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Social Injustice: Essays in Political Philosophy by Vittorio Bufacchi, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 216, £50.00 hb, ISBN 978 0 230 25160 1

Reviewer: Siobhan O’Sullivan*

Social justice is one of the central themes of political philosophy and has sparked a wide literature for many decades. What has garnered considerably less attention is how to understand and explain social injustice. This is the focus of Vittorio Bufacchi’s latest stimulating book, a collection of his essays that address aspects of social injustice. As he explores in the early chapters, theories of justice tend to be built from the top-down whereby philosophers consider the many nuances of ideal systems of justice. In contrast, Bufacchi cogently argues that a theory of justice should rather start from the bottom-up, getting to grips with understanding social wrongs and building from there. He thereby inverts the concerns of many political philosophers who depict social injustice as the absence of social justice. Instead, for Bufacchi, social justice is the lack of injustice. Thus, it is only by exploring the nature and meaning of injustice that a theory of justice can be derived.

In the first chapter, he develops the concept of social injustice along three dimensions, namely maldistribution, exclusion and disempowerment. Like Pogge, it is the distributive dimension which he deems fundamental to social injustice. But of particular interest here is how he also draws from the rich literature on the denial of recognition as an aspect of social injustice in a critical and reflective manner. From the work of Young, Fraser, and in particular Fricker, he explores how people are denied credibility and silenced, and hence excluded as beneficiaries of resources. The chapter thereby advances the interconnection of the politics of distribution and recognition that has become one of the big themes in the philosophy of social justice and injustice.

The perspectives of the victims themselves are crucial to understanding social injustice. It is not just the abuse of power but also the sense of disempowerment experienced by victims that Bufacchi highlights as an important element. This concern with the experiences and perspectives of victims is carried to a later chapter - Chapter 3 - where he considers how to study social injustice – the methodology of empirical philosophy. There he again stresses a bottom-up approach to theorising, contrasting a theory-driven approach to a problem-driven one. He proposes that more philosophers should start by engaging with empirical research (not necessarily conducting one’s own but at minimum reading primary research) and then constructing theory on this basis rather than starting with theory and applying cases in a supportive role. To those who build their theories within the empirically-oriented social sciences this may seem like an obvious point. Yet, in the discipline of philosophy, it is vital to articulate the point and a good example of productive disciplinary self-critique. For, as the author argues in Chapter 2 where he builds on the work of Brian Barry, the concern is that philosophy has lost its synoptic vision through being produced by specialists for other specialists without sufficient reference to real issues.

The other chapters examine a wide range of areas, e.g. exploitation as an archetypical form of social injustice, an essay against state-sanctioned torture, equality and liberty, a study of deliberative democracy in Guatemala, motivations for justice, and an exposition of new forms of socialism as the best antidote to social injustice. As a collection of essays, many of which were published as journal articles, this brings both strengths and weaknesses. Each chapter stands alone, with a considered and focused argument. However, while the thread of social injustice runs through the pieces, the reader has sometimes to infer quite a lot since they were written for other contexts. The book could be approached and read as if it were an edited collection, with perhaps the next step being the further integration of the different elements, especially injustice and democracy.

Overall, the significance of the work lies in the move to understanding and defining injustice, rather than focusing on a transcendentally derived justice. This makes the book a thought-provoking and compelling contribution to political philosophy, one that should be read by scholars of any discipline who are interested in social injustice.