Justice and the Politics of Difference
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Justice and the Politics of Difference

Iris Marion Young

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Justice and the Politics of Difference

Iris Marion Young

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In this classic work of feminist political thought, Iris Marion Young challenges the prevailing reduction of social justice to distributive justice. It critically analyzes basic concepts underlying most theories of justice, including impartiality, formal equality, and the unitary moral subjectivity. The starting point for her critique is the experience and concerns of the new social movements about decision making, cultural expression, and division of labor--that were created by marginal and excluded groups, including women, African Americans, and American Indians, as well as gays and lesbians. Iris Young defines concepts of domination and oppression to cover issues eluding the distributive model. Democratic theorists, according to Young do not adequately address the problem of an inclusive participatory framework. By assuming a homogeneous public, they fail to consider institutional arrangements for including people not culturally identified with white European male norms of reason and respectability. Young urges that normative theory and public policy should undermine group-based oppression by affirming rather than suppressing social group difference. Basing her vision of the good society on the differentiated, culturally plural network of contemporary urban life, she argues for a principle of group representation in democratic publics and for group-differentiated policies.
Danielle Allen's new foreword contextualizes Young's work and explains how debates surrounding social justice have changed since--and been transformed by--the original publication of Justice and the Politics of Difference.

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Social Sciences
Gender Studies


Displacing the Distributive Paradigm

It was in general a mistake to make a fuss about so-called distribution and put the principal stress on it. Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself.
—Karl Marx
Thousands of buses converge on the city, and tens of thousands of people of diverse colors, ages, occupations, and life styles swarm onto the mall around the Washington Monument until the march begins. At midday people move into the streets, chanting, singing, waving wild papier-mache missiles or effigies of government officials. Many carry signs or banners on which a simple slogan is inscribed: “Peace, Jobs, and Justice.”
This scene has occurred many times in Washington, D.C., in the last decade, and many more times in other U.S. cities. What does “justice” mean in this slogan? In this context, as in many other political contexts today, I suggest that social justice means the elimination of institutionalized domination and oppression. Any aspect of social organization and practice relevant to domination and oppression is in principle subject to evaluation by ideals of justice.
Contemporary philosophical theories of justice, however, do not conceive justice so broadly. Instead, philosophical theories of justice tend to restrict the meaning of social justice to the morally proper distribution of benefits and burdens among society’s members. In this chapter I define and assess this distributive paradigm. While distributive issues are crucial to a satisfactory conception of justice, it is a mistake to reduce social justice to distribution.
I find two problems with the distributive paradigm. First, it tends to focus thinking about social justice on the allocation of material goods such as things, resources, income, and wealth, or on the distribution of social positions, especially jobs. This focus tends to ignore the social structure and institutional context that often help determine distributive patterns. Of particular importance to the analyses that follow are issues of decision making power and procedures, division of labor, and culture.
One might agree that defining justice in terms of distribution tends to bias thinking about justice toward issues concerning wealth, income, and other material goods, and that other issues such as decision making power or the structure of the division of labor are as important, and yet argue that distribution need not be restricted to material goods and resources. Theorists frequently consider issues of the distribution of such nonmaterial goods as power, opportunity, or self-respect. But this widening of the concept of distribution exhibits the second problem with the distributive paradigm. When metaphorically extended to nonmaterial social goods, the concept of distribution represents them as though they were static things, instead of a function of social relations and processes.
In criticizing distributively oriented theories I wish neither to reject distribution as unimportant nor to offer a new positive theory to replace the distributive theories. I wish rather to displace talk of justice that regards persons as primarily possessors and consumers of goods to a wider context that also includes action, decisions about action, and provision of the means to develop and exercise capacities. The concept of social justice includes all aspects of institutional rules and relations insofar as they are subject to potential collective decision. The concepts of domination and oppression, rather than the concept of distribution, should be the starting point for a conception of social justice.


A distributive paradigm runs through contemporary discourse about justice, spanning diverse ideological positions. By “paradigm” I mean a configuration of elements and practices which define an inquiry: metaphysical presuppositions, unquestioned terminology, characteristic questions, lines of reasoning, specific theories and their typical scope and mode of application. The distributive paradigm defines social justice as the morally proper distribution of social benefits and burdens among society’s members. Paramount among these are wealth, income, and other material resources. The distributive definition of justice often includes, however, nonmaterial social goods such as rights, opportunity, power, and self-respect. What marks the distributive paradigm is a tendency to conceive social justice and distribution as coextensive concepts.
A review of how some major theorists define justice makes apparent the prevalence of this conceptual identification of justice with distribution. Rawls defines a “conception of justice as providing in the first instance a standard whereby the distributive aspects of the basic structure of society are to be assessed” (Rawls, 1971, p. 9). W. G. Runciman defines the problem of justice as “the problem of arriving at an ethical criterion by reference to which the distribution of social goods in societies may be assessed” (Runciman, 1978, p. 37). Bruce Ackerman (1980, p. 25) defines the problem of justice initially as that of determining initial entitlements of a scarce resource, manna, which is convertible into any social good.
William Galston makes more explicit than most theorists the logic of a distributive understanding of justice. Justice, he says, involves an ensemble of possessive relations. In a possessive relation the individual is distinct from the object possessed. Justice, he says, may be defined as rightful possession (Galston, 1980, p. 5). In such a possessive model the nature of the possessing subject is prior to and independent of the goods possessed; the self underlies and is unchanged by alternative distributions (cf. Sandel, 1982). Justice concerns the proper pattern of the allocation of entities among such antecedently existing individuals. Or as Galston puts it, justice is
the appropriate assignment of entities to individuals; appropriateness encompasses both the relation between some feature of entities and individuals under consideration and the relation between those entities and possible modes of assignment. The domain of entities may include objects, qualities, positions within a system, or even human beings. (Galston, 1980, p. 112)
The distributive paradigm of justice so ensnares philosophical thinking that even critics of the dominant liberal framework continue to formulate the focus of justice in exclusively distributive terms. David Miller, for example, claims that liberal conceptions of justice tend to reflect the prevailing social relations, and argues for a more egalitarian conception of justice than traditional theories propose. Yet he also defines the subject matter of justice as “the manner in which benefits and burdens are distributed among persons, where such qualities and relationships can be investigated” (Miller, 1976, p. 19). Even explicitly socialist or Marxist discussions of justice often fall under the distributive paradigm. In their discussion of justice under socialism, for example, Edward Nell and Onora O’Neill (1980) assume that the primary difference between socialist justice and capitalist liberal justice is in their principles of distribution. Similarly, Kai Nielsen (1979; 1985, chap. 3) elaborates socialist principles of a radical egalitarian justice which have a primarily distributional focus.
Michael Walzer (1983) is interestingly ambiguous in relation to the distributive paradigm. Walzer asserts that philosophers’ criticisms of the injustice of a social system usually amount to claims that a dominant good should be more widely distributed, that is, that monopoly is unjust. It is more appropriate, he says, to criticize the structure of dominance itself, rather than merely the distribution of the dominant good. Having one sort of social good—say, money—should not give one automatic access to other social goods. If the dominance of some goods over access to other goods is broken, then the monopoly of some group over a particular good may not be unjust (see Walzer, 1983, pp. 10-13). Walzer’s analysis here has resonances with my concern to focus primarily on the social structures and processes that produce distributions rather than on the distributions. At the same time, however, Walzer repeatedly and unambiguously uses the language of distribution to discuss social justice, in sometimes reifying and strange ways. In his chapter on the family, for example, he speaks of the just distribution of love and affection.
Most theorists take it as given, then, that justice is about distributions. The paradigm assumes a single model for all analyses of justice: all situations in which justice is at issue are analogous to the situation of persons dividing a stock of goods and comparing the size of the portions individuals have. Such a model implicitly assumes that individuals or other agents lie as nodes, points in the social field, among whom larger or smaller bundles of social goods are assigned. The individuals are externally related to the goods they possess, and their only relation to one another that matters from the point of view of the paradigm is a comparison of the amount of goods they possess. The distributive paradigm thus implicitly assumes a social atomism, inasmuch as there is no internal relation among persons in society relevant to considerations of justice.
The distributive paradigm is also pattern oriented. It evaluates justice according to the end-state pattern of persons and goods that appear on the social field. Evaluation of social justice involves comparing alternative patterns and determining which is the most just. Such a pattern-oriented conceptualization implicitly assumes a static conception of society.
I find two problems with this distributive paradigm, which I elaborate in the next two sections. First, it tends to ignore, at the same time that it often presupposes, the institutional context that determines material distributions. Second, when extended to nonmaterial goods and resources, the logic of distribution misrepresents them.


Most theorizing about social justice focuses on the distribution of material resources, income, or positions of reward and prestige. Contemporary debates among theorists of justice, as Charles Taylor (1985) points out, are inspired largely by two practical issues. First, is the distribution of wealth and income in advanced capitalist countries just, and if not, does justice permit or even require the provision of welfare services and other redistributive measures? Second, is the pattern of the distribution of positions of high income and prestige just, and if not, are affirmative action policies just means to rectify that injustice? Nearly all of the writers I cited earlier who define justice in distributive terms identify questions of the equality or inequality of wealth and income as the primary questions of social justice (see also Arthur and Shaw, 1978). They usually subsume the second set of questions, about the justice of the distribution of social positions, under the question of economic distribution, since “more desirable” positions usually correspond to those that yield higher income or greater access to resources.
Applied discussions of justice too usually focus on the distribution of material goods and resources. Discussions of justice in medical care, for example, usually focus on the allocation of medical resources such as treatment, sophisticated equipment, expensive procedures, and so on (e.g., Daniels, 1985, esp. chaps. 3 and 4). Similarly, issues of justice enter discussion in environmental ethics largely through consideration of the impact that alternative policies might have on the distribution of natural and social resources among individuals and groups (see, e.g., Simon, 1984).
As we shall see in detail in Chapter 3, the social context of welfare capitalist society helps account for this tendency to focus on the distribution of income and other resources. Public political dispute in welfare corporate society is largely restricted to issues of taxation, and the allocation of public funds among competing social interests. Public discussions of social injustice tend to revolve around inequalities of wealth and income, and the extent to which the state can or should mitigate the suffering of the poor.
There are certainly pressing reasons for philosophers to attend to these issues of the distribution of wealth and resources. In a society and world with vast differences in the amount of material goods to which individuals have access, where millions starve while others can have anything they want, any conception of justice must address the distribution of material goods. The immediate provision of basic material goods for people now suffering severe deprivation must be a first priority for any program that seeks to make the world more just. Such a call obviously entails considerations of distribution and redistribution.
But in contemporary American society, many public appeals to justice do not concern primarily the distribution of material goods. Citizens in a rural Massachusetts town organize against a decision to site a huge hazardous waste treatment plant in their town. Their leaflets convince people that state law has treated the community unjustly by denying them the option of rejecting the plant (Young, 1983). Citizens in an Ohio city are outraged at the announcement that a major employer is closing down its plant. They question the legitimacy of the power of private corporate decisionmakers to throw half the city out of work without warning, and without any negotiation and consultation with the community. Discussion of possible compensation makes them snicker; the point is not simply that we are out of jobs and thus lack money, they claim, but that no private party should have the right to decide to decimate the local economy. Justice may require that former workers and other members of the community have the option of taking over and operating the plant themselves (Schweickart, 1984). These two cases concern not so much the justice of material distributions as the justice of decision making power and procedures.
Black critics claim that the television industry is guilty of gross injustice in its depictions of Blacks. More often than not, Blacks are represented as criminals, hookers, maids, scheming dealers, or jiving connivers. Blacks rarely appear in roles of authority, glamour, or virtue. Arab Americans are outraged at the degree to which television and film present recognizable Arabs only as sinister terrorists or gaudy princes, and conversely that terrorists are almost always Arab. Such outrage at media stereotyping issues in claims about the injustice not of material distribution, but of cultural imagery and symbols.
In an age of burgeoning computer technology, organizations of clerical workers argue that no person should have to spend the entirety of her working day in front of a computer terminal typing in a set of mindless numbers at monitored high speeds. This claim about injustice concerns not the distribution of goods, for the claim would still be made if VDT operators earned $30,000 annually. Here the primary issues of justice concern the structure of the division of labor and a right to meaningful work.
There are many such claims about justice and injustice in our society which are not primarily about the distribution of income, resources, or positions. A focus on the distribution of material goods and resources inappropriately restricts the scope of justice, because it fails to bring social structures and institutional contexts under evaluation. Several writers make this claim about distributive theories specifically with regard to their inability to bring capitalist institutions and class relations under evaluation. In his classic paper, for example, Allen Wood (1972) argues that for Marx justice refers only to superstructural juridical relations of distribution, which are constrained by the underlying mode of production. Because they are confined to distribution, principles of justice cannot be used to evaluate the social relations of production themselves (cf. Wolff, 1977, pp. 199-208).
Other writers criticize distributive theories of justice, especially Rawls’s, for presupposing at the same time that they obscure the context of class inequality that the theories are unable to evaluate (Macpherson, 1973; Nielsen, 1978). A distributive conception of justice is unable to bring class relations into view and evaluate them, Evan Simpson suggests, because its individualism prevents an understanding of structural phenomena, the “macroscopic transfer emerging from a complicated set of individual actions” (Simpson, 1980, p. 497) which cannot be understood in terms of any particular individual actions or acquisitions.
Many who make this Marxist criticism of the distributive focus of theories of justice conclude that justice is a concept of bourgeois ideology and thus not useful for a socialist normative analysis. Others disagree, and this dispute has occupied much of the Marxist literature on justice. I will argue later that a criticism of the distributive paradigm does not entail abandoning or transcending the concept of justice. For the moment I wish to focus on the point on which both sides in this dispute agree, namely, that predominant approaches to justice tend to presuppose and uncritically accept the relations of production that define an economic system.
The Marxist analysis of the distributive paradigm provides a fruitful starting point, but it is both too narrow and too general. On the one hand, capitalist class relations are not the only phenomena of social structure or institutional context that the distributive paradigm fails to evaluate. Some feminists point out, for example, that contemporary theories of justice presuppose family structure, without asking how social relations involving sexuality, intimacy, childrearing, and household labor ought best to be organized (see Okin, 1986; Pateman, 1988, pp. 41-43). Like their forebears, contemporary liberal theorists of justice tend to presume that the units among which basic distributions take place are families, and that it is as family members, often heads of families, that individuals enter the public realm where justice operates (Nicholson, 1986, chap. 4). Thus they neglect issues of justice within families—for example, the issue of whether the traditional sexual division of labor still presupposed by much law and employment policy is just.
While the Marxist criticism is too narrow, it is also too vague. The claim that the distributive paradigm fails to bring class relations under evaluation is too general to make clear what specific nondistributive issues are at stake. While property is something distributed, for example, in the form of goods, land, buildings, or shares of stock, the legal relations that define entitlement, possible forms of title, and so on are not goods to be distributed. The legal framework consists of rules defining practices and rights to make decisions about the disposition of goods. Class domination is certainly enacted by agents deciding where to invest their capital—a distributive decision; but the social rules, rights, procedures, and influences that structure capi...