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Three Dimensions of Distributive Justice

Our conversation of distributive justice revolved around three issues: (1) who is the recipient of justice (or what is the community of justice), (2) what is to be distributed, and (3) what are the principles of distribution.

I am going to begin with the third, since we spent most time on that in class. We considered the principle of justice emerging out of various theories, from Utilitarianism to Kantian ethics and Rawl’s theory of justice (remember “the veil of ignorance”?). We need to consider more deeply the implications of these principles and recognize when they operate, inform, or shape how people talk about environmental justice. These ideas have seeped into our collective consciousness, albeit in a rather haphazard (and even sloppy way), but nonetheless the are there. Compensatory thinking, the idea that a bad can be compensated, is one of those ideas from utilitarianism. Kant’s notion of universal application of rules is another. My goal in this class is to make sense out of these ideas, place them in context, and for you, the students, to carefully and mindfully engage them as we confront environment issues and conflicts in our reading and films.

We did not spend too much time on the question of “community of justice.” Indeed this was given short shrift (by me) as we discussed the material. But I don’t want to forget this dimension as it has relevance our own formulation of what is moral obligation in relation to the individual and the collective. Our societal norms and dominant belief systems revolve around, and indeed are grounded in, individualism. Yet, in the context of environmental justice, communities and group, or collectivities, make claims, present evidence, and demand action. Therefore, rather than remaining within the ideological frame that the individual is the only recipient of justice (again, as it is reinforced in societal norms and practices), the concept of “community of justice” opens up new dimensions to both the definition and claimants at the intersection of society and environment.

The last dimension of distributive justice that Walker outlines in his chapter is the object, the thing, the “what” is to be distributed. Is it merely an environmental “bad” or “burden”? Is it benefit? Who defines what these are? How are these to be understood? Indeed, as Walker points out, “the concepts of benefits and burdens are always relative, in both absolute terms and with respect to any particular group of potential resource users” (page 43).  We need to consider how they are relative, how they are defined by different groups and through multiple or different value systems.  For someone, a view of the mountains may be aesthetically pleasing, but for another, it may be sacred.  It may seem simple to think of the “what” but as one considers more deeply the meaning of environment, nature, health, community, place, and all the other dimensions of what is at stake in environmental conflicts and resource-use decisions, the clarity fades.  One is then required to confront the trickier and more nuanced philosophical questions that lie at the heart of any environmental justice claim.

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