticing the connection between both of the first two and government’s responsibility for retributive justice (on which see 3.1.5).

You will recall (from the last screen) that both of these elements of government’s role are essentially remedial.  Neither of them requires government actually to do anything, unless something has gone wrong – for example, that a civil society body has failed to fulfil its responsibilities or someone’s human rights have been violated.

Such wrongs mean that there is distributive injustice, and government might have to review whether legal provisions relating to those wrongs are sufficient.  At the same time, the judicial branch of government will have to assess whether evidence of the failing or violation is sufficient to merit prosecution, and if there is, and a guilty verdict results, decide what penalty to impose.

What this shows is that there is a correspondence between the vision of distributive justice and government’s task of retributive justice.  Thus the judiciary properly brings judgment:

  • against civil society bodies that fail to exercise their responsibilities (such as to supply safe products) or that abuse people (e.g. by exploitation at work).
  • against particular people who violate others’ rights (such as by violence) or who fail to meet individual responsibilities (e.g. care for children).

Note that there is permanent tension between civil society bodies and individual persons, about which courts often have to decide.  This is because collective bodies can treat persons unjustly, while individuals can undermine or damage social groups or institutions.

In conclusion to these brief comments, the first two elements in government’s role of distributive justice require it to operate a system of retributive justice.  In practice, this forms one of the major responsibilities of all governments.

(iii)                    Civic direction

The third element in the role of government is to do with society as a whole.

The sense in which civic direction is a matter of distributive justice may be more difficult to grasp than in relation to (i) and (ii).  Basically the point is that those who govern have to be able to be judicious about what the common good positively requires.  In any specific society – a town, city or nation, among others – with its particular history and shared practices, they need a well-informed sense of what makes for that society’s good.  Only in light of this can they discern what government should do to fulfil wisely its role of civic direction.  What enables wise judgments about railway development, green belt land, city parks, numbers of engineers to be trained, or the planning of huge special events such as the Olympic Games?

In explaining this role earlier (3.3.3), I referred to Aquinas’s argument that even in a perfect human society – with no need for the state’s remedial role – there would still be government.  Aquinas helps us to see how this part of what government does is a matter of justice.

Aquinas refers to differences of ability among people that naturally equip them for different, complementary tasks.1. In light of these, he says, people give themselves, “out of … free choice”, to particular tasks.  For example, some train to make furniture and others to be teachers.  In consequence, some go “further in justice [justitia] or in knowledge [scientia] than others”.  In relation to the role of ‘principal’ or ‘director’, he says that,

if one man greatly surpassed another in knowledge and justice, it would be all wrong if he did not perform this function… for the benefit of others (ST I, Q. 96 Art. 4).

Here, the fact that one person surpasses another in ‘justice’ does not mean that anyone acts unjustly.  Don’t forget that here Aquinas was imagining a perfect human society.  Rather, Aquinas’s point is that those people who freely give themselves to tasks that are to do with society as a whole and its common good, rather than, for instance, to building roads or playing the piano, become better equipped for making such political judgments. They have gone further in ‘justice’ because they have become better able to make good judgments about what is due, about the required distribution of various goods, for the common good.

On the last screen I used an analogy for the civic direction role, namely, organizing a conference.  An organizer does things justly if he or she makes the most sensible judgments about timing of sessions, fees for waged and unwaged people, allocation of rooms for different events, and so on.  Some people are better at such co-ordinating roles than others, and Aquinas’s point is that that those who have become especially capable of making such judgments for a society (through a combination of natural abilities, training and experience) have, in a sense, surpassed others in justice – and should participate in government.

In this way, the third part of government’s role, civic direction, is also a matter of justice.


End of 3.3.4

Go to 3.3.5 Further issues

Module B outline

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  1. See Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 96 Art. 3. 

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