Sen, Amartya K. (1933–)

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Amartya K. Sen, an economist and philosopher, was born in Bengal in 1933. The memory of the Bengal famine of 1943, in which more than 2 million people died, drew him to work on economics and ethics. He studied economics at Presidency College, Calcutta, and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received a doctorate in economics in 1959. After he taught at the Delhi School of Economics, the London School of Economics, he held the posts of Drummond Professor of Political Economy at Oxford University (also Fellow of All Souls College), and then Lamont University Professor and professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University. His contributions to economics lie in the areas of social choice theory, theory of choice, development economics, labor economics, cost-benefit analysis, and the measurement of inequality and poverty. In 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics "for his contributions to welfare economics" and appointed Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Informational Persimony of Social Welfare Judgment

The large number of Sen's works in economics and philosophy are marked by tireless criticism of utilitarianism and the utilitarian foundations of welfare economics. According to Sen utilitarianism can be factored into three elements: act consequentialism (the goodness of an act is given by the goodness of its consequent states of affairs), welfarism (the goodness of a state of affairs is given by the goodness of utility information regarding that state), and sum-ranking (the goodness of utility information is given by the sum total of different people's utilities). These elements impose informational constraints on policy judgments and economic evaluation: Act consequentialism does not consider the intrinsic value of an act or the motivation underlying the act; welfarism rules out nonutility information such as violation of rights from influencing the goodness of an act; and sum-ranking excludes information about the state of people who are worse off. Sen holds that the informational basis for judgments of goodness should include nonutility information and information about the distribution of utility among different people.

Much of his philosophical standpoint originates in the close examination of Kenneth J. Arrow's (1921) general impossibility theorem: there exists no collective decision-making rule that satisfies some seemingly uncontroversial axioms (unrestricted domain, weak Pareto principle, independence of irrelevant alternatives, and nondictatorship). In Collective Choice and Social Welfare (1970a) he scrutinizes the formal and philosophical reach of this theorem and points out the informational parsimony of Arrow's framework. Since Abraham Bergson (19142003) and Paul A. Samuelson (1915) established the "new" welfare economics, individual preference orderings have been assumed to be ordinal and interpersonally incomparable, because there is supposed to be no scientific ground to compare one person's preference satisfaction with another's. Sen shows that if the informational basis is extended to include some kind of interpersonal comparability (e.g., the unit comparability or level comparability), there exist collective decision-making rules, including some egalitarian rules such as maximin and its lexicographic extension, leximin (as endorsed in John Rawls's difference principle).

Individual Freedom and the Notion of Well-Being

In "The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal" (1970b) he further shows that two conditions in Arrow's theorem (unrestricted domain and weak Pareto principle) are inconsistent with individuals' minimal liberty. Although the weak Pareto principle (if everyone in the society strictly prefers x to y, x is socially preferred to y) is taken to be uncontroversial in economics, it is sufficient to spread the decisiveness of a certain group over all the pair of alternatives, even if the preference over the pair is a purely personal matter that the society should respect. While the same concern led Robert Nozick to his libertarian side-constraint theory, in "Rights and Agency" 1982), Sen adopts a broadly defined consequentialist theory called a goal-right system, according to which individual freedom should be promoted as an end by the society. This moves him to give individual freedom a central role in the evaluation of states of affairs.

In Commodities and Capabilities (1985a) he argues against the "opulence" view of well-being (e.g., real income and Rawls's primary goods) and the "utility" view (e.g., happiness, desire-fulfillment, and the revealed preference theory in welfare economics), and proposes an alternative notion of well-being: the capability to function. He takes human life to consist in a combination of various doings and beings, which he calls functionings (e.g., moving, being well nourished, being in good health, and being socially respected). The capability to function refers to different combinations of functionings, and the capability of a person corresponds to freedom to choose one kind of life among others.

One advantage of this approach is that it takes account of the people's varying capacities to convert primary goods into abilities to pursue their ends. Each person's capability to function is influenced by internal factors such as disability, illness, age, and gender, as well as external factors such as climatic circumstances, educational arrangement, the prevalence of crime and violence, and the resource distribution within the family. What a disabled person can achieve from a larger set of goods may be much less than what an able-bodied person can achieve from a smaller set of goods. The capability approach offers the analytic ground to capture people's diverse needs. This approach changed not only the concept of well-being in ethics but also the paradigm of international development. It became the source of the Human Development Indicators of the United Nations Development Programme.

Through his empirical studies on famines, in Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), Sen maintains that there has never been a famine in a functioning multiparty democracy: The democratic poor countries such as India, Botswana, or Zimbabwe managed to avert famines despite serious crop failure, whereas the dictatorial countries had major famines. This is because, Sen claims, democracy would spread the penalty of famine to the ruling parties and political leaders, thus providing the political incentives to try to prevent any threatening famine. In subsequent works he champions the notion of human rights for their intrinsic importance, their consequential role in providing the political incentives for economic security, and their constructive role in the genesis of values and priorities.

See also Consequentialism; Philosophy of Economics; Rights; Utilitarianism.


works by sen

Collective Choice and Social Welfare. San Francisco: Holden-Day, 1970a.

"The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal." Journal of Political Economy 78 (1970b): 152157.

On Economic Inequality. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1973.

"Equality of What?" In Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Vol. 1., edited by S. McMurrin. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1980.

Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1981.

"Rights and Agency." Philosophy and Public Affairs 11 (1) (1982): 339.

Commodities and Capabilities. New York: North-Holland, 1985a.

"Well-being, Agency, and Freedom: The Dewey Lectures 1984." Journal of Philosophy 82 (4) (1985b): 169221.

Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Iwao Hirose (2005)