Capabilities, freedom and human development

Amartya Sen's human science of development: Part III

Published : Jul 03, 1999 00:00 IST

Professor Amartya Sen is one of the world's most important and influential intellectuals, one of its foremost thinkers. The award of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Economics to the great economist was the best thing that happened to the Nobel Prize in this field. This long-overdue award was for Sen's contributions to welfare economics and, among other things, for restoring "an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems." (For an appreciation of Sen's economics and its implications, see V.K. Ramachandran's Cover Story interviews in Frontline, December 12, 1986 and November 6, 1998.)

The award represented a break in a two-decade trend reflecting a pronounced "bias in favour of technoeconomics in the service of the free market, private property and footloose finance." The break in the trend warrants celebration also for two other reasons: the Nobel for Sen recognises "the central role of human development in the professional endeavour of economists," and "the human development of the Third World occupies a central position" in this laureate's work.

In this third and concluding part of an extended essay, economist and economic historian Professor Amiya Kumar Bagchi completes his sketch of the intellectual itinerary of a man who has made a magnificent contribution to the founding of a new branch of the human science of development. This part deals with Sen's ideas of "functionings" and "capabilities", his profoundly important work on freedom, his ability to relate his concepts of capabilities and freedom to analyses of deprivation, poverty and "achievement inequality" in human societies, and the significance of his writings and organising activities of the last two decades for what Bagchi characterises as a human science of development - so named because "this domain of analysis covers major aspects of the development of human beings as free and autonomous agents in society." But this, Bagchi points out, is by no means all. Sen's contributions include early contributions to Indian economic history, to the analysis of Indian economic problems, and to applied economics. His influence has extended to most branches of the human sciences, including the field of women's studies.

- Editor, Frontline

AS we have noted, Amartya Sen journeyed long across the terrain of utility, preferences, revelation of preferences, satisfaction or valuation by choice, and alternatively of commodities as a means of achieving satisfaction, utility or pleasure or of the distribution of primary goods or of commodities in general or utilities. The careful examination of all these alternatives pertaining to value judgments and social action led him ultimately to the conviction that what we should be concerned with is not utility, or a variant of "commodity fetishism" (to adapt a concept used in a different context by Karl Marx), but with what Sen called "functionings" (the latter are a combination of "beings and actions"), and the capability of human beings to achieve these functionings. A short definition of these concepts may be cited here (Sen, 1987a, p.16):

Ultimately, the focus has to be on what life we lead and what we can or cannot do, can or cannot be. I have elsewhere called the various living conditions we can or cannot achieve, our "functionings", and our ability to achieve them, our "capabilities".

Some sympathetic critics (for example, Cohen, 1993, 1993a) have complained that in Sen's use, the word "capabilities" has been used in at least two senses: one is that of actual attainment of various components of the standard of living, such as a certain level of income, state of health, education and so on, and the other is the potential of the persons concerned to attain these capabilities. Since Sen has connected his idea of capabilities and the standard of living also with the actual freedom and rights enjoyed by people, I find that it adds to clarity of our understanding if we interpret "capabilities" as the potential attainable by people rather than their actual attainment of those standards. When a poet is starving in a garret, we should ask whether, if he chose to, he could eat as fully as a normal healthy person. If the answer is yes, for all such poets starving in garrets, we can say that in terms of the attainment of the commodity bundle needed for a decent standard of living, the poets have attained their capabilities, even though, medically speaking, they are all poor specimens. (Whether starvation improves poetry-writing is another matter altogether, and again, a priori, it is difficult to say whether the starving poets are attaining their capabilities as poets. But they are attaining their capabilities as free human beings if they are choosing to starve rather than being forced to starve by society.)

Sen's formulation of the fullest attainment of human capabilities as the proper criterion of social welfare judgments and the appropriate objective of policy interventions connects with his idea of freedom. In his view, freedom is not simply freedom to choose, but freedom from certain removable constraints on the functioning of human beings. In Marxian terms, freedom is the freedom to overcome the bondage of necessity insofar as the development of forces of production or man's control over nature permit it. Thus, in some ways, Sen has been able to resolve the conflict between notions of positive and negative liberty. This ideological divide has long separated the individualist libertarians from the theorists of humankind as social beings and hence living as free beings in society rather than as stylites in the desert (surely even there somebody had to feed and give water to the stylites?) (see Berlin, 1969/1986 and Taylor, 1979/1986, for expositions of the two concepts of liberty).

With his usual ability to make out finer distinctions within a picture that seems to be rather blurred to most observers, Sen has tried to remove the ambiguity in the use of the concept of "capability" and provided a four-fold grid on which to put it (Sen, 1993, p.35).

One distinction is between (1.1) the promotion of the person's well-being, and (1.2) the pursuit of the person's overall agency goals. The latter encompasses the goals that a person has reasons to adopt, which can inter alia include goals other than the advancement of his or her well-being. The second distinction is between (2.1) achievement, and (2.2) the freedom to achieve. This contrast can be applied both to the perspective of well-being and to that of agency. The two distinctions together yield four different concepts of advantage, related to a person: (1) "well-being achievement", (2) "agency achievement", (3) "well-being freedom", and (4) "agency freedom".

I am quite sure that social theorists, economists and political philosophers will continue to debate the finer distinctions Sen has wanted to introduce into the concept of the realm of freedom (which is not to be seen as being disjoint from the realm of necessity, but integrally connected with it). But it should be recognised that Sen has been able to relate his concepts of capability and freedom to close and often innovative analyses of deprivation, achievement inequality and poverty in human societies: a rough list would include the enquiries made by him and his collaborators into the incidence of mortality and morbidity, the incidence of illiteracy, the connections between affiliation to particular classes and other human groups identified by the stigmata of caste, or race, and perhaps most importantly of all, by gender discrimination, and the incidence of deprivation and the impairment of capability (see, in particular, Sen, 1992, chapters 4-8, and Sen, 1993; see also Dreze and Sen, 1989, chapters 1-4).

Sen's writings and organising activities during the last two decades have fed into what I have called a human science of development. However, as indicated earlier, most of his concerns with inequality and development go back to his early professional career. This shows up not only in his books and articles in professional journals, but also in his occasional writings in newspapers. For example, in 1964, in an article in The Statesman, discussing the proposals for the Fourth Five Year Plan then in the air, he denounced the tendency among many publicists and policy-makers to advocate a small plan on the ground that large investments would lead to a higher rate of inflation (Sen, 1964a). In a trenchant observation on the low-investment proposal, he wrote:

The avoidance of inflation is ... a negative kind of policy, and at its worst amounts to no more than keeping prices low for those who can afford to pay more, by denying to others sufficient income for certain essential goods. Take the case of food prices. Given the supply of food, which will not be raised by cutting down the size of investment, the only way a "small plan", as opposed to a big one, can keep prices down is through preventing many people from having the necessary purchasing power to demand more than they might otherwise buy. The people concerned are the poor, because it is their capacity to buy food that is most sensitive to changes in their incomes, since the rich succeed in any case in buying as much food as they want.

His concern with the entitlement of the poor to education as well as to their access to education is also evinced by his early writings. In the concluding part of the same article in The Statesman (Sen, 1964b), he criticised the neglect of primary education in Indian planning. His criticism was based both on grounds of deprivation of the underprivileged and on the effect that universal primary education can have in informing and empowering the peasants. The latter, when educated, would be in a position to demand more and better inputs for agriculture. But he also saw the prevalence of landlordism as a depressor of agricultural growth. In 1967, he criticised the Report of the Education Commission (the Kothari Commission) for its concentration on the needs of higher education and its blindness to the imperative need for substantially raising public expenditure on primary education (Sen, 1967b). He sustained this line of criticism of official policy in his Lal Bahadur Shastri Memorial Lecture delivered in 1970 (Sen, 1970c/1971).

NOW I turn to my claim that Sen has founded a new branch of the human science of development. What he has done is to scrutinise the values that sustain the quotidian arguments of mainstream (and some varieties of radical) economics and shown them to be wanting. In the process he has broadened the scope of enquiry of social and political philosophers and social scientists. No longer can enquiries into deprivation be regarded as an obsession of egalitarian romantics. Nor can questions of freedom and democracy be regarded as only the concern of dyed-in-the-wool liberals. In the fields of enquiry he has chosen he has been able to combine value criticism, disaggregation of apparently unitary modules of society, and strong-minded empirical verification of the causes of emaciated entitlements and deprivation through the cessation or interruption of usual entitlements. This is why his domain of analysis should be called a human science (as distinct from narrowly conceived economics or social science). Since that domain covers major aspects of the development of human beings as free and autonomous agents in society, it may be called the human science of (human) development. (I am in favour of dropping the second 'human' for the sake of euphony.)

Sen's branch of the human science of development, of course, cannot cover all the branches of the human sciences, nor even all the branches of the social sciences. As a first attempt to establish its relation to other major branches of the sub-discipline of human sciences going by the name of economics or political economy, I would suggest that Sen's branch of analysis is orthogonally related to the two other major branches, namely, macroeconomics and microeconomics. Economists have not been able to come to any agreed conclusion about the relationship of macroeconomics to microeconomics. New structures of analysis embodying imperfect competition have been constructed for neo-Kaleckian, neo-Keynesian, and straightforwardly neoclassical economics (in which very often, of course, macroeconomics is supposed to be the aggregation of microeconomic structures without coordination failures or disjunction between intended and actual results). Sen's branch of human science of development goes below the level of microeconomic behaviour taken as the proper field of enquiry and finds out how the constraints on the behaviour of particular groups of agents operate. At a macroeconomic level, of course, patterns of distribution of literacy, education and resources in general between men and women, and between the rich and the poor, shape fertility, survival, morbidity and consumption patterns.

It will take an extended piece of research to descry even the proximate influences on Sen's work. He has himself generously acknowledged some of the influences: those of A.K. Dasgupta, Maurice Dobb, Kenneth Arrow, Tapas Majumdar, and (at a personal level) Piero Sraffa among the economists, and among the philosophers and social theorists, mostly his contemporaries such as W.G. Runciman, Bernard Williams (see, for example, Sen and Williams, 1982) and Martha Nussbaum. Among the great thinkers of the past, his work is replete with references to Adam Smith and Karl Marx (but also Frederick Engels in some cases) (see Sen, 1982, 1983a, 1984, 1987). Among economists, he is exceptional in using not only Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776) but also his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). He has repeatedly referred to Smith's notion of sympathy as a social bond, and to his suggestion that a person is entitled at the least to a standard of living which allows him to appear in public without a feeling of shame. The Marx that Sen refers to is the early Marx (1843-44; and 1845-46), primarily for his enlarged idea of human freedom, and to the late Marx (1875), primarily for his recognition of the possible conflict between the demands of need-based egalitarianism and the ability- or desert-based incentives for eliciting work in a society which is yet to attain the plenitude appropriate to Communism proper.

Sen obviously did not accept the epistemological break posited by many analysts between the work of early Marx and the late Marx, nor the epistemological break unconsciously posited by most historians of economic thought between Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and his Wealth of Nations (1776); the same historians also generally regard David Ricardo's work as the apogee of classical political economy, even while they are sharply critical of that work (see, in this connection, Bagchi, 1996, especially pp.108-112).

It is interesting that there are very few references in Sen's work to Ricardo or to Marx as the analyst of the dynamics of capitalist production. Part of it can be explained by the shift I referred to from work on economic growth, which means growth of production in a narrow sense, to areas of social choice and welfare judgments, and also by the kind of orthogonal relationship I adduced between Sen's later work and the conventional branches of macroeconomics and microeconomics. However, part of the explanation lies in the fact that much of Sen's analysis crosses the usual boundaries of modes of production. He has indefatigably analysed peasant behaviour, beginning with his contributions in the Economic Weekly (Sen, 1962, 1964, 1964a, 1964c, 1964d) which at once started a debate and generated a research programme (a seminal contribution to that programme was made by Krishna Bharadwaj, 1974), through his influential paper on "Peasants and dualism" (Sen, 1966a/1984), his book on Employment, Technology and Development (Sen, 1975) and his articles and books containing analyses of work incentives and equity in Communist China and famines in many less-developed countries, including China of the Great Leap Forward period. But his analysis has abjured the concept of an overarching mode of production, in the Marxian sense. On the other hand, he has tried meticulously to bring out the interaction between market and non-market phenomena, and between private and public action. Simultaneously he has brought out the relevance of what, following Alexis de Tocqueville, we may designate as the distinction between formal democracy and democracy or freedom in social arrangements. Through the transmission of information about disasters and sudden entitlement failures, the former prevent famines, but democracy in society may be more effective in sustaining an evenly spread structure of entitlements. In the nature of the case, many of Sen's judgments may be controverted by others. But the importance of the issues raised by him can be contested only by dogmatists or by those who are prepared to build an alternative framework of analysis with the patience and logical acumen that Sen has displayed throughout his career.

Before leaving this topic of the branch of the human science of development Sen's work has generated, I want to express my puzzlement at an interesting omission in Sen's copious and generous references. Given the fact that Sen has displayed an uncanny eye for ambiguities in many commonly used concepts, I would have expected some reference to the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose interrogation of language and language games still reverberates through much of modern philosophy. Wittgenstein had died two years before Sen arrived in Trinity College, Cambridge, but Sraffa had been a close friend of Wittgenstein and had had a strong influence on the later philosophy of the reclusive Austrian. At Trinity, Sen had become a close friend of Sraffa's. Wittgenstein's concept of language games parallels, in the philosophical domain, the practice of what may be called "contextual social science" (Bagchi, 1996a). But, of course, his work is not simply parallel to, but provides some of the epistemological justification for the practice of contextual human sciences in general. Sen has repeatedly displayed his remarkable capacity for designing new tests for old theories (see, for example, when he controverted T.W. Schultz's idea that disguised unemployment did not prevail in British India because agricultural output declined in the wake of the deaths caused by the influenza epidemic of 1918-19; Sen, 1967c). He has been engaged continually in evolving new concepts in order to illuminate areas of enquiry which seemed to him to be unnecessarily shrouded in obscurity. This awareness of the necessity of changing the meanings of words, or their interpretation, and of reading the actions of people according to the context in which they utter those words and engage (or fail to engage) in certain actions would surely have reminded Sen of Wittgenstein's work. In the delightfully written intervention of Sen's in the Cambridge controversies in capital theory - a piece Sen wrote for a volume edited by Ashok Mitra in honour of A.K. Dasgupta - we get a tantalising glimpse of the convergence of the interests of Wittgenstein and Sraffa (Sen, 1974/1984). Even in that piece, which can be read as a cleverly constructed language game, he does not refer to Wittgenstein. Is all this silence due to Sen's distrust of the nihilism which some people have read as the enduring legacy of Wittgenstein's later corpus?

6. Concluding remarks

I have tried to sketch the intellectual itinerary of a man who has all through been acute and perceptive, scholarly and innovative. I have desisted from passing any judgment on the significance of all that work. In any case, that needs mature reflection and cannot be essayed within a short period.

I have taken the story - and only a part of it at that - up to 1993 and I mean to leave it there. Sen has since then co-authored or co-edited with Jean Dreze two books on India's social and economic development (Dreze and Sen, 1995, 1997). I will not try to cover the numerous forays he has made into the nature of Indian society, culture and democracy, except to say that in that terrain, he has travelled in the strongly rationalist, secularist and universalist tradition of his grandfather Kshitimohan Sen, and their great mentor, Rabindranath Tagore. But it will be ungenerous to leave even this very brief sketch without mentioning some of his early contributions to Indian economic history and to the analysis of Indian economic problems. In an article presented to an international economic history conference in 1962, he analysed the British investment decisions relating to cotton and iron and steel industries (Sen, 1965a). We have already mentioned his analysis of the population and production loss caused in India by the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 (Sen, 1967c). In the former article he had questioned the thesis that low British industrial investment in colonial India was a passive response to market conditions: he brought out the relevance of political factors interacting with economic conditions for explaining the phenomenon. Later on, beginning with a paper in 1977, he, of course, provided us with a canonical analysis of the Bengal famine of 1943 (Sen, 1977b, and 1981).

In the area of applied economics, Sen made a highly influential analysis of the requirements of working capital in Indian industry (Sen, 1964e). He authored an article on second-hand machinery and their use (Sen, 1962a) which stands at the head of much later work - both theoretical and applied - on the same subject. For the Economic Weekly, he produced papers on trade policy and structural unemployment (Sen, 1960a), on the irrationality of pricing in the Indian civil aviation industry (Sen, 1961a), and on sociological and economic explanations for the behaviour of the Indian iron and steel industry (Sen, 1963). Indeed, many of his early professional work appeared in the pages of the Economic Weekly, often to be developed more extensively in other professional journals. This applies to most of his work relating to choice of techniques, used machines, extensions or modifications of the Mahalanobis model, and peasant behaviour. My generation of economists in India owes a great deal to the stimulus provided by Sen's ceaselessly questing mind.

Sen's influence has extended, as it should, to practically all the branches of the human sciences, including the newly born discipline of women's studies. It will take a team of scholars familiar with all the forays he has made to prepare an adequate map of his long and conceptually exciting journey. Joan Robinson (1956, had acknowledged Michal Kalecki as a progenitor, intellectually speaking, although Kalecki was a contemporary. The practitioners of the human sciences will have to get over their wonder at Sen being a contemporary while acknowledging him as an intellectual ancestor - an ancestor who continues to produce further sustenance for the development of human capabilities.


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-. 1993a. 'Equality of what? On welfare, goods, and capabilities', in Nussbaum and Sen, 1993, 9-29.

Dreze, J. and A.K. Sen. 1989. Hunger and Public Action, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

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