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A Short History of Distributive Justice

A Short History of Distributive Justice

Samuel Fleischacker

ISBN 9780674018310

Publication date: 09/06/2005

Distributive justice in its modern sense calls on the state to guarantee that everyone is supplied with a certain level of material means. Samuel Fleischacker argues that guaranteeing aid to the poor is a modern idea, developed only in the last two centuries.

Earlier notions of justice, including Aristotle’s, were concerned with the distribution of political office, not of property. It was only in the eighteenth century, in the work of philosophers such as Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant, that justice began to be applied to the problem of poverty. To attribute a longer pedigree to distributive justice is to fail to distinguish between justice and charity.

Fleischacker explains how confusing these principles has created misconceptions about the historical development of the welfare state. Socialists, for instance, often claim that modern economics obliterated ancient ideals of equality and social justice. Free-market promoters agree but applaud the apparent triumph of skepticism and social-scientific rigor. Both interpretations overlook the gradual changes in thinking that yielded our current assumption that justice calls for everyone, if possible, to be lifted out of poverty. By examining major writings in ancient, medieval, and modern political philosophy, Fleischacker shows how we arrived at the contemporary meaning of distributive justice.


  • Fleischacker takes on the conventional history of distributive justice, more commonly called ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice.’ Who first advocated giving material goods to the poor purely on the basis of need? Some histories attribute this line of thinking to figures as far back as Plato or Aristotle; others claim to find it in Rousseau. But Fleischacker convincingly demonstrates that the true origin of this idea is far more recent than we might think—and that the first great thinker to advocate it was none other than that tree-hugging liberal Adam Smith. Although the topic may seem dauntingly academic, the author has a readable, conversational style; the work of philosophers as diverse as Cicero, Hume, and Kant is discussed with energy, style, and wit.

    —Steve Weinberg, American Lawyer


  • Samuel Fleischacker is Professor of Philosophy, University of Illinois, Chicago.

Book Details

  • 204 pages
  • 0-7/16 x 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press