The Way to Reason

The history of economics is rich in economists of the first rank who were equally influential as philosophers, sociologists, and political thinkers: Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and Friedrich von Hayek are just four from very different times and of very different political allegiances. Amartya Sen is another. His contributions to the purest and most abstract realms of economic theory make him “an economist’s economist”—and were one reason for his Nobel Prize in economics in 1998. But he is universally known for his work on famines, economic development, the condition of women, and the problems of poverty, work that has earned him the admiration of everyone who works in the field of development. This was another element in his Nobel citation.

Rationality and Freedom focuses on abstract issues in economic theory, but the real world obtrudes enough to remind us what motivates this work. Three or four fascinating pages discuss the surprising fact that the Indian state of Kerala “has by a large margin the longest life expectancy at birth (67.5 years for men and 73 years for women, compared with around 56 years for both men and women in India as a whole),” while more of its inhabitants complain of illness and general ill-health than anywhere else. In contrast, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have very low life expectancy and “astonishingly low rates of self-assessed morbidity.” As health care improves and people become aware of the contrast between the possibility of good health and the actuality of minor illness, they notice what they would have ignored if there had been no progress. The implication is that objective measures of well-being—longer life expectancy—may not match subjective measures—feeling well. It is an understatement to say that this complicates the evaluation of standards of living across time and in different societies.

  Rationality and Freedom consists of twenty-two chapters, most of them essays and lectures published in economics journals during the two decades before Professor Sen’s Nobel Prize. They are on two themes central both to economics and to political theory and moral philosophy. The first is the nature of individual rationality. “Rationality,” says Sen, “is interpreted here, broadly, as the discipline of subjecting one’s choices—of actions as well as of objectives, values and priorities—to reasoned scrutiny.” This is fighting talk from an economist; economics has for many years adopted very narrow conceptions of rationality, concentrating either on the capacity to choose efficient means to what are presumed to be selfish ends, or even more minimally on consistency in choice. What ends we pursue and how we have come to adopt them are widely thought not to be any of the economist’s business.

Sen insists “that it is important to reclaim for humanity the ground that has been taken from it by various arbitrarily narrow formulations of the demands of rationality.” This is not merely because, as we shall see, some transparently crazy behavior is rational by the standards of these …

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