In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • A Short History of Distributive Justice
  • Daniel H. Frank
Samuel Fleischacker . A Short History of Distributive Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. Pp. xii + 190. Cloth, $39.95.

This slim volume is a fine piece of philosophical and historical scholarship. Fleischacker's thesis is simple and straightforward: Distributive justice—the state guarantee to provide material goods to all its citizens—is a modern (Enlightenment) notion, and the guarantee of aid to the poor, grounded in a view of the poor as deserving of respect, is not to be found before the eighteenth century. Aristotle's notion of distributive (proportional) justice is no exception to this, for what is distributed in Aristotle's view, honor and political office, is indexed to merit. For Fleischacker, modern theories of distributive justice are not theories of desert. Indeed, because pre-modern ones are grounded in desert, they are consistent with a view of the poor that takes the latter to be utterly bereft of the kind of rights that ground institutional support for eliminating poverty and raising the poor out of their plight.

Fleischacker deals successfully with the possible candidacy for social and political egalitarianism of the natural law tradition of Cicero and Aquinas. A counter to Aristotle's theory in a way, the natural law tradition did not, could not, underwrite a state commitment to the poor and their material needs, for natural law from Cicero onwards very sharply distinguished between justice and beneficence, and understood material aid to the poor in the form of charity as stemming from beneficence, not strict justice. It will be immediately seen that once distribution is sundered from justice, and becomes an exercise of the (personal) virtue of beneficence, then the plight and the betterment of the poor ceases to be a civic duty. The poor and their poverty become a cause to be taken up, an arena in which propertied individuals or the Church might display a certain generosity of spirit to the downtrodden. But such generosity and beneficence is an elective, not stemming from an entitlement "to such aid by virtue of . . . membership in a polis, much less membership in the human race" (50).

The history that Fleischacker relates takes a decisive turn in the eighteenth century, and the critical figures in the story are Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant, Babeuf (the French revolutionary), and Fichte. In varying ways these Enlightenment thinkers come to a clear understanding of the poor as human beings deserving of respect and, as importantly, full-fledged citizens of the state (on account of their simple humanity). With such political egalitarianism in place, distributive justice in its modern (and secular) connotation is not far behind. A sense of duty and compassion replaces the virtues of beneficence and mercy [End Page 497] as the springs for eradicating poverty, or at least for providing the minimal goods required for developing basic human potentials. For his part, Adam Smith was a strong advocate of public schooling, of using public funds for all citizens (63). A certain optimism about alleviating the plight of the poor, indeed transforming their material condition, is here presumed.

The nineteenth century saw some reactions to this optimism. A certain throwback to earlier centuries revealed itself in the social Darwinism of Spencer, who championed property rights over all else. His libertarianism, like Nozick's more recent variant, positively "disallows state-run aid for the poor" (89). For Spenser, the optimism of the Enlightenment thinkers about transforming the plight of the poor in the name of justice and humanity is matched by a hard-hearted assessment about the advantage to the state of the demise of the poor in the name of property rights. But the century also produced the great Sidgwick and the classical Utilitarians, who, while not emphasizing the rights of individuals as did their Enlightenment forebears, were immensely keen on problems of the distribution of scarce resources and on real issues of public policy.

Fleischacker's story ends with Rawls, who gives the fullest articulation of distributive justice as a theory that is grounded in both the (Kantian, anti-Utilitarian) sanctity of the individual and a (Utilitarian and Marxist-inspired) social and political activism that understands that...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 497-498
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.