The Sen difference

Print edition : February 25, 2005

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen's economic and philosophical insights are now making a breakthrough across the world to influence governments, international institutions, policymakers, researchers, activists and the general public.

Amartya Sen at the Master's Lodge, Trinity College, Cambridge, in front of a clock that belonged to Sir Isaac Newton. A 1999 picture.-N. RAM

Indeed, the test of orderliness in a country is not the number of millionaires it owns, but the absence of starvation among its masses.

- Mahatma Gandhi, Economic and Moral Progress, December 22, 1921.

"ONE afternoon in Dhaka," recollects Amartya Sen in his Autobiography, written for the Nobel Foundation, "a man came through the gate screaming pitifully and bleeding profusely. The wounded, who had been knifed on the back, was a Muslim daily labourer, called Kader Mia. He had come for some work in a neighbouring house - for a tiny reward - and had been knifed on the street by some communal thugs in our largely Hindu area. As he was being taken to the hospital by my father, he went on saying that his wife had told him not to go out into a hostile area during the communal riots. But he had to go out in search of work and earning because his family had nothing to eat."

This drastic incident which he witnessed as a young child, Sen adds, imprinted in his memory the dangers and atrocities of divisive communal politics. But Sen is also quick to point out an important life-time economic lesson he learned: poverty makes a person vulnerable and a helpless victim deprived of social, cultural and political freedoms; poverty is not just `low income' and `low consumption' but a multiple deprivation causing premature death, chronic undernourishment, illiteracy, illness and social exclusion. "Kader Mia," writes Sen further in his Autobiography, "need not have come to a hostile area in search of income in those troubled times if his family could have managed without it."

Already in the 1970s, Sen earned the recognition of other economists and the reputation of being one of the most creative thinkers especially for significantly advancing the field of social choice theory. "Amartya Sen," says Tony Atkinson, a renowned Oxford economist and a pioneer in inequality measurement, "occupies a unique position among modern economists. He is an outstanding economic theorist, a world authority on social choice and welfare economics." Kenneth J. Arrow, a co-winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize for economics, too holds a similar opinion: "Sen's mastery in the fields of social choice, the foundations of welfare economics, and, more broadly, distributive ethics and the measurement problems associated with these fields is unquestioned."

In 1970, Sen wrote the first and one of the most authoritative textbooks in social choice theory: Collective Choice and Social Welfare. More than 30 years have passed; the field of social choice theory has in the meanwhile rapidly progressed generating a vast amount of valuable literature. Nevertheless, Sen's book remains a classic, embodying clear thinking and providing inspiration for future research. Not surprisingly, for his innovative contributions to the subject of economics, Sen, besides the Nobel Prize, has received more than 50 honorary doctorates, many prestigious awards and has occupied important academic positions including Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, England, president of the Indian Economic Association, president of the International Economic Association and president of the Econometric Society.

The young Amartya Sen had personally witnessed the millions of victims of the Bengal famine in 1943. His economic analysis of famines showed that people die of hunger and starvation not so much because of unavailability of food in the region but because of their "entitlement" failures, their lack of ability to acquire food.-

However, what has perhaps been more directly influential in transforming the lives of the world's poor is his path-breaking study on famines. In December 1985, Sen himself, when asked to comment on his work for the Journal of Economic Perspectives, admitted: "Though I got more fun out of doing social choice theory, it is my work on famines and the related works of poverty and inequality measurement that is more useful to society at large."

Sen's economic analysis of famines in West Bengal, Ethiopia, China and Ireland challenged the conventional Malthusian wisdom that declining food supply is the most important cause of famine. Famines, he pointed out, occur mostly owing to the failure or malfunctioning of social and political arrangements. A country with no proper and robust democratic practice and institutions including a free, independent and critical press and media is prone to severe famine, starvation and undernourishment, even when there is an adequate production of food or at least no substantial reduction in the quantity of food supply. "It is certainly true," contends Sen, "that there has never been a famine in a functioning multiparty democracy."

Also, Sen's analysis brought to light a pattern among the victims of famines: it is only certain individuals and occupational groups (rural, landless labourers, seasonal workers and so on) more than others who fell easy prey to famines; people die of hunger and starvation not so much because of unavailability of food in the region but because of their "entitlement" failures, their lack of ability to acquire food. At the Fourth Annual Arturo Memorial Lecture delivered on August 2, 1990, in London, Sen summarised and illustrated this phenomenon: "Famines survive by divide and rule. For example, a group of peasants may suffer entitlement losses when food output in their territory declines, perhaps due to local drought, even when there is no general dearth of food in the country. The victims would not have the means to buy food from elsewhere, since they wouldn't have anything much to sell to earn an income, given their own production loss. Others with more secure earnings in other occupations or in other locations may be able to get by well enough by purchasing food from elsewhere."

Perhaps Sen's decision to investigate `practical' issues like famines is biographical and circumstantial. The young Sen who saw the poor Kader Mia killed by communal criminals had also personally witnessed the millions of victims of the Bengal famine in 1943. He had distributed rice to the starving famine victims.

But Sen, over the course of his career, has shown the world that there are no easy and quick-fix solutions to the pressing social problems. Practical problems indeed need to be taken head-on with foundationally secure theoretical analysis and critical inquiry. Thanks to Sen's practical wisdom, if today any country is serious about preventing famines, starvation and undernourishment, it needs to devise public policies and action programmes that take note of the interdependence of economic, social and political factors that cause them.

John Rawls, A file picture from March 1990.-JANE REED/HARVARD UNIVERSITY NEWS OFFICE/REUTERS

SEN'S idea of entitlement, born out of his analysis of the causes of famines, is a conceptual forerunner to what is today more popularly known as the capability approach. While most traditional economic theories narrowly associate development with growth in gross national product, a rise in personal incomes, or rapid industrialisation and technological advancement, Sen's message is fairly simple and profound: there is more to development than just economic growth; development, in fact, should focus on the expansion of people's capabilities to achieve different valuable human functionings. Sen's capability approach, in other words, claims to raise more pertinent questions overlooked by conventional theories: how well is the income and wealth of a society distributed among its different sections (class, race, caste, gender, and so on)? What are the social and economic opportunities available to citizens in leading a life of their choice? What are the personal and social conditions that facilitate or hinder the individual's ability to transform resources into different functionings? Answering these questions re-orients the way we think about a wide range of issues: the quality of life, living standards, poverty, inequality, development and gender issues.

Sen's intention of introducing the criterion of `capabilities' as a target for public policies is to capture two interrelated aspects. The first one is the enhancement of capacities or powers of people as human beings; these could range from the most fundamental ones required to fulfill nutritional and health needs to more complex ones required for social and political participation. Income and wealth cannot be a straightforward indication of a person's quality of life; they are but a means to achieve different human functionings, a life of social, economic and political freedoms.

The second one refers to the opportunities that people have to nurture and to exercise their capacities; people's capacities could indeed be enhanced or hampered depending on the opportunities they face in their family and society. A female child growing up in a Dalit family in rural India, for instance, is likely to face fewer opportunities for education, employment and social life than most of her counterparts; a citizen of some of the European countries receives more support from the state social security system in times of illness and unemployment than someone in the United States; a child born in Ethiopia has a much lower life expectancy and facilities for health care at birth than a child born, say, in any of the Scandinavian countries.

Sen is not a believer in overarching universal values that every country and culture in the world could endorse and implement in the same way. He upholds cultural sensitivity and has deep faith in the value of public discussion and participation at all levels: it is ultimately each society through democratic deliberation that should decide on what capabilities should merit public policy attention. Nevertheless, Sen has repeatedly referred to a number of basic capabilities that no society and the world community can afford to ignore: nutrition, health, literacy, self-respect and political participation. Paying attention to these basic capabilities of people and promoting them through coherent public policies, for him, is a matter of justice.

People living in continuously deprived conditions - bonded labourers, street children, exploited migrant workers and oppressed minorities - not only tend to get resigned to their deprived conditions but quite often make great efforts to adapt and to `cut down' their desires to what is seen as feasible conditions.-R. RAGU

Today, the capability approach seems to have captured the imagination of a wide network of thinkers and practitioners from both developed and developing countries. While an intellectual community of economists, social scientists and philosophers tries to examine critically and extend further the theoretical underpinnings of Sen's capability approach, a group of policymakers, researchers and activists tries to apply them to areas varying from poverty analysis to gender equality to sustainable development. Beginning in the year 2001, already four international conferences have been organised to carry forward the theoretical advantages of the capability approach and to provide a forum for exchanging ideas, expertise and experience of over 500 academicians and practitioners representing more than 35 countries across the world.

On September 6, 2004, at the Fourth International Capability Conference held in Pavia, Italy, Sen, together with the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum and other eminent scholars founded a new academic association called the Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA). The event was attended by the Rector of the University of Pavia, the Prefect and the Mayor of Pavia, among others. The aim of HDCA is to "promote high quality research in the interconnected areas of human development and capability" and to "bring together those primarily involved in academic work with practitioners who are involved in, or interested in, the application of research from the fields of human development and capability to the problems they face". The current list of Fellows of the Association includes prominent philosophers, economists and social scientists such as Bina Agarwal, Kenneth Arrow, Kaushik Basu, Zoya Hassan, Philip Pettit, Hilary Putnam and Thomas Scanlon.

The first two conferences (2001, 2002) held at the Von Hgel Institute, University of Cambridge, England, critically examined the writings of Sen and Nussbaum, the pioneers of the capability approach. Among many important issues related to the capability approach, two received a closer scrutiny of the researchers and participants: `operationalisation' (application) of the capability approach to different contexts and the promotion of women's capabilities.

The theme of the third conference (Pavia, 2003) was "sustainable development". Using the capability theoretical framework, a number of research findings highlighted the crucial links between poverty and human well-being with the environment and ecosystems. Anantha Duraiappah, director of Economic Policy at the Institute for Sustainable Development, Canada, and one of the chief organisers of the conference, noted that "the capability approach provides an ideal philosophical foundation for sustainable development because it acknowledges the non-self-interest behaviour of individuals and provides the option whereby individuals will conserve and preserve ecosystem services even if it implies a loss in utility for them at the individual level." Other economists and researchers at the conference emphasised the idea of evolving coherent national and international policies for `socially sustainable development' that takes account of intra-generational and inter-generational aspects of equity and distribution: one section of the population cannot afford to develop at the expense of another; the present generation cannot indiscriminately consume and grow at the cost of future generations.

PHILOSOPHICAL insights do not normally have instant success. They take at least a generation to gain wider acceptance. But in the case of Sen, it seems somewhat different. Sen is not only celebrated as a leading economist and a godfather of development thinking and practice. He is also regarded as a philosopher par excellence on two important fronts.

Sen has repeatedly referred to a number of basic capabilities that no society can afford to ignore: nutrition, health, literacy, self-respect and political participation.-S. ARNEJA

First, against a growing tendency to treat economics and ethics as two separate worlds, Sen has illustrated that there could indeed be rewarding dialogue and mutually beneficial influence between the two. Much of mainstream economics begins with the idea that human beings are uncompromisingly selfish. Economists and business professionals alike are hence highly sceptical of integrating ethical values into their economic analysis and business strategies. Sen has shown that such scepticism is unfounded. His contention is that human beings are not "rational fools" to be motivated only by self-interest in their economic activities of production and exchange; they could be moved equally by other-regarding values of justice, fairness, trust, honouring of contracts and civic duty. "Basic ideas of justice," says Sen, "are not alien to social beings... space does not have to be artificially created in the human mind for the idea of justice or fairness."

Consequently, according to Sen, even to see the success of capitalism, particularly market mechanism, exclusively in terms of greedy behaviour would be to miss an important point. Business ethics that govern promises and contracts, legal norms and social institutions that ensure a climate of mutual trust and confidence for economic activities are as much important for the vital functioning of market mechanism.

Sen was able to build bridges between economics and ethics largely because of his expertise and versatility in both disciplines. He is a moral philosopher among economists and an economist in the company of philosophers. In 1989, on the occasion of the awarding of an honorary doctorate at the University of Louvain, philosopher Philip Van Parijs noted: "Professor Sen is one of the very few people who are able to convey to economists, in a language they find congenial, those philosophical insights they would be naive to ignore in discussing even the most concrete policy questions. He is also one of the very few people who are able to explain to philosophers, in a language they can understand, those elements of economic culture which they would be foolish to neglect even at the level of abstraction they enjoy keeping to." Sen's innovative contributions in this area were acknowledged not only by his unique and joint appointment to Harvard's Economics and Philosophy departments in 1988 but also by the opening up of new avenues for interdisciplinary research in economics and philosophy.

Second, Sen's thinking is gaining currency in contemporary political philosophy as well. Utilitarianism and liberalism inspired by the American Philosopher John Rawls are two major philosophical trends in contemporary political philosophy. Having defined utility in terms of pleasure, happiness or desire-fulfilment, one of the chief aims of utilitarianism is to maximise its overall value in society. Although such thinking today does not form a distinct political ideology, it exerts considerable influence on public policy decisions: `greatest happiness of the greatest (and perhaps, the socially and politically powerful!) number'. Many countries in the world seem to follow this crude utilitarian calculus when pursuing developmental projects such as building huge dams, establishing industries and sometimes even initiating large-scale deforestation. The inherent importance of the rights of millions of people affected and displaced by these projects and the ecological disasters that accompany them hardly merit the attention of governments and their planners; they are mostly concerned about the overall aggregative benefits that these projects might bring about.

Sen, along with other philosophers, has strongly criticised this view as being arbitrary, unreasonable and unjust: why are some people in society, more than others, required to sacrifice their well-being and happiness for the sake of others, the common good? Even if racism, casteism, sexism, religious fanaticism and other anti-social behaviour could be shown to maximise social utility or the greater common good, they would still go against our basic sense of justice.

Moreover, Sen has also pointed out how `subjective' and unreliable the utilitarian metric of pleasure, happiness or desire can be for assessing people's quality of life. People living continuously in deprived conditions often for want of immediate exit options learn to put up with such conditions. Even though they may `objectively' lack opportunities even to be adequately nourished, decently clothed and minimally educated, their desire and imagination have been blighted to the extent that they do not any more recognise or have the courage to articulate these as important components of their life.

The kinds of people that Sen has in mind are battered housewives, bonded labourers, street children, exploited migrant workers and oppressed minorities. They not only tend to get resigned to their deprived conditions but quite often make great efforts to adapt and to `cut down' their desires to what is seen as feasible conditions. Relying only on people's perception and desires cannot, in such cases, provide sufficient motivation for appropriate public policies. In a survey conducted by the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health in an area near Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1944, Sen illustrates, only 2.5 per cent of the widows, in comparison with 48.5 per cent of the widowers, ranked their health as being "ill". This was in striking contrast to their real situation, because widows in general tend to be more deprived regarding health and nutrition.

In contrast to utilitarianism, Rawls bases his philosophy on a set of individual rights: "each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override". This anti-utilitarian point of departure that Rawls first articulated in his famous book A Theory of Justice (1971) and later developed in Political Liberalism (1993) puts back individual rights and human dignity at the heart of political philosophy. His first of the two principles of justice requires that civil and political rights, including freedom of speech and freedom from torture and arbitrary arrest, be given absolute priority; no economic and social considerations can justify the violation of individual rights. If some brilliant planners, for example, come up with the suggestion of improving the economic prosperity of the country but by violating, say, citizens' free choice of labour, Rawls' first principle then would act as a barrier to such efforts. Practical moral philosopher as he is, Rawls, in his second principle tries to balance the demands of efficiency and justice: while society's offices and positions should be available to everyone in an open competition, in order to keep social inequality within manageable proportions special attention has to be paid to the needs of the worst off in society.

During the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s. People's capacities could be enhanced or hampered depending on the opportunities they face in their family and society. A child born in Ethiopia has a much lower life expectancy and facilities for health care at birth than a child born, say, in any of the Scandinavian countries.-GAMMA

Sen acknowledges Rawls to be one of "the greatest moral and political philosophers of this century" especially for advocating a non-utilitarian political philosophy and for showing that people's standing in society should be judged on a set of `objective' factors including basic liberties and opportunities, income and wealth, and social bases of self-respect.

However, Sen thinks Rawls' theory to be limited from the point of view of human diversity; it does not go deep enough to capture some blatant inequalities in society. Human beings differ from one another in a number of ways. There are, first and foremost, differences in personal characteristics such as health, age, sex and genetic endowments. Human beings also vary from one another in the types of external environment and social conditions they live in. These different elements of human diversity crucially affect the ways in which resources such as income and wealth are transformed into relevant capabilities. A physically handicapped person, for example, might be in need of more resources to be mobile than an able-bodied person. Or, improving girls' literacy level in most poor countries might require much more than just spreading some resources around; it might, among other things, require changing the mindset of parents and social customs. Or, increasing the social and political participation of traditionally oppressed groups would demand efforts more than just providing access to resources; it might require tackling some entrenched social, economic and political practices and structures. Since Rawls' theory works with the assumption of a liberal society with citizens having more or less equal capacities, Sen points out, inequalities and disadvantages arising from human diversities are either postponed to be settled by legislative or judicial procedures or at the most relegated as issues falling in the domain of charity.

IN making his economic and philosophical arguments, Sen has been modest and quite keen on showing their connections to well-known philosophers and philosophical traditions. The idea of capabilities and the corollary idea that the political planning and public policies should focus on the expansion of people's capabilities and freedoms, Sen points out, have strong basis in the writings of Aristotle and Marx. Both Aristotle and Marx, in different ways and contexts, have strongly argued for enhancing the capacities and freedoms of people; they have also argued against `commodity fetishism': income and wealth are only means to achieve different freedoms; they could never be considered as ends in themselves.

Adam Smith, however, is Sen's most favourite thinker. No keen reader of Sen can ever miss Smith's influence; in fact, some of Sen's works read like an admiring commentary of Smith interspersed with many phrases and generous citations from The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations. Sen refers to Smith to make his points on the narrowness of modern economics and on the need to initiate dialogue between economics and ethics. "Most of modern economics," reminds Sen, "tends to concentrate too heavily on very narrow things, leaving out enormous areas of what are seen as political and sociological factors on the one side, and the philosophical issues on the other. But these issues are often central to economic problems themselves. After all, the subject of modern economics was in a sense founded by Adam Smith, who had an enormously broad view of economics."

Sen also invokes Smith to point out the importance of the capability of social and political participation and to argue that people could indeed be absolutely deprived in terms of capabilities while remaining only relatively deprived in terms of income. Smith, Sen tell us, already in the 18th century talked of the capability of "appearing in public without shame" and of how, depending on cultures and societies, different "necessaries" are required to attain this capability.

On December 22, 1921, in his lecture to a group of economists, Mahatma Gandhi said: "In a well-ordered society, the securing of one's livelihood should be and is found to be the easiest thing in the world. Indeed, the test of orderliness in a country is not the number of millionaires it owns, but the absence of starvation among its masses." He, however, also reminded the economists that "material advancement does not necessarily mean moral progress". Sen seems to have rightly addressed Gandhi's twin concerns. His economic analysis of famines, poverty and the problems of development has indeed provided fresh insights to tackle them with determination and concerted effort. Simultaneously, Sen's wisdom has also shown that solutions to even the simplest economic problem require undivided attention to ethical inquiry and philosophical richness.

John M. Alexander is a Research Associate at the Institute of Philosophy, University of Leuven, Belgium.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor