SEN, Amartya

Amartya Kumar Sen is an economist and philosopher who has made a distinctive contribution to the study of political economy, inequality, poverty, famines, and welfare. In 1988, Sen was awarded a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Upon hearing the news, the late renowned Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, a long-time friend of Sen, remarked, ‘It was only political reasons which prevented him getting it earlier … Ever since the mid-70s the Swedish committee has been strongly committed to free-market theory, until it took a real punch in the midriff in 97/98 with the Asian crisis.’


Choice of Techniques, published in 1960, saw Sen focus on a number of economic issues in relation to rates of accumulation. Among Sen’s primary concerns was the fact that despite technological innovation and a subsequent increase in labour productivity, workers were expected to endure no improvement in their standard of living.  During the 1960s and 1970s, Sen also worked extensively on social choice theory, especially Kenneth Arrow’s impossibility theorem, which drew attention to the flaws inherent within ranked voting systems. In Collective Choice and Social Welfare (1970), Sen addressed issues such as individual rights, equality, justice and majority rule. Sen also developed an approach to measuring poverty. In doing so, Sen’s work explored questions such as why there are fewer women than men in India and why women are more likely to have lower mortality rates whilst making up a marginal majority of the population.


Drawing on his own personal experience of the Bengal famine of 1943, which saw more than three million people perish, Sen published Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation in 1981. For Sen, famine was not the result of a simple lack of food, but rather it was a direct consequence of the specific nature of the inequalities that were built into the apparatuses and mechanisms for distributing food. Not only this, Sen also suggested that unemployment and a boom in the urban economy – which saw the wages of rural workers fail to keep pace with rising food prices – played an important role in the death of more than three million people from starvation. Making a distinction between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ freedoms, Sen further argued that rural labourers starved precisely because they did not have the ‘functioning of nourishment’, nor the ‘capability to escape morbidity’. Sen’s analysis of famine also brought the nature of democracy into question, arguing that famine would not occur in functioning democracies.


In short, Amartya Kumar Sen’s vast body of work has had significant impact, especially in terms of how governments and international organisations respond to food emergencies. Indeed, Sen’s work has prompted policy-makers to move away from approaches which focus solely on immediate relief from starvation towards attempts to maintain and raise the income levels of the poor while at the same maintaining stable food prices.


In 1980, Sen published what would be one of his most profound contributions to the study of development economics and social indicators. In Equality of What?, Sen developed the concept of ‘capability’, arguing that ‘governments should be measured against the concrete capabilities of their citizens’. For Sen, human rights would almost always be usurped by hierarchical, top-down ‘development’. Sen was also deeply critical of the very notion of ‘rights’, claiming that the term is all too often vacuous and ill-defined. For Sen, ‘rights’ must be accompanied by guaranteed ‘capabilities’. That is to say, citizens can only act out of personal choice once the barriers restricting choice have been removed. Sen’s ‘ capabilities approach’ also stresses the importance of positive freedom – that is, people’s ability to be or do something – rather than on negative freedoms, which are common in laissez-faire economics and the politics of ‘non-interference’. Alongside a team of economists, Sen’s work on the ‘capabilities approach’ in collaboration with Mabub ul Haq would play an integral role in the development of the United Nation’s Human Development Index.


The 1990s saw Sen author two key texts: Inequality Re-examined (1992) and Development as Freedom (1999). In the former, Sen argued that the fundamental diversity of human beings must be fully comprehended if we are adequately to attend to the question of equality. Failure to do so, Sen claimed, would limit our ability to grasp that which drives those inequalities endured by both traditionally, and newly, systematically disadvantaged groups. In the latter, Sen further extended his ‘capabilities approach’, emphasising the need to move away from metrics such as GDP or income-per-capita to developing further the real freedoms that individuals enjoy. In putting forward this argument, Sen identified five ideal-typical, yet interconnected forms, of freedom: political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security.


Rather than viewing these ideal-typical freedoms as being the end of development (as was traditionally the case at the time), Sen was of the view that maximising these freedoms ought to be both the end and the means of development. What is more, Sen also believed that an extension of one of the aforementioned freedoms could have a knock on effect in terms of the growth of another. For example, social reforms in education and health are integral to greater economic freedom.


Drawing attention to the limitations of Rawlsian and Utilitarian approaches to social justice is a recurring theme running through Sen’s work. In The Idea of Justice (2009), Sen put forward an alternative vision of social justice to those advanced by Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, John Rawls and John Harsanyi. In doing so, Sen found inspiration in the writings of Adam Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft, thus putting forward a comparative and realisations-oriented approach as opposed to a theory emphasising the transcendental and institutional. That said, institutions and processes were not consigned to the dustbin of redundant philosophy. In contrast to Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’, Sen put forward a theory of social justice based on the ‘thought experiment of an impartial spectator’, thus bringing ‘distant voices’ in moral deliberations as a guard against parochialism. In echoing John Stuart Mills’ understanding of democracy, Sen also sought to emphasise the integral nature of public discussion, without losing sight of ‘capabilities approach’ and his prior emphasis on the notion of universal human rights when evaluating the way in which various states approach the question of justice.


Essential Readings:
Sen, Amartya. 1980. “Equality of what?“, in MacMurrin, Sterling M. (ed.). The Tanner lectures on human values (2nd edition.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Sen, Amartya. 2004. ‘Capabilities, Lists, and Public Reason: Continuing the Conversation’. Feminist Economics, 10(3), pp77-80.
Sen, Amartya. 2005, ‘Human Rights and Capabilities’. Journal of Human Development, 6(2), pp.151-166.

Video: Sen. Amartya. 2019. ‘On the Dangers of Nationalism and Populism’. The Wire, 11 March 2019.


Further Readings:
Navarro, V. 2000. ‘Development and Quality of Life: A Critique of Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom’. International Journal of Health Services, 30(4), 661-674.
O’Hearn, D. 2009. ‘Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom: Ten Years Later’. Policy & Practice: A Development Education Review 8, pp. 9-15.
Robeyns, I. 2003 ‘Sen’s Capability Approach and Gender Inequality: Selecting Relevant Capabilities’. Feminist Economics 9(2-3), pp. 61-92.
Sen, Amartya. 1960). Choice of Techniques: An Aspect of the Theory of Planned Economic Development. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Sen, Amartya. 1982. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sen, Amartya. 1992. Inequality Reexamined. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sen, Amartya. 2010. The Idea of Justice. London: Penguin.
Shilliam, R. (2012). Redemption from Development: Amartya Sen, Rastafari and Promises of Freedom. Postcolonial Studies, 15(3), 331-350.


1. What are the main themes running through Amartya Sen’s body of work?
2. In your opinion, what does Sen consider to be the main drivers of famine?
3. What are the core features of Amartya Sen’s ‘capabilities approach’?
4. What does Sen mean by ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ freedoms?
5. According to Sen, what are the main limitations of Rawlsian and Utilitarian theories of social justice?


Submitted by Stephen Ashe

Image: LSE Library

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