The Ethics of Human Rights (13): Justice and Merit According to Aristotle and Rawls

No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society. … The natural distribution of talents is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that men are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts. John Rawls

The natural and social lottery – the good or bad fortune of being born in a wealthy or poor country or social class, with or without certain talents and biological/genetic assets or liabilities – has nothing to do with justice. Justice is what people and society decide to do about these inequalities of fortune.

Obviously, Rawls and many others – including myself – believe that doing nothing about them and simply leaving them as they are, is unjust. And we believe that the reason for doing something is merit or desert. None of us deserves or merits the genes we have, the fact that we are born in a certain place or group, and the opportunities that we receive from these facts and our genes.

Merit is central to the concept of justice, at least since the time of Aristotle. I think Aristotle gave the example of a teacher and his or her pupils. Would it be just for the teacher to give all pupils an equal score, regardless of the merits of each? He says no, because justice isn’t simply about equality. Justice is giving each what he or she deserves. The best pupil would have a sense of injustice if he or she would receive the same grades as all the rest, while the worst student would not necessarily have a sense of justice.

So justice means, in part at least, that people should get what they deserve (hence the derivative use of the word “justice” in the sphere of the judiciary). Matters over which people have no control, such as the place or environment where they are born or the genes that they carry, determine their quality of life, their prospects in life, their opportunities and capabilities and their stock of resources (material and other). It follows that the distribution of prospects and capabilities is to a large extent beyond the control of individuals (not completely because we can do a lot to develop and change these prospects and capabilities), and therefore also beyond merit or desert. As Rawls puts it, we don’t deserve our starting place in society.

If merit is to play a part in the determination of whether a situation is just or unjust, we have to correct for the unequal and undeserved distribution of talents, genes and prospects linked to the places where we are born and the families in which we are born. Justice therefore requires that we help the less fortunate, those who are unfortunate to have been born in the wrong country or class, with the wrong genes or in the wrong family. Contrary to what libertarians want us to believe, justice is not merely a matter of avoiding to harm people and to make them worse off. It is also about helping them to be better off. And more specifically, helping them to be better off than they are as a result of the lottery of nature and birth.

Those who win from this lottery are under moral pressure to give to others who, through no fault of their own, have fared less well. It is in this context that economic human rights for instance have to be understood. These rights impose on the rich the duty to part with some of their riches and hand them over to the poor.

9 thoughts on “The Ethics of Human Rights (13): Justice and Merit According to Aristotle and Rawls”

  1. “Justice is what people and society decide to do about these inequalities of fortune.”

    Couldn’t disagree with you more!

    What you and others like you fail to realize, weather by accident or intentionally, is that individuals regardless of “the good or bad fortune of being born in a wealthy or poor country or social class, with or without certain talents and biological/genetical assets or liabilities” can and do rise and fall according to their efforts.

    A person born into wealth or gifted with biological or genetic assets can due to lack of effort on their part or other character flaws amount to nothing or lose all their wealth; whereas a person born into poverty and without any special natural talents can and do rise above poverty.

    Any tinkering with the natural order of things can lead to disaster.

    Being born into poverty can be the negative motivation required by that individual to rise above their current position. Inversely, fear of losing the wealth they were born into can lead those effected to acquire the skills necessary to main if not increase their wealth.

    By removing the negative stimulus, with your social engineering, you are removing the vital ingredient necessary for individuals to help themselves, to improve their characters and can prove injurious to the individuals effected.

    The results of your self-righteous meddling will result in a feeble minded and lazy populous.

    Doubt what I am saying? Go into any ghetto and see what the effects your your so called just society has wrought!


    1. John, your comment is entirely off the mark.

      First, whether or not the inequities are by accident or intentional does make a difference. If by accident than we don’t punish people for things that are not their fault. If intentional, then it is our moral duty to correct them.

      Second, you speak about the “natural order of things” and say that any actions that are put in place to correct the inequities would tinker with this order which would “lead to disaster”. So birth place, station, sex, health, genetics, etc. is part of the “natural order of things”? Unfortunately this argument has been used for centuries to rationalize and condone injustices; slavery, sexism, nationalism, etc. To take this position means that in the “natural order of things” people born in wealthy industrialized countries are “better” than those who are not. This is nothing more than a rewording of the arguments many tyrants use to justify their being in power; “I was born to be Tsar, King, Emperor, etc. therefore I can do what I want.”

      Third, if being born into poverty can be such a motivation to succeed, then why not have everyone be born into it? You make it sound like being born poor is a good thing that just needs to be looked at from the correct perspective. To use a very popular example, you cannot “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” if you don’t have straps nor boots. What is wrong is to take the fact that some people, coming from poverty, do make great strides as the rule, instead of the exception. Some people are naturally gifted musicians but we don’t treat those who are not unjustly or deny them basic fairness.

      Fourth, you fail to understand what Rawls’ position is regarding opportunities and resources. He does not say that all things need to be equal for everyone. He does not promote a strict notion of socialism. It is equality regarding opportunities and fundamental rights. People who are rich can justifiably get richer but not at the expense of those of other economic classes.

      Finally, your lastl statement blames “social engineering” for the negative effects in society. You are correct in blaming social engineering but this engineering is not due to a Rawlsian approach. We’ve never implemented anything like Rawls’ theory. The effects you decry come about through years of acts and policies that have denied people fundamental rights and opportunities. The situation has arisen because of decades of social injustices.

      Most people would look upon the caste system that dominated India for centuries as wrong and immoral. Failing to see that using genetics, birth place, parents, etc. as rationale to treat people differently is nothing more than an elaborate reincarnation of the caste system.


    1. Dear Amys, the guy in the hat isn’t Aristotle, as everyone can see. So he must be Rawls, since the post’s title mentions Aristotle and Rawls. Hence the other one must be Aristotle. Elementary, my dear…


  2. Hey, Can someone explain the difference between merit and desert as i am still struggling with the differences and how they fit in with the concept of justice


    1. When I searched the Stanford Encyclopedia for merit, it gave me the article on desert, so I guess there’s not much in between.

      Regarding justice and desert, I guess the difference is that desert comes up in discussion of retributive justice (criminal punishment etc.) whereas merit appears more in discussions of egalitarianism and distributive justice (redistribution, property rights etc.). Some good stuff here.


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