Who Deserves What vs. Who Wants What

What is a just distribution of wealth?

We are all emotional beings, after all
“We are all emotional beings, after all” Paris, France 2015

This is a question that many political philosophers have been tackling on for centuries and yet no one has come up with an answer that everybody agrees on.

Aristotle suggested that the just distribution derives from teleological reasoning, which is best described as “the best flute for the best flute player”. What is important when we think about distribution is telos (the purpose or the ultimate end) of the good. Telos of a flute is to be played well. In order to achieve its purpose of being played well, the flute should therefore be distributed to those who can play well. That is how Aristotle reasons teleological distribution – goods should be distributed in a way that they can serve their telos (purpose) -. To put it another way, as long as the goods fulfill their purposes, the distribution system is considered to be just, even if there were a huge gap between the rich and the poor.

Libertarian thinkers believe that the best distribution system is to let the free-market decide. If your talents happen to be appreciated in a given society, good for you, you will be rich. You’ve lost your job? I’m sorry to hear that but there’s nothing I can do for you. It’s a highly competitive society.

And then a famous political philosopher, John Rawls, proposed The Difference Principle. I’ll leave a link here for those who’d like to know further about this principle, but to sum up, a just distribution system under the difference principle means “you can earn as much as you want, as long as the system as a whole benefits the least advantaged people in the society”. He doesn’t impose complete equality in wealth, rather he allows a wealth gap between the rich and the poor as long as the society works for the advantage of the poor.

There are plenty of other views on distributive justice, and they are all worth reflecting on, however, I feel like they are missing one crucial point ; human psychology.

Okay, let’s say that we found a perfect distributive system that meets everyone’s need and we all consider it “just”. Would we all be happy and satisfied because it’s “just”?


Vague, but true satisfaction
“Vague, but true satisfaction” Marseille, France 2016

What we deserve and what we want is different.

Sometimes we don’t get what we want, because we don’t deserve it. Sometimes we get what we don’t want, merely because we deserve it.

Would we be truly convinced of what we get (e.g. our income), so long as it is “just”?

Some people might not be satisfied with, for example $60000 a month because what makes him happy requires a certain amount of money such as luxuries, fancy restaurants, traveling or golf. On the other hand, some people enjoy their life to the full extent under $60000. Maybe their hobbies do not cost that much, like running or reading. In both cases, the fact that they are doing what makes them happy is the same.

The amount of money does not correlate with the amount of happiness.

Despite all those debates on distributive justice for centuries, as long as we focus solely on conception or philosophy of justice without taking account of human psychology, I suppose that the debate itself will go back and forth. There will always be people who are not truly satisfied with what they get no matter how “just” the distributive system is, because the system still seems “unjust” for them. It is no longer a question of the concept itself, but rather it is a question of how we feel.

Thanks to the rise of behavioral economics, which takes human psychology into consideration when studying economics (whose assumption until then was human beings all act rationally, which is not actually the case), we now have deeper insights on how markets influence people and are able to apply these methods to improve our lives.

So why not philosophy that takes human psychology into account?

It is not only our sense of justice that determines our actions, after all… No matter how “rational” or “just” we’d like to be, we are all somewhat affected by our emotions, aren’t we?



(This post was inspired after I took a course on edX, Justice, by Michael J. Sandel)


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