Res Publica

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 281–298 | Cite as

Framing, Reciprocity and the Grounds of Egalitarian Justice

  • Gabriel Wollner


John Rawls famously claims that ‘justice is the first virtue of social institutions’. On one of its readings, this remark seems to suggest that social institutions are essential for obligations of justice to arise. The spirit of this interpretation has recently sparked a new debate about the grounds of justice. What are the conditions that generate principles of distributive justice? I am interested in a specific version of this question. What conditions generate egalitarian principles of distributive justice and give rise to equality as a demand of justice? My paper focuses on relationalist answers to this question. Advocates of relationalism assume that ‘principles of distributive justice have a relational basis’, in the sense that ‘practice mediated relations in which individuals stand condition the content, scope and justification of those principles’. To say that principles of justice are ‘based’ on and ‘conditioned’ by practice mediated relations is ambiguous. I will here be concerned with advocates of what I call the relationalist requirement, viz. positions which assume that ‘practice mediated relations’ constitute a necessary existence condition for principles of egalitarian distributive justice. Relationalists who endorse this view come in different varieties. My focus is on relationalists that view social and political institutions as the relevant ‘practice mediated relation’. The question at stake, then, is this: Are institutionally mediated relations a necessary condition for equality to arise as a demand of justice? Strong relationalists of the institutionalist cast, call them advocates of the institutionalist requirement, differ in important respects. They argue about what set of institutions is foundationally significant, and they disagree on why only that institutional relation gives rise to egalitarian obligations of justice. My paper engages two ways of arguing for the institutionalist requirement: Julius’s framing argument and Andrea Sangiovanni’s reciprocity argument. The issue at stake are the grounds of egalitarian justice and I will argue that the institutionalist requirement is mistaken. It is not the case that egalitarian obligations of distributive justice arise only between and solely in virtue of individuals sharing a common institution.


Grounds of justice Relationalism Institutions Basic structure Equality 



Earlier versions of this paper have been presented at graduate conferences and workshops in Darmstadt, Harvard, Manchester, Munich, Pavia and UCL. I would like to thank audiences there for very helpful comments, especially my commentators Lukas Stanczyk and David Holly. I am very grateful to my supervisor Michael Otsuka for discussing previous versions of the paper, to Andrea Sangiovanni for responding to my arguments and to Rob Jubb, Jeremy Farris and Jerry Cohen for extremely helpful written comments. Finally, I would like to thank the AHRC for funding the doctoral research from which this paper is taken.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University College LondonLondonUK

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