In readings on economics and justice, one sometimes comes across strange stuff. Such as a book by Wojciech Sadurski, "Giving Just Desert Its Due - Social Justice and Legal Theory".
There is actually quite a bit to like in this book, not least because he attempts quite directly (and with a certain degree of success) to take down Rawls and his theory. But there is also much to cause one to throw up one's hands in despair. Such as this:
The upshot of Hobbes argument is that the distinction between commutative justice and distributive justice is not a proper dichotomy. They do not apply to two parallel types of situation but rather involve standards located on different levels: distributive justice is a matter of “defining what is just” while commutative justice is a matter of “a performance of covenant”. Principles of distributive justice answer the question about what rules are just rather than about an obligation to obey the existing rules or to keep promises. As we are concerned with the standard of just law (and not merely with the justice of obeying valid law, irrespective of its moral value), we are also concerned with what makes a distribution produced by an agreement just, and not merely with the justice of fulfilling an agreement. In other words, the Aristotelian idea that distributive and commutative justice operate independently, applying to two distinct spheres of life (public distributions and private transactions), obscures the fact that in reality both concepts of justice apply at the same time though in a different way. ‘Commutative’ justice, in the interpretation suggested above, is identical with a vindication of legal rules; distributive justice is a matter of moral demands.
This is nicely brought out by the Biblical parable:
The kingdom of Heaven is like this. There was once a landowner who went out early one morning to hire labourers for his vineyard; … [Matthew 20: 1-16 - the author give the whole parable]
Now this is an obvious case of a conflict between the principles of distributive justice and ‘commutative justice’ reducible to the fulfillment of n agreement. Let us call, for brevity, those workers who worked the whole day, Blacks, and those who worked merely one hour, Whites. On the basis of distributive justice the allocation of their wages should be proportionate to their merit; since the only relevant information that we have about their merit is the length of their work (that is, there is no reason to suppose that their productivity, or quality of their products, was different to such an extent that it could explain the differences in wages), the just distribution should operate proportionately to the length of their work. But the second principle, invoked as an argument for equal pay, is contained in the words: “You agreed on the usual wage for the day, did you not?” The owner does not break the agreement: he gives the Blacks what he promised. The agreement became a source of their mutual legal obligation; since they exchanged their services and money in accordance with the agreement, law was respected. But the action may be both lawful and unjust. The Blacks’ complaint is not of a legal but of a moral nature. They have got their due in the legal sense, and yet they feel morally wronged because, as compared with the Whites, their contribution was not reflected in their share of the total benefit distributed. If they hadn’t know the Whites’ wages, they would not be in a position to make any judgment of justice; they would simply have to acknowledge that the wages obtained conformed to their legal entitlements.
These are, therefore, considerations of different types; the Blacks argue about social justice, the owner about his legal duty. Here the conflict between two orders of reasoning is not very dramatic because the Blacks received what they expected (before having learnt about the Whites’ wages) while the Whites have got more than distributive justice dictated. Injustice which consists in allocating more than one deserves is not a tragedy but still it is an injustice because the proportion of benefits (or burdens) is not respected. The analogy would be to a parent who punishes one of his children and forgives another one for the same misbehavior. No one has lost anything but injustice was committed because the proportion of guilt and punishment was not respected. A parent could do it because he has power over his children, but still it is not just. Similarly, in the vineyard parable: the owner was entitled to distribute wages in such a way, but it was not just. The true source of his power is disclosed in his words: “Surely I am free to do what I like with my own money”. Surely he is. Money gives him power over the allocation of wages, including power to be unjust. Being free to do what he likes, he is free to be unjust as long as he keeps his promises. But this freedom does not make his acts just, it only renders them lawful on the grounds of existing legal rules.
It is possible to conceive of objections to that way of tackling the problem. Suppose someone says that what the parable really exemplifies is not the conflict between social and legal justice but between justice and generosity. The owner asks: “why be jealous of me because I am kind?” In this question he focuses on the moral character of his action: kindness. He has decided to be generous although in an arbitrary way; he did not deprive anyone of his entitlement but he gave some workers more than they deserved. Suppose, for the sake of this hypothetical argument, that the Blacks were paid as much as they would be anywhere else, so that in terms of comparison with other workers in a community (with the exception of the Whites in this particular day) there was no distributive injustice done. Suppose also that the Whites were not otherwise treated preferentially and that this particular remuneration was a windfall rather than a part of the general pattern of privileges. We might then say that the vineyard owner was generous yet unjust, kind yet arbitrary.
If, however, we accept this hypothetical argument and view the main issue of the parable not as legal versus social justice (as I have suggested earlier) but as justice versus generosity, then we inevitably reach the limits of the moral argument within the conception of justice. The latter is unable to decide the conflicts between justice and other values. What it can do, is to declare incompatibility of justice with some other values. Justice excludes arbitrariness; generosity (in the form manifested by the vineyard owner) is arbitrary. Justice requires good moral reasons for a proposed distribution; generosity does without them; actually, part of the nature of a charitable act is that it does not have to be just. That was, in any event, the case of the vineyard owner who explicitly declined to give any reasons for his distributions other than ‘being kind’.
And yet it should be noted that even if the parable is interpreted in terms of supererogatory action rather than justice, still the legal justice constitutes the basis of the charitable act. The owner can be generous only because he has legal entitlements over his resources; therefore, he has legal power to allocate wages. In this sense, these two phrases are inherently linked: “Why be jealous because I am kind?” and “I am free to do what I like with my own money”. The supererogatory action suggested by the first sentence is made possible by the legal entitlement described by the second. In this way, charity derives from legal justice. But this only means that a legal set of entitlements makes it possible for some people to distribute goods arbitrarily, even if generously. These legal entitlements may, as in our example, provide some people with power over other people’s labour and rewards.
And the author goes on to make it clear that in his view, this "supererogatory action" interpretation in no way satisfies his basic stance that unequal application of generosity (or distribution of goods however that is achieved) is, per se, irrational, and therefore is fundamentally flawed as an approach to rightness. It cannot be explained and is thus a form of wrongness.
To get back to my title: this parable starts out with Jesus saying "The kingdom of God is like...". We know, then, that he is using human affairs to reflect on something higher. But throughout the Bible (and to all of the Jews who, who have heard the Old Testament read to them all the time), we already see that God gives to one what he chooses not to give to another. And we see Him declaiming "My ways are not your ways" and "Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?"
So, I put the question to you, dear readers: is this parable an example of Jesus showing the vineyard owner being wrong, irrational, arbitrary and in violation of distributive justice? Or has the author gone off the rails rather horribly?