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Distributive and Commutative Justice

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According to Aristotle, there are two main types of justice that apply to social situations and are part of the sphere of virtue. The first, distributive justice, is the quality of being fair and impartial when distributing goods or evenly allocating benefits. Distributive justice is a type of justice that diminishes when there are not enough resources to give everyone what they need. Commutative justice is the second type, which refers to an agreement between parties about what each should contribute for an equitable distribution. Commutative justice derives from contracts that obligate us to act in certain ways and under certain conditions with other people.”

Aristotle claim that distributive justice refers to how wealth, rights, work, and so on are shared fairly within a community, commutative justice involves members of a group being treated equally, people should be careful to understand that the justice between people who deal with each other as equals is commutative justice, and the justice between people who do not deal with each other as equals is distributive. For example, it is just (commutative) for plasterers to charge plumbers the same fee for their work. It is just (distributive) for people to receive different amounts of pay for doing the same job depending on what their job title is, how much experience they have, or whether they are working in an unpopular area.” According to Aristotle, commutative justice does not depend on any particular laws but rather on social conventions. Therefore, it applies only to interactions where both parties have equal standing.

When people confuse distributive and commutative justice, it can lead to fairly large gaps in understanding. For example, some people might think that distributive justice will happen when you equally split good and bad things between everyone and that commutative justice happens when you give the same amount back to someone for as much as they’ve given to you. However, this is not the case at all. Distributive justice is just how things are distributed in a group, while commutative justice happens when two parties trade goods with each other (but it doesn’t matter what order they do the trade). So while both distributive and commutative justice happen most often based on transactions between two parties, they’re not exactly “the same. Misapplying distributive and commutative justice can lead to negative results where people misunderstand the underlying mechanisms that govern how these justice types happen. A judge, for instance, might say that someone should get 5 years in jail for a crime, but the judge doesn’t really understand the concepts of distributive and commutative justice. Another example where people might confuse these two types of justice is when they complain that they didn’t give them enough money in a divorce settlement (this isn’t distributive or commutative, however, because people don’t own each other) (Porta, 2014).

The relationship between distributive and commutative justice with general justice is often overlooked in the quest to identify Aristotle’s best and worst forms of justice. Distributive justice measures what is deserved by people as a whole, while commutative justice measures relative value among individuals. Both ideally contribute to general justice, but when general justice is achieved distributive and commutative justice have fulfilled their purposes (Porta, 2014).

The only time when these two types of justice may be in conflict is if distributive justices’ groups based on their particulars rather than their similarities, like one group always being superior or inferior to another. General justice is achieved when distributive and commutative justice are not in conflict with each other. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle does a very good job identifying the relationship between distributive and commutative justice. He even applies them to his political theories of society in order to thoroughly examine them (Crisp, 2014).

The relationship between distributive justice and Particular or partial justice is that the former is the idea of distributing something in an even manner, while the latter is realizing individual or collective justice in a certain manner (Crisp, 2014). As such, distributive justice can be considered fair and just as long as it provides each person with something on an individual or collective level. On the other hand, particular or partial justice is what people want when fairness is not necessarily advocated. For example, if a particular individual does not receive anything from their particular distribution of goods and services, then they feel that their partial justice has been violated because their situation did not change for better despite being broken up into equal pieces.

On the other hand, the relationship between Particular or partial justice and commutative justice is that the former is the idea of distributive justice that redistributes specific goods and services, while the latter is what people want when it comes to fairness, or a collective equality. This means that commutative justice can be considered fair and just as long as each person receives what they deserve for their individual merits. There are many ways of looking at distributive justice. These include “relational” theories and “group” theories that focus on the relationship between individuals and groups rather than individuals per se. In one sense, distributive justice could be considered an all-or-nothing proposition: if one person gets something more than another then that person has unjustly acquired privileges over the other.

Commutative and distributive justice also have a close relationship with moral virtue, insofar as commutative justice is concerned with the appropriateness of distribution. The relevant question then is how much and what kind of goods, services, opportunities, and so on should one receive for the proper conduct of one’s life. Distributive justice focuses primarily on the first question; commutative justice concerns itself primarily with the second (how much) and secondarily with the first (what kind). Distributive justice is also related to social justice, insofar as social justice focuses on groups rather than individuals. Sometimes philosophers distinguish between “distributive” or “commutative” justice according to whether they are focusing on a particular or a group level.

According to Aristotle, distributive justice refers to the fair sharing of rights, work, wealth, and privileges. Distributive justice is a moral theory that concerns the distribution of goods, resources and rewards among members of a society. It requires equality in the conventions of allocation for everyone involved and will be judged by the degree to which it satisfies certain values such as equity, efficiency, and reciprocity. This type of justice takes into account the whole system – the whole society, where it is important not to ignore the weakest members of said society.

This kind of justice is often contrasted with commutative justice, which deals with the way in which individual entities are exchanged. It is also contrasted with social justice as it pertains to fairness in a society as a whole (Porta, 2014). As opposed to distributive justice, this latter type of justice is often characterized by equality of outcome and an assumption that society will be fair and distribute benefits fairly. It can be summarized by the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”.

Commutative justice incorporates treating members of a group equally regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, religion, race or other form of identity. It is an approach to justice that also incorporates the idea of treating individuals as equals who deserve equal opportunities to achieve success. This means understanding how people in a community are being treated and whether people are experiencing social oppression or able to compete fairly for the same opportunities. In a society where gender inequality is rife and some minority groups are marginalised, commutative justice may be an inadequate label for what needs to be done because it has nothing specific attached to it. The term became prominent after its use by American philosopher John Rawls and is currently used in his theory of justice known as A Theory of Justice that provides six principles designed with equality in mind (Klein, 2017).

A good real-world example from the news where someone confused and misapplied commutative and distributive justice is the recent case of the court order to release 14 juveniles detained at the border by 20 July. A federal judge in California ordered U. S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen to release 14 children, ages 10 to 17, who have been detained at United States borders without their parents and without clear plans for reuniting them with their family members soon. In his written order on Friday, Judge Dolly Gee said that the minors have been held in government facilities for more than a month even though many are parentless and could not be considered “unaccompanied” as they crossed the border but were apprehended by immigration authorities. The ruling does not cover those under 10 years old and it only applies inside U.S.

This situation can be resolved if the judgment is applied correctly. The following example demonstrates how to correctly apply distributive justice. If two men (Joe and Jim) want to interact with each other in a positive way, but it is clear that Joe wants some benefits from his interaction with Jim but not as much as does Jim, then both these men will be in a situation of inequity. Here is how the justice system should deal with this situation: The laws of the country say that if two people interact in an unjust manner, then the person who has more negative feelings about the other person should be compensated by the one who has less negative feelings.

Prudence in correctly applying distributive and commutative justice is one of the most important skills every member of a team must possess. If a team member is disregarding this basic tenet, it can lead to errors that result in serious consequences. For instance, if a person with distributive justice issues dives into their negligence and causes an injury, they could be held liable for all care expenses incurred. In the same vein, if someone with commutative justice issues has been told to play by certain rules or methods in order to complete an assignment or task but then chooses not to do so because it’s too inconvenient for them, there will likely be repercussions for their lack of commitment.

The aspect of prudence is vital because it allows team members to make decisions that are not only morally favorable but also more practical and efficient. They must take into consideration all factors in order to ensure the right choice is made. This can be difficult as people aren’t always mindful of their biases, but it’s up to them to be as impartial as possible and root out any personal interests or preferences in order to make an unbiased decision. A true leader must be able to do this on an everyday basis, such as when they’re interviewing potential candidates for a job or determining which products they should stock in the event of a shortage. If a particular course of action appears more likely to achieve positive results than another option, this is where prudence kicks in again.

ReferencesCrisp, R. (Ed.). (2014). Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics. Cambridge University Press.

Klein, D. B. (2017). Commutative, distributive, and estimative justice in Adam Smith. Adam Smith Review, 12, 17-11.

Porta, P. L. (2014). Distributive justice versus commutative justice.

What is the difference between distributive and commutative justice: A one minute guide. (2022). Retrieved 1 May 2022, from

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