Aristotle, Justice, and Flutes

How do we decide on a just distribution of goods? Following Michael Sandel, I find Aristotle’s conception of justice to be helpful in modern debates. Aristotle, in Politics, said that we cannot dissociate justice from other considerations, like function or purpose, when it comes to distributive rights. Consider what he says about a just distribution of flutes:

When a number of flute players are equal in their art, there is no reason why those of them who are better born should have better flutes given to them; for they will not play any better on the flute, and the superior instrument should be reserved for him who is the superior artist.

The distribution of the superior flutes should not, according to Aristotle, be done according to nobility of birth, wealth, or any such consideration. Rather, it should be done according to skill. The person who will make the best flute music should have the best flute. Why is this? It is because that is the purpose of flutes. They are meant to be played well to make beautiful music.

If that is not clear, consider another example. Let’s say we have a number of goods to distribute, one of which is a hard hat. Among the people to whom the goods are being distributed, there is one man who works in a construction site. The others all work in an office. Isn’t it clear that the man who works at a construction site should receive the hard hat? He is the only one who will put it to its intended use and allow it to serve its proper function.

This will be a helpful framework to answer many pressing questions. For example, how should a society distribute marriages? Well, we can better understand that question by determining the purpose of marriage in society. If the purpose of marriage is simply to have children, then it’s not clear why there should be homosexual marriage. If, however, the purpose of marriage is much broader, then we should say the just distribution of marriages will include homosexual couples.


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