Theory and Society

, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp 527–550 | Cite as

The concept of justice in sociology

  • David Rubinstein


Sociology has implicitly identified itself with a desert-based conception of distributive justice in various ways: the functionalist claim that societies naturally allocate resources according to contribution, the nearly universal belief that modernization involves the displacement of ascriptive with achievement norms, and the social psychological doctrine that we are innately drawn to equity. This misconception about the nature of distributive justice, and about the dominant mode of distribution in capitalist society, has blinded the discipline to deep tensions that constitute major themes in contemporary political discourse: the tension between market, meritocratic, and need-based principles of distribution.

Moreover, sociology has absorbed a theory of justice that is open to severe challenge. Uncontroversially, need will play a significant role in any viable contemporary scheme of distribution. Perhaps controversially, the market represents a value difficult to ignore. We may indeed have a need to see achievement rewarded, our own and others. But we also want to spend our money as we choose and a meritocracy sets rules of allocation that restrict this freedom. We all have tastes and preferences that leave the deserving under-rewarded.

There are other difficulties in the meritocratic ideal. As Rawls argues, our ability to achieve depends considerably on the luck of the genetic and social draw and hence rewarding people for talents they in no way deserve is of questionable moral force. Second, a fundamental tenet of liberal thought is that each individual should be free to choose his or her own conception of the good and hence there should be no official or collective sanctioning of any particular good. But to reward merit as a matter of public policy is to choose some values over others e.g. the Chicago Symphony Orchestra over Michael Jackson. An officially endorsed hierarchy of values is a threat to the moral autonomy of individuals cherished by liberalism.1 A third problem with the ideal of meritocracy is that decisions about the value of individuals and activities to society involve nearly impossible technical difficulties. The controversies stirred up by comparable worth suggest the intractability of these debates as well as their vulnerability to interest-driven parochialism.

The unreflective absorption of the meritocratic ideal of distributive justice has had unfortunate consequences for sociology. A moral debate of central importance to contemporary political culture has been obscured and an ideal of doubtful appeal has been implicitly endorsed. Whether this is a parochial projection of the academic way of life, or an expression of a social-engineering impulse, a reappraisal is in order. Sociology's research agenda, as well as its ideological character, requires a reexamination of the concept of justice.

  1. 1.

    Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (London: Cambridge University Press, 1983). Sandel effectively describes the importance of government moral neutrality in liberalism.


Distributive Justice Political Culture Capitalist Society Moral Debate Unfortunate Consequence 
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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Rubinstein
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of Illinois at ChicagoChicagoUSA

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