No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society. … The natural distribution of talents is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that men are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts. John Rawls (here is a related quote).
The natural and social lottery – the good or bad fortune of being born in a wealthy or poor country or social class, with or without certain talents and biological/genetic assets or liabilities – has nothing to do with justice. Justice is what people and society decide to do about these inequalities of fortune.
Obviously, Rawls and many others – including myself – believe that doing nothing about them and simply leaving them as they are, is unjust. And we believe that the reason for doing something is merit or desert. None of us deserves or merits the genes we have, the fact that we are born in a certain place or group, and the opportunities that we receive from these facts and our genes.
Merit is central to the concept of justice, at least since the time of Aristotle. I think Aristotle gave the example of a teacher and his or her pupils. Would it be just for the teacher to give all pupils an equal score, regardless of the merits of each? He says no, because justice isn’t simply about equality. Justice is giving each what he or she deserves. The best pupil would have a sense of injustice if he or she would receive the same grades as all the rest, while the worst student would not necessarily have a sense of justice.
So justice means, in part at least, that people should get what they deserve (hence the derivative use of the word “justice” in the sphere of the judiciary). Matters over which people have no control, such as the place or environment where they are born or the genes that they carry, determine their quality of life, their prospects in life, their opportunities and capabilities and their stock of resources (material and other). It follows that the distribution of prospects and capabilities is to a large extent beyond the control of individuals (not completely because we can do a lot to develop and change these prospects and capabilities), and therefore also beyond merit or desert. As Rawls puts it, we don’t deserve our starting place in society.
If merit is to play a part in the determination of whether a situation is just or unjust, we have to correct for the unequal and undeserved distribution of talents, genes and prospects linked to the places where we are born and the families in which we are born. Justice therefore requires that we help the less fortunate, those who are unfortunate to have been born in the wrong country or class, with the wrong genes or in the wrong family. Contrary to what libertarians want us to believe, justice is not merely a matter of avoiding to harm people and to make them worse off. It is also about helping them to be better off. And more specifically, helping them to be better off than they are as a result of the lottery of nature and birth.
Those who win from this lottery are under moral pressure to give to others who, through no fault of their own, have fared less well. It is in this context that economic human rights for instance have to be understood. These rights impose on the rich the duty to part with some of their riches and hand them over to the poor.