Gender and racial differences in justice
A Theory of Justice is widely seen as the most important attempt to tackle distributive justice, expressing a set of distributional outcomes that rational humans would agree with.11 Research suggests that the legitimacy of a state or society greatly depends on perceived procedural and distributive justice, so it is important for researchers to understand people’s views on distributive justice. However, results have been conflicting, and some of these mixed responses have been due to identity differences.
As a result, a team of researchers set out to explore gender differences in distributive justice behavior, in the American Journal of Political Science, further extending their analysis to race.11 They specifically researched these factors in terms of four allocation principles: equality, efficiency, need, and merit.
Rawls suggested that those in the original position would prioritize equality of basic political and social rights, with equality defined in absolute terms (i.e. two people each have $20, regardless of their initial socioeconomic status).11 Efficiency refers to the fact that people prefer a greater amount of overall goods for the same amount of input, which can be thought of as productivity. According to Rawls, rational people will tolerate inequality only to the extent that increased efficiency benefits everyone, especially the least well-off. This can be seen in the equal opportunity principle. The difference principle highlights a concern for need, and merit plays a role in Rawls’ work by way of exclusion: people don’t deserve to have advantages on the bases of their pre-existing wealth, connections, or the “natural lottery” (i.e. intelligence and beauty).
The researchers tested how identity differences influence the use of allocation principles of judgements of income distribution.11 Participants read a short description of a hypothetical society and were asked to imagine that they are impartial, outside observers providing advice. Participants were asked to evaluate the effects of different policies being considered, before being presented with nine different income distributions. Each distribution showed the average income for each economic bracket (divided into four groups) and the poverty line, and were given information about overall average income and the ratio of incomes in the top and bottom quintiles. Participants were assessed on their use of each of the four allocation principles when deciding which economic policy they would suggest.
The researchers found that most people used equality as an allocation principle, with preferences for more equal income distributions at the cost of a considerable decrease in efficiency.11 This means that participants did try to strike a balance between equality and efficiency, but women were more concerned with equality than men, while men were more concerned with efficiency. The researchers found no racial differences regarding equality and efficiency.
However, both gender and race were found to influence the relationship between merit and equality-efficiency preferences.11 While both men’s and women’s preferences were influenced by their assumptions about merit, this only applied to white participants. Even when participants were provided with direct information regarding merit, this information did not influence the equality-efficiency preferences of minority race participants.
Additionally, the researchers specifically designed the poverty lines on the income distribution charts to examine participants’ concerns for need.11 They found that women showed a sensitivity to need in their assessments of economic policies, while men did not. Additionally, white men were still concerned with merit at the highest levels of inequality, even when poverty was a clear issue. There were no racial differences here.
Overall, the researchers’ findings highlight the complexity of distributive justice. What one person considers just may be considered unjust by another, and these differences can result from aspects of one’s identity, such as gender or racial differences. Of course, populations are diverse. The fact that the four allocation principles were found to be interrelated suggests that future research must accommodate for identity differences, emphasizing the need to further explore what different populations consider just. Only when institutions understand that the majority population cannot always be prioritized at the expense of minorities, and understand minority populations’ conceptualizations of justice, will we have the chance for social and political reform.