Should a Just Distribution Be Based on Need?

Should a Just Distribution Be Based on Need?

Should a just distribution be based on need?

In a world where resources are limited, it could not even be a possibility, let alone a question of justice, that somebody else would or should sponsor our comfortable life-styles. A system of justice based on need might at first glace seem controversial, incomplete or a practical impossibility. However, if we manage to reduce the list of needs by separating the needs from desires, then the idea of need-based justice might in fact be conceivable. Before we can make any kind of judgment of its potential success in a real-life context, it is necessary to examine whether the concept itself, the notion of justice based on needs, is at all consistent.

David Wiggins presents a very extensive case for this idea, and his theory will, for that reason, be the central topic of this essay. He gives a complex definition of need, and ties that in with an equally complex account of justice. If his argument turns out to be convincing, then the question of the legitimicy of a need-based account of justice will be relatively clear. Wiggins identifies needs as having a number of properties. Aristotle’s definition of what we at the time (perhaps wrongly) translated as necessary is useful.

(a) that without which, as a joint cause, it is not possible to live, as for instance breathing and nourishment are necessary for an animal, because it is incapable of existing without them: and
(b) anything without which it is not possible for good to exist or come to be, or for bad to be discarded or got rid of, as for instance drinking medicine so as not to be ill, and sailing to Aegina so as to get money

These two types of needs can be classified as absolute and instrumental respectively – only the absolute needs are of interest to us. If a person has an absolute need that is not met, the consequence will be that he suffers a lesser or greater degree of harm. To decide on which it is, we are introduced to a...

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