Distributive justice concerns how individuals and societies distribute benefits and burdens in a just or moral manner. We combined distribution choices with functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the central problem of distributive justice: the trade-off between equity and efficiency. We found that the putamen responds to efficiency, whereas the insula encodes inequity, and the caudate/septal subgenual region encodes a unified measure of efficiency and inequity (utility). Notably, individual differences in inequity aversion correlate with activity in inequity and utility regions. Against utilitarianism, our results support the deontological intuition that a sense of fairness is fundamental to distributive justice but, as suggested by moral sentimentalists, is rooted in emotional processing. More generally, emotional responses related to norm violations may underlie individual differences in equity considerations and adherence to ethical rules.