A taxonomy of normative and empirically oriented theories of distributive justice

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The study proposes a taxonomy that maps and organizes various normative ("ought") and empirically oriented ("is") theories of distributive justice, with the aim of examining possible relations between these two research traditions. The taxonomy distinguishes between theories according to two shared dimensions of content: (a) microjustice versus macrojustice principles and (b) the unidimensional versus multidimensional character of these principles. The combination of these dimensions yields four groups of theories of distributive justice: unidimensional macro (the utilitarian approach); multidimensional macro (Rawls' theory of justice); unidimensional micro (desert and equity theories); and multidimensional micro (Miller's theory and the multiprinciple approach). A fifth group of hybrid theories is identified (including Walzer's and Jasso's theory of justice), which is built upon the layers of the other taxonomy cells, combining elements of macro- and microjustice and emphasizing the multidimensional character of distributive justice. The analysis revealed that the empirical and normative traditions have much in common. In certain cases, as with the utilitarian approach and Rawls' theory, empirical research has sought correspondence between the "ought" and the "is." In other cases, such as with equity theory and the multiprinciple approach, it has used some basic normative ideas and assumptions as its starting point. Nevertheless, these research traditions often develop in parallel ways without sufficient mutual recognition or interaction. The study concludes by considering possible exchanges that may develop between these two traditions, examining to what extent and how philosophical-normative and empirically oriented research can contribute to one another.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)237-263
Number of pages27
JournalSocial Justice Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2001


  • Distributive justice
  • Empirical analysis
  • Macrojustice
  • Microjustice
  • Normative justice

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law


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