Book Review: Capturing the 'Essential' Ideas of Amartya Sen's Work

Lawrence Hamilton’s 'How to read Amartya Sen' identifies five keywords – choice, capability, freedom, justice and democracy – to introduce the economist's ideas to those who want to dabble in such issues.

In his foreword to Lawrence Hamilton’s How to read Amartya Sen, Jean Dreze characterises the slim book as “an excellent introduction to Sen’s essential ideas”. The word ‘essential’ generally evokes scepticism about the criteria adopted for judging what is essential. Which ideas of Amartya Sen – a philosopher-economist par excellence – should we consider as essential, given that for more than six decades he has stuffed dozens of his highly acclaimed books and hundreds of widely-cited research articles in top international journals with brilliant ideas? Hamilton has taken up the challenge squarely and identified five keywords – choice, capability, freedom, justice and democracy – to introduce Sen’s ideas to those who want to dabble in such issues. These five themes, in the sequence they have appeared in the book, aptly capture the ever-expanding intellectual horizon of Sen’s academic work over time, starting with his critique of the economist’s conceptual edifice built on the issues of individual choice and preference within a utilitarian framework. Sen has clearly shown that we cannot study deprivation and inequality without challenging the fundamental premises of utilitarianism.

Lawrence Hamilton
How to Read Amartya Sen
Penguin India (October 2020)

The chapter titled ‘Choice’ provides an excellent non-technical introduction to the main issues in social choice theory and Sen’s far-reaching intervention in this area. Sen has persuasively argued for the need for going beyond individual preferences in matters of social evaluation and provided a solid foundation for a much richer alternative conceptualisation of well-being in terms of human functioning and capability to achieve those ‘functionings’. Whereas utilitarianism tends to focus on preference-satisfaction and egalitarianism on the distribution of resources, Sen offers a far more well-founded conceptualisation of human well-being. An individual’s ‘capability set’ (i.e. the set of functionings an individual can access) as an embodiment of her freedom to choose how ‘to do or to be’ is a conceptual innovation that has far-reaching consequences. This idea of freedom lies at the core of his idea of justice as well.

The vantage point

Hamilton, being a professor of political studies and political theory, reads Sen from a vantage point, which, I guess, might have been a different one had he been primarily an economist. While economists see Sen as a world authority in social choice theory and welfare economics, which the Nobel committee acknowledged in its citation, Sen’s influence on international development agencies is seen as a natural extension of his role as the most influential development thinker of our time. His definition of development as expansion of human capabilities has firmly taken root in development thinking and been promoted globally by UNDP. What pervades all these contributions is an overarching normative frame in which a certain conceptualisation of justice forms the core.

Following on this normative project powerfully built up by Sen, further spin-offs produced by other scholars have continued to hover largely around normative issues and concerns. That a student of political philosophy has many positive-analytic rabbits to discover in Sen’s normative hat has so far been less noticed than should have been. Hamilton’s ‘guide’, in my view, has eminently filled this gap.

Sen himself is much concerned to get political thinkers and activists to focus on important questions of justice in the real world. He regularly meets political activists with a variety of ideological persuasions and listens to them with keen interest. Seen from this perspective, How to Read Amartya Sen is most likely to have a distinct place in the growing literature on Sen’s ideas, apart from it being an extraordinarily cogent and lucid introduction to the same. In what follows, it would be worthwhile to dwell a bit on Hamilton’s effort in understanding these political-philosophic implications of Sen’s ideas.

In the harsh Machiavellian world that we live in, politics appears far too murky to come close to the normative ideal of liberal democracy that Sen holds on to and articulates with great conviction and care. Hamilton argues that Sen’s view of democracy fits well into a version of ‘deliberative democracy’ in which particular emphasis is placed on the role of discussion and ‘public reasoning’, but it lacks realism. The centrality of the normative importance of public reasoning in Sen’s perspective can hardly be disputed, but its implications for the realpolitik are rather uncertain. Sen seems to believe that democracy is an important vehicle for advancing the cause of justice. He repeatedly emphasises that catastrophic events like famine have largely disappeared from independent India because of active media attention which is expected in a functioning democracy. This is significant, but one might complain that Sen’s lack of attention to the dynamics of democratic politics makes it less convincing, as he himself laments that the same media in the same democracy hardly pay attention to such chronic afflictions as poverty and undernutrition.

Most problems of injustice tend to be chronic rather than episodic, and rooted in conflicts of interest and ideology. Discussions and conversations are, more often than not, dominated by asymmetries of power. Even a disaster like the COVID-19 pandemic and the dramatic consequences of the lockdown on the livelihoods of a large number of poor and disadvantaged people have failed to generate substantial pressure on the Indian state to respond adequately to the human tragedy. Whether politicians would respond to them depends on calculations of political gains and losses, which in turn is shaped by the relative intensities of influences the members of their constituencies exert, and various other considerations. Everything comes down to strategies, tactics, and the ability to seize the opportunity opened up by the follies of political adversaries. What does ‘government by discussion’ mean in this context? Or in a context where the government is hell-bent on suppressing the dissenting voice with all its might?

Migrant workers hold a bedsheet to protect themselves from the sun in Ghaziabad as they begin to walk to their native places. Photo: PTI

A profound point

‘Lacking realism’ is a charge that Sen has often faced from political scientists. Ian Shapiro, for example, in his review of Sen’s The Idea of Justice, pointed this out and provided a powerful critique of Sen’s emphasis on reasoned discussion and deliberation as the core of his idea of democracy. Hamilton is sympathetic to Shapiro’s critique and suggests that more realist thinkers and commentators on democracy identify something that Sen positively disavows, i.e. the role of institutions in shaping people’s behaviour.

Sen is not an institutionalist. He clearly opposes the pre-conceived blue-print version of institutionalist thinking in which searching for the ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ institution is the core idea. Sen argues instead that identifying a perfect institution is neither necessary nor adequate to address various injustices in societies. He advocates a comparative perspective instead, which he believes would work better. It seems that Sen has thrown away the baby (i.e. that institution shapes human behaviour) with the bathwater (i.e. narrow political institutionalism). Hamilton makes a profound point here that “well-constructed institutions can often channel even self-interested behaviour in a way that aids or abets public interests”. Sen’s stress on the individual as an argumentative and deliberative person with an active agency comes perhaps from an optimism that rejects possibilities of intransigence. In his scheme of things, therefore, the role of institutions in the formation and regulation of behaviour turns out to be unimportant.

Watch | Amartya Sen on the Dangers of Populism and Nationalism

We live in what political theorist Chantal Mouffe characterises as a ‘populist moment’, in which politics has become impassioned and vengeful. The key characteristic of this populism, or all populism for that matter, as Mouffe argues, is the identification of a ‘people’ who are pitted against some kind of adversary. The common adversaries are immigrants, linguistic and other minorities, liberal media, socialist intellectuals, and so on – all of whom can be freely accused of harming ‘the people’.

Politics today largely centres on an almost hysteric devotion to leaders and an emotional sense of deprivation or injustice, and political events are shaped by the contingencies of each situation. The implications of these features of democratic politics today are largely unknown. Yet, we can hardly afford not to explore further the conditions under which democracies are likely to be justice-promoting. Hamilton deserves our gratitude for having evoked these thoughts of great political salience while taking us through the pathway firmly laid out by Amartya Sen.

Achin Chakraborty, professor of economics and director, Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata.