Aristotelian Ethics & Distributive Justice
Concern with material equality as the central form of distributive justice is a very modern idea. Distributive justice for Aristotle and many other writers for millennia after him was a matter of distributing what each ought to get from merit or desert in some sense. The idea of equality was arguably anathema to Aristotle and most other theorists, including Catholic philosophers, until modern times, indeed until the nineteenth century. A common view was that social hierarchy and its attendant inequality was natural. This inference was likely little more than a naturalistic fallacy of deriving ought from is, but it seemed compelling to most writers. In the seventeenth century, the Levellers in England pushed for equality as essentially a Christian requirement. But theirs was an odd voice in the history of concern with justice before the recent era. David Hume, writing about 1751, saw distributive justice in the modern sense as pernicious. He attributed concern with such an abstract principle to writers who argued from pure reason with no attention to the possibilities of their actual world and to such religious fanatics as the Levellers (discussed further below). Although he may have had a lingering commitment to arguments from merit, his actual statement of the problems with egalitarian distribution could hardly be more modern in its arguments. He wrote that: ideas of perfect equality . . .are really, at bottom, impracticable; and were they not so, would be extremely pernicious to human society. Render possessions ever so equal, men's different degrees of art, care, and industry will immediately break that equality. Or if you check these virtues, you reduce society to the most extreme indigence; and instead of preventing want and beggary in a few, render it unavoidable to the whole community. The most rigorous inquisition too is requisite to watch every inequality on its first appearance; and the most severe...
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