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Amartya Sen

Indian economist and philosopher
People's identities as Indians, as Asians, or as members of the human race seemed to give way — quite suddenly — to sectarian identification with Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh communities.

Amartya Kumar Sen (born 3 November 1933) is an Indian economist and the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for economics.



  • Since the conception of human rights transcends local legislation and the citizenship of the person affected, it is not surprising that support for human rights can also come from anyone—whether or not she is a citizen of the same country as the person whose rights are threatened. A foreigner does not need the permission of a repressive government to try to help a person whose liberties are being violated. Indeed, in so far as human rights are seen as rights that any person has as a human being and not as a citizen of any particular country, the reach of the corresponding duties can also include any human being, irrespective of citizenship.
    • Amartya Sen, "Human Rights and Asian Values" Sixteenth Annual Morgenthau Memorial Lecture on Ethics and Foreign Policy, May 25, 1997; Republished in: Tibor R. Machan (2013), Business Ethics in the Global Market. p. 69
Democracy has to be judged not just by the institutions that formally exist but by the extent to which different voices from diverse sections of the people can actually be heard. - The idea of Justice, 2009 p. xiii
  • People's identities as Indians, as Asians, or as members of the human race seemed to give way — quite suddenly — to sectarian identification with Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh communities.
    • Amartya Sen, Reason before Identitiy: The Romanes Lecture for 1998, Oxford University Press, 1999. p. 20

Foreword to The Passions and the Interests (1996)Edit

Amartya Sen, Foreword to The Passions and the Interests by Albert O. Hirschman (1996)

  • The Passions and the Interests does not have the policy urgency that a contribution to public decisions may enjoy (as Hirschman's The Strategy of Economic Development eminently does), nor the compulsive immediacy that the exigencies of practical reason generate (as Exit, Voice, and Loyalty superbly portrayed). What then is so special about this book? […] The answer lies not only in the recognition that Hirschman makes us see the ideological foundations of capitalism in a fresh way, but also in the remarkable fact that this freshness is derived from ideas that are more than two-hundred-years old. The basic hypothesis— the articulation and development of which Hirschman investigates—makes the case for capitalism rest on the belief that "it would activate some benign human proclivities at the expense of some malignant ones."
  • Even when altruism is allowed (as, for example, in Gary Becker's model of rational allocation), it is assumed that the altruistic actions are undertaken because they promote each person's own interests; there are personal gains to the altruist's own welfare, thanks to sympathy for others. No role is given to any sense of commitment about behaving well or to pursuing some selfless objective. All this leaves out, on the one hand, the evil passions that early theorists of capitalism contrasted with self-interest and, on the other, the social commitments that Kant analyzed in The Critique of Practical Reason and that Adam Smith discussed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
  • The behavioral foundations of capitalism do, of course, continue to engage attention, and the pursuit of self-interest still occupies a central position in theories about the workings and successes of capitalism. But in these recent theories, interests are given a rather different—and much more "positive"—role in promoting efficient allocation of resources through informational economy as well as the smooth working of incentives, rather than the negative role of blocking harmful passions.
  • I personally have great skepticism about the theories extolling the wonders of "Asian values." They are often based on badly researched generalizations and frequently uttered by governmental spokesmen countering accusations of authoritarianism and violations of human rights (as happened spectacularly at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993).


  • Globalization is not in itself a folly: It has enriched the world scientifically and culturally and benefited many people economically as well.
    • Amartya Sen, "Ten theses on globalization." New Perspectives Quarterly 18.4 (2001): 9-9.
  • John Kenneth Galbraith doesn't get enough praise. The Affluent Society is a great insight, and has become so much a part of our understanding of contemporary capitalism that we forget where it began. It's like reading Hamlet and deciding it's full of quotations.
  • I am not persuaded that Hayek got the substantive connections entirely right. He was too captivated by the enabling effects of the market system on human freedoms and tended to downplay - though he never fully ignored - the lack of freedom for some that may result from a complete reliance on the market system, with its exclusions and imperfections, and the social effects of big disparities in the ownership of assets. But it would be hard to deny Hayek's immense contribution to our understanding of the importance of judging institutions by the criterion of freedom.
    • "An insight into the purpose of prosperity", Financial Times (September 20, 2004)
  • Our debt to Hayek is very substantial. He helped to establish a freedom-based approach of evaluation through which economic systems can be judged (no matter what substantive judgments we arrive at). He pointed to the importance of identifying those services that the state can perform well and has a social duty to undertake. Finally, he showed why administrative psychology and propensities to corruptibility have to be considered in determining how states can, or cannot, work and how the world can, or cannot, be run.
    • "An insight into the purpose of prosperity", Financial Times (September 20, 2004)
  • Given what can be achieved through intelligent and humane intervention, it is amazing how inactive and smug most societies are about the prevalence of the unshared burden of disability.
    • quoted in Andrew Balls, "Donors urged to focus more on disability link", Financial Times (December 2, 2004)
  • People's priorities and actions are influenced by many different affiliations and associations, not just by their religion. For example, the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan was connected with loyalty to Bengali language and literature, along with political - including secular - priorities, not with religion, which both wings of undivided Pakistan shared. Muslim Bangladeshis - in Britain or anywhere else - may indeed be proud of their Islamic faith, but that does not obliterate their other affiliations and capacious dignity.
    Multiculturalism with an emphasis on freedom and reasoning has to be distinguished from "plural monoculturalism" with single-focus priorities and a rigid cementing of divisions. Multicultural education is certainly important, but it should not be about bundling children into preordained faith schools. Awareness of world civilisation and history is necessary. Religious madrasas may take little interest in the fact that when a modern mathematician invokes an "algorithm" to solve a difficult computational problem, she helps to commemorate the secular contributions of Al-Khwarizmi, the great ninth-century Muslim mathematician, from whose name the term algorithm is derived ("algebra" comes from his book, Al Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah). There is no reason at all why old Brits as well as new Brits should not celebrate those grand connections. The world is not a federation of religious ethnicities. Nor, one hopes, is Britain.
    • "Solution to cultural confusion is freedom and reason", Financial Times (November 29, 2005)
  • I agree with Mr Wolf that freedom is centrally important. But how should we see the demands of freedom when habit-forming behaviour today restricts the freedom of the same person in the future? Once acquired, the habit of smoking is hard to kick, and it can be asked, with some plausibility, whether youthful smokers have an unqualified right to place their future selves in such bondage.
    A similar issue was addressed by the leading apostle of liberty, John Stuart Mill, when he argued against a person’s freedom to sell himself or herself in slavery. […] Another question to ask is: who exactly are the “others” who are affected? Passive smokers are not the only people who might be harmed. If smokers are made ill by their decision to go on smoking, then the society can either take the view that these victims of self-choice have no claim to public resources (such as the National Health Service or social safety nets), or more leniently (and I believe more reasonably) it could accept that these people still qualify to get social help. If the former, we would live in a monstrously unforgiving society; and happily I do not see Britain or France going that way. If the latter, then the interests of “others” would surely be affected through the sharing of the costs of public services.
    • "Unrestrained smoking is a libertarian half-way house", Financial Times (February 11, 2007)
  • Libertarian logic for non-interference, when consistently exp­lored, can have extraordinarily stern implications in invalidating the right to assistance from the society when one is hit by self-harming behaviour. If that annulment is not accepted, then the case for libertarian “immunity” from interference is also correspondingly undermined.
    We should not readily agree to be held captive in a half-way house erected by an inadequate assessment of the demands of liberty.
    • "Unrestrained smoking is a libertarian half-way house", Financial Times (February 11, 2007)
  • If Walter Bagehot was right that “one of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea,” Ken caused an extraordinary amount of pain. Both in his economic thinking and in his political activities, he was dedicated to resisting, and where possible overturning, what he famously called “conventional wisdom” (one of his many turns of phrase that have since become commonplace locutions). Rejecting the standard economic theory based on small, anonymous households and firms that autonomously engage in perfectly functioning markets, Ken instead saw an economic stage dominated by large, nameable actors: big business, big labor, big government. Sorting out their roles and respective power was central to his analysis, and the continually shifting tensions in the interplay among them—“countervailing power” in another of his deft phrases—was the real story of how an economy behaved.
    • Stephen A. Marglin, Richard Parker, Amartya Sen, and Benjamin M. Friedman, “John Kenneth Galbraith”, Harvard Gazette (February 7, 2008)
  • Ken also identified the corporation, not “the market,” as the defining institution of modern economic activity, developing these and related themes both in his teaching and in such widely celebrated books as American Capitalism (1952) and The New Industrial State (1967). But his interest in these ideas persisted throughout his life. The central importance of the corporation, and the fear that government was no longer able to provide an adequate countervailing force against corporate influence exerted both legally and otherwise, was the subject of his last book, The Economics of Innocent Fraud (2004).
    • Stephen A. Marglin, Richard Parker, Amartya Sen, and Benjamin M. Friedman, “John Kenneth Galbraith”, Harvard Gazette (February 7, 2008)

The Idea of Justice, 2009Edit

Main article: The Idea of Justice
  • Democracy has to be judged not just by the institutions that formally exist but by the extent to which different voices from diverse sections of the people can actually be heard.
    • p. xiii


  • The global reach of Smith's moral and political reasoning is quite a distinctive feature of his thought, but it is strongly supplemented by his belief that all human beings are born with similar potential and, most importantly for policymaking, that the inequalities in the world reflect socially generated, rather than natural, disparities.
    There is a vision here that has a remarkably current ring. The continuing global relevance of Smith's ideas is quite astonishing, and it is a tribute to the power of his mind that this global vision is so forcefully presented by someone who, a quarter of a millennium ago, lived most of his life in considerable seclusion in a tiny coastal Scottish town. Smith's analyses and explorations are of critical importance for any society in the world in which issues of morals, politics and economics receive attention. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a global manifesto of profound significance to the interdependent world in which we live.
  • Ambedkar is my Father in Economics. He is true celebrated champion of the underprivileged. He deserves more than what he has achieved today. However he was highly controversial figure in his home country, though it was not the reality. His contribution in the field of economics is marvelous and will be remembered forever..!
    • Amartya Sen, "Dr. BR Ambedkar: As an Economist." International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Invention 2.3 (2013): 24-27.
  • That austerity is a counterproductive economic policy in a situation of economic recession can be seen, rightly, as a “Keynesian critique.” Keynes did argue—and persuasively—that to cut public expenditure when an economy has unused productive capacity as well as unemployment owing to a deficiency of effective demand would tend to have the effect of slowing down the economy further and increasing—rather than decreasing—unemployment. Keynes certainly deserves much credit for making that rather basic point clear even to policymakers, irrespective of their politics, and he also provided what I would call a sketch of a theory of explaining how all this can be nicely captured within a general understanding of economic interdependences between different activities... I am certainly supportive of this Keynesian argument, and also of Paul Krugman’s efforts in cogently developing and propagating this important perspective, and in questioning the policy of massive austerity in Europe.
    But I would also argue that the unsuitability of the policy of austerity is only partly due to Keynesian reasons. Where we have to go well beyond Keynes is in asking what public expenditure is for—other than for just strengthening effective demand, no matter what its content. As it happens, European resistance to savage cuts in public services and to indiscriminate austerity is not based only, or primarily, on Keynesian reasoning. The resistance is based also on a constructive point about the importance of public services—a perspective that is of great economic as well as political interest in Europe.
    • Amartya Sen, "What Happened to Europe?", New Republic (August 2, 2012)
  • Central to the Smithian approach is our willingness to see critically what we observe around us. The sense of comfort that is often associated with being content with the world as it is can seriously hamper the pursuit of justice. This understanding goes strongly against a line of thought that was powerfully presented by Friedrich Nietzshe. ‘The Christian resolve to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad’, said Nietzshe. I think I can, with some effort, understand what Nietzsche meant, but it is hard for me, even with a lot of effort, to see that Nietzshe’s hypothesis helps us to understand the causation or resilience of the nastiness of the world in which we live. Nor, I must insist (this I do as a thoroughly unreligious person), does it offer any obvious insight into the lives and achievements of Martin Luther King, or Mother Theresa, or Desmond Tutu, who have tried to reduce injustice in the world and have done so with non-negligible success.
    • “Values and justice”, Journal of Economic Methodology, Vol. 19, No. 2, June 2012, 101–108
  • Smith distinguishes with great sophistication the different kinds of reasons people have in taking an interest in the lives of others, separating out sympathy, generosity, public spirit and other motivations. Even though he acknowledged the role of mental attitudes and predispositions, he went on to discuss how reasoning, which is at the heart of rationality, must have a big role in preventing us from being – consciously or unconsciously – too self-centred, or thoughtlessly uncaring.
    • “Values and justice”, Journal of Economic Methodology, Vol. 19, No. 2, June 2012, 101–108
  • Smith had no illusion that this would be easy to do, nor did he suffer from the delusion that such an exercise would, in any sense, be perfect. But he did have the conviction that the exercise could still be very useful, and the best should not be made into an enemy of the good.
    • “Values and justice”, Journal of Economic Methodology, Vol. 19, No. 2, June 2012, 101–108

Quotes on Amartya SenEdit

  • For Sen is an example of the Indian who becomes famous in the Great World and who wants to make sure that he can never be accused of what in India is called “communalism,” but which really means all those Hindus who are aware of their being Hindus, and aware too of what Islam did to India’s civilization of Hinduism, a way of life and thought rather than a religion as we understand it in the West.
    • Hugh Fitzgerald: First thoughts on the debate, “We Should Not Be Reluctant to Assert the Superiority of Western Values” [1]
  • Amartya Sen converted Nalanda into a club that promotes a certain variant of a modern political agenda in the service of a political party.

External linksEdit