University of Cambridge
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Amartya Sen was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 1998 “for his contributions in welfare economics.” Although his primary academic appointments have been mostly in economics, Sen is also an important and influential social theorist and philosopher. His work on social choice theory is seminal, and his writings on poverty, famine, and development, as well his contributions to moral and political philosophy, are important and influential. Sen’s views about the nature and primacy of liberty also make him a major contemporary liberal thinker. This volume of essays on aspects of Sen’s work is aimed at a broad audience of readers interested in social theory, political philosophy, ethics, public policy, welfare economics, the theory of rational choice, poverty, and development. Written by a team of well-known experts, each chapter provides an overview of Sen’s work in a particular area and a critical assessment of his contributions to the field.
Sen was born in Bangladesh. His father was a university professor and his mother a well-known scholar of ancient and medieval India. Sen earned a B.A. in Economics with first class, with a minor in Mathematics, as a graduating student of the University of Calcutta and in 1953, he moved to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he earned a second B.A. in Economics in 1955 with a first class topping the list. While Sen was officially a Ph.D. student at Cambridge (though he had finished his research in 1955-6), he was offered the position of Professor and Head of the Economics Department of the newly created Jadavpur University in Calcutta, and he became the youngest chairman to head the Department of Economics. He served in that position, starting the new Economics Department, during 1956 to 1958. Meanwhile, Sen was elected to a Prize Fellowship at Trinity College, which gave him four years of freedom to do anything he liked; he made the radical decision to study philosophy. Sen explained:
"The broadening of my studies into philosophy was important for me not just because some of my main areas of interest in economics relate quite closely to philosophical disciplines (for example, social choice theory makes intense use of mathematical logic and also draws on moral philosophy, and so does the study of inequality and deprivation), but also because I found philosophical studies very rewarding on their own".
His interest in philosophy, however, dates back to his college days at Presidency, where he read books on philosophy and debated philosophical themes. In Cambridge, there were major debates between supporters of Keynesian economics on the one hand, and the "neo-classical" economists skeptical of Keynes, on the other. However, because of a lack of enthusiasm for social choice theory in both Trinity and Cambridge, Sen had to choose a different subject for his Ph.D. thesis, which was on "The Choice of Techniques" in 1959, though the work had been completed much earlier (except for some valuable advice from his adjunct supervisor in India, Professor A.K. Dasgupta, given to Sen while teaching and revising his work at Jadavpur) under the supervision of the "brilliant but vigorously intolerant" post-Keynesian, Joan Robinson. Quentin Skinner notes that Sen was a member of the secret society Cambridge Apostles during his time at Cambridge.
Sen's revolutionary contribution to development economics and social indicators is the concept of "capability" developed in his article "Equality of What". He argues that governments should be measured against the concrete capabilities of their citizens. This is because top-down development will always trump human rights as long as the definition of terms remains in doubt (is a "right" something that must be provided or something that simply cannot be taken away?). For instance, in the United States citizens have a hypothetical "right" to vote. To Sen, this concept is fairly empty. In order for citizens to have a capacity to vote, they first must have "functionings". These "functionings" can range from the very broad, such as the availability of education, to the very specific, such as transportation to the polls. Only when such barriers are removed can the citizen truly be said to act out of personal choice. It is up to the individual society to make the list of minimum capabilities guaranteed by that society.