THE ETHICS OF A COMPENSATION PROGRAM: RECTIFICATORY AND DISTRIBUTIVE JUSTICE1

Justice is the part of ethics that is concerned with fairness. In his work Nicomachean Ethics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle introduces us to justice as a multifaceted phenomenon (Aristotle, Book V), focusing on distributive and rectificatory justice. In our own century, notable work on justice has expanded our understanding of this important ideal (Rawls, 1971; Nozick, 1974). Although scholars of ethics and practitioners of justice have studied the subject of justice since the early Greek philosophers, it is only in the last century that they have focused on rectificatory justice (Roberts, 2002).

Rectificatory justice plays the main role in providing an ethical framework for legislation like RECA that seeks to compensate people. Rectificatory justice concerns fairness in transactions between people who have experienced a wrong. The concepts of rectificatory justice help us to understand how to remedy wrongs. Distributive justice concerns fairness in the allocation of a good and helps to answer some questions about how one equitably distributes compensation across a population.

Rectificatory Justice

Three elements are at the heart of rectificatory justice: a wrong, a loss, and the effects of a loss. Duties or obligations are associated with each of those elements. In the case of a wrong, the duty is to right the wrong; with respect to the loss, the duty is to ameliorate or restore the loss; regarding the effects of the loss, the duty is to compensate for them (Roberts, 2002). Those elements, their concomitant duties, and their remedies are explored below.

The Duty To Right a Wrong

The committee heard much oral testimony and read pages of written testimony about disease, loss of life, and pain and suffering that were attributed to exposure associated with the US government’s nuclear-weapons program. People called those matters to our attention on ethical grounds, claiming that the federal government had wronged them.

What is a wrong? Moral philosophers and legal scholars generally agree that, under the concept of justice, a wrong is related to an action that is taken against another’s rights. How do we tell if an action invades another’s rights?

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The ethical framework we provide for compensation legislation is similar to the scholarship in legal studies that applies the concept of corrective or rectificatory justice to theories of tort law. The main figures in this field include George Fletcher (1972), Richard A. Epstein (1973), Richard Posner (1981), and Jules Coleman (1982).



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