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Rawls, An Introduction by Sebastiano Maffettone, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010, pp. 300, $24.95 pb., ISBN 978 0 74564 6510

Reviewer: Vittorio Bufacchi*

In October 21, 2011, The New York Times published an astonishing article on the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement. The protest movement is praised for shining a critical light “on the staggering levels of economic inequality in the United States”, although it also suggests that, in order to move forward and make a difference, ‘Occupy Wall Street’ needs to table specific goals and demands. But before the movement can make any specific policy recommendations, it needs to develop a ‘deeper wisdom’ to guide them through this new phase. In other words, according to The New York Times ‘Occupy Wall Street’ needs an “intellectual touchstone”. The theorist being recommended to the movement is none other than the late Harvard-based American philosopher, John Rawls (1921-2002).

The article goes on to explain that Rawls’s boldest claim - that inequality in society is only justified if its least well-off members fare better than they would under any other scheme - “could provide a lodestar for the protests”. The essence of Rawls’ idea of social justice is captured by the concept that any inequality in society must be justified on grounds of equality, and that social, political and economic institutions and policies should be reformed to reflect the goal of promoting the greatest benefit to the least advantaged in society, without of course sacrificing a commitment to the most extensive system of equal rights for everyone.

John Rawls is arguably the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, a profoundly original thinker who deserves to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and John Stuart Mill in the long history of Western political thought. Rawls is also the sort of philosopher that needs no introduction to political philosophers, but how well-known is he outside of his discipline? To what extent is Rawls a household name in public policy? The New York Times clearly seems to think that Rawls has ideas about how to reform the basic structure of society, ideas that deserve to be taken seriously as policy recommendations. So, who is John Rawls?

In recent years a number of books have been written on John Rawls, both the man and his political philosophy, including Catherine Audard’s John Rawls (2007); Samuel Freeman’s Rawls (2007); Thomas Pogge’s John Rawls (2007), Paul Graham’s Rawls (2007), in addition to a voluminous literature on all aspects of Rawls’s contribution to political philosophy. One could be forgiven for thinking that this particular stream of publications has already reached its saturation point, but not so. Sebastiano Maffettone’s detailed and comprehensive analysis of Rawls’s work may be the latest contribution to this growing cottage industry, and yet it is outstanding and well-worth reading.

As one might expect, Maffettone’s book is divided into three parts: the first concentrates on Rawls’s most famous tome A Theory of Justice (1971), while the second and third parts deal with Rawls’s more recent works, respectively Political Liberalism (1993) and The Law of Peoples (1999). One of the comparative advantages of Maffettone’s book in respect of the books on Rawls published previously is that Maffettone incorporates in his study writings of Rawls that have only recently surfaced: not only his Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (published posthumously in 2007 by Harvard University Press) but also his undergraduate senior thesis on A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin & Faith, first written in 1942 but published only in 2009 by Harvard University Press. This makes Maffettone’s analysis of Rawls the most comprehensive and updated in circulation.

To give credit where credit is due, Maffettone does not only provide the reader with a summary of Rawls’s ideas and works. He also gives his own interpretation on the main concepts and theories touched on by Rawls in his quest to make sense of social justice, as well as on the works of other contemporary political philosophers heavily influenced by, but critical of, Rawls’s work. For example, we find that Maffettone takes issue with Brian Barry’s idea that theories of social justice can conveniently be divided between two adversary camps: those who champion ‘mutual advantage’ by appealing to our rationality versus those who advocate ‘impartiality’ by appealing to our reasonableness. Contra Barry, he suggests that rationality and reasonableness are two sides of the same coin, one complementing the other, thus refuting the stark division put forward by Barry. Similarly Maffettone defends Rawls from G.A.Cohen’s accusation of being too much wedded to liberalism and therefore not socialist enough in his outlook. In response, Maffettone reminds the reader that the idea of fraternity is pivotal to Rawls’s thesis and that, in a just society as conceived by Rawls, people would develop a sense of justice along the lines recommended by Cohen.

Overall, this is an original, erudite, important book, to be recommended to any scholar of John Rawls’s political thought. For public policy specialists wanting to find out more about Rawls, the book has a special appeal. The only quibble I have is with the subtitle. Instead of ‘An Introduction’, it would perhaps be more accurate to denote this study of Rawls’s political philosophy as ‘An Overview and Interpretation’.