Rethinking Distributive Justice: The Relational Ground for Commutative Justice

11 Pages Posted: 31 May 2011

Date Written: May 27, 2011


Commutative justice is the current dominant link between economics and ethics in liberal societies, encapsulated in the principle of honoring contracts. Market theory’s elevation of the role of commutative justice, or justice in exchange and property, is often taken as liberalism’s revolutionary change in priorities of justice. This change, however, has come at the expense of diminishing the role of distributive justice into material distribution, neglecting the constitution of individual identity in community and thereby vitiating distributive justice's function of regulating the mutual recognition necessary to social stability. This historical shift remanded the cohesive function of distributive justice to social decorums, which reproduced inequalities while simultaneously removing them from discussion in the public sphere.

This commutative-distributional dynamic can be seen in the appeals to decorum in Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. Their theories of the market implicitly position social decorum alongside an explicit commutative framework as the conditions for a naturally self-regulating market, with decorum serving as a naturally-occurring source of social stability. These fundamental presumptions not only permeate modern economic thought generally, but also influence liberal moral and political philosophy, even among critics of the market.

The primacy of commutative justice as a habit of thought has become deeply ingrained in the assumptions of liberal social theory, and it poses a serious challenge to establishing a new connection between economics and ethics. Recent work on recognition and acknowledgement point to a revived interest in the constitution of individual identity in community and offer a way to rethink distributive justice as the relational ground that sustains a sense of community, which in turn provides the social cohesion that supports economic interaction. These approaches, however, may prove threatening to a desire to preserve a commutatively-oriented economics as the architectonic theory of society.

Keywords: ethics, distributive, commutative, justice, decorum

JEL Classification: B12, B15, B30

Suggested Citation

Turpin, Paul, Rethinking Distributive Justice: The Relational Ground for Commutative Justice (May 27, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

Paul Turpin (Contact Author)

University of the Pacific ( email )

3601 Pacific Avenue
Stockton, CA 95211
United States
209-946-2507 (Phone)

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