Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen; drawing by David Levine

Amartya Sen is best known to the general reader for his powerful essays on famine. He is an optimist about some of our gravest economic problems, such as mass starvation in a world that at present can easily produce more food than everyone can eat. Reason and voluntary participation are his watchwords. He shows that some of the nostrums about which we have become complacent or cynical can actually work. Thus with a fallible democracy and a fairly free press, India has not had a famine since independence; during the same period China had one of the worst famines on earth. In Zimbabwe there was food while the Sahel region starved.

Sen has long used the poor southern Indian state of Kerala to illustrate how high levels of education, especially for women, can short-circuit poverty. Kerala has more dramatically reduced its fertility rate than has China with its one-child policy. Fertility fell from 3.0 to 1.8, against 2.8 to 2.0, between 1979 and 1991—and without much altering the rates of male to female live births or surviving children. And whereas men outlive women in most of South Asia, in Kerala the life expectancy of women is seventy-four, compared to seventy-one for men. Such facts illustrate how basic human aspirations can be measured in gross but telling ways. The Costa Rican GNP per head is one-twelfth that of the US, but Costa Ricans live just as long as Americans. Because they have effective policies for basic education, communal health services, and medical care, they live far longer, on average, than the citizens of Brazil, Gabon, or South Africa, which have a much larger GNP per person.

Such views of Sen’s are well known from his occasional essays. His colleagues acknowledge that there is no more eminent student of welfare or development economics. He has recently finished a term as president of the American Economic Association, and he has presided over many other institutions, national and international. He teaches economics and philosophy at Harvard and earlier had a distinguished career in England. He has steadfastly insisted that economists check their theories against reality; that their abstractions about preference, choice, and values seldom describe what individuals, communities, or corporations actually want or do.

When Sen was growing up in India, he suffered a severe case of palate cancer (more common among Indian populations than others). Doctors in Calcutta treated him with radiation at levels that would now be regarded as lethal, necessary though they may have seemed at the time. Sen possibly owes his life to what we now hold to be overdoses. We can imagine how that has left him with a certain caution about absolute certainty, a skepticism about current wisdom, and, perhaps, an inveterate optimism about problems that others believe to be intractable.

He is a true rationalist, philosophically at home among the European thinkers of the eighteenth century, such as Condorcet, who called themselves moral scientists. Yet in the key ideas of his book—freedom to choose one’s goals, and “shortfall” from human potential—you can also see him as someone who grew up in India. Western theorists write as if what people want is no affair of the economist; individuals should make their own decisions according to their own sets of values. Sen sees that if you are affected by poverty, custom, or tyranny to the extent that you cannot even think about what you might value, you are already constrained in ways that an economist ought to address. And Sen gives a twist to the common economic project of designing systems in which individuals can do equally well; his idea of fairness is to equalize (and minimize) the extent to which human beings fall short of their potential achievements.

Inequality Reexamined is splendidly concise. If you skip the references, it is only 150 pages long, the distillation of a number of endowed lectures given around the world. It alludes to an enormous number of works by other economists, and explicitly cites some seven books and fifty articles of his own. Some readers find that the result is too compressed for comfort, but I think not. Sen’s aim is to present a small number of abstract theses that are as important to him as his more down-to-earth reflections. While he has devoted part of his career to applied economics, here we have a profoundly theoretical essay, more philosophy than economics. Sen’s model in this case is John Rawls, whose A Theory of Justice is the masterpiece of twentieth-century liberal moral theory. It considers, in general, what ought to be, and what is best; only in asides does it address how to achieve the ends it suggests.

The temper of the times seems to be leading us further and further away from many of Sen’s moral positions. Where Sen is generous, successful politicians urge their communities to be ruthless. Since Sen is also an applied economist, you might expect him to propose practical strategies to combat such ungenerous economic policies, even if those strategies have little hope of being effective at present. He does not do so. His book is a philosophical analysis, indeed, a moral tract.


An early choice of title for this essay was Equality and Freedom. Those two ideas, or ideals, are central to much modern moral, political, and social theorizing, but they are more closely linked in Sen’s work than is usually the case. His notion of freedom involves not only positive liberties but also two more freedoms that he takes from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inaugural address of January 6, 1941, freedom from want and freedom from fear. And those two freedoms only point the way to others. No matter how many rights you have, Sen argues, you aren’t free to function in ways that bring about full self-respect if you are (for example), like a sizeable part of the world’s population, being devoured by parasites such as tapeworm or bilharzia. Women in many poor regions of the earth have shorter life-spans than men; but when care, food, and education are more equally distributed, women have, as it happens, a tendency to live longer than men. Thus women in many lands fall short of their potential in the most banal way of all—by not living as many years as they might if they lived under decent conditions.

Sen’s book is about liberty and equality, but a third, almost silent, partner is essential to his analyses, for the book is also driven by a concern for fraternity. College fraternities may have made “fraternity” a suspect word in the US, but we should keep in mind the two other senses in French diction-aries today: the bond of solidarity and support that unites human beings, and a profound subjective sense of that bond. No matter how Sen’s arguments sway your reason, I doubt that they will satisfy you entirely unless you feel (and not just share intellectually) his sense of fraternity.

His essay comes in two parts. The first tries to define the underlying form of moral reasoning about equality, and his views on this question could, as I shall try to show, serve as a workable starting-point for any type of political economy, from libertarian to communist. Then come Sen’s own favored principles. These are in many ways patterned after Rawls’s theory of justice, but they also differ. The fundamental equality in social arrangements that Rawls deduces from his premises is an equal distribution of primary goods, which include, among other things, incomes, wealth, opportunities, and the social bases of self-respect. Rawls modifies this equality in only two important ways. He allows an unequal distribution when it benefits everyone—perhaps we have to reward doctors with more income and status in order to get people to slave through medical school. And his famous “difference principle” gives special attention to the neediest. The moralist in Sen makes him urge that equal distribution of primary goods does not go to the core of human needs and aspirations. We should be equally placed to fulfill our potentials as nearly as possible, and we should be equally free to choose the goals for which we might strive. Those who like name tags will hear Aristotle in the talk of potential, and Kant in the talk of choosing the kind of person we want to be.

Before we examine Sen’s argument, four opening observations about equality are worth close attention. First, despite the stirring words at the start of the Declaration of Independence, it makes no sense to say that two persons, or all men, are equal, period, or are created equal, period. Sen’s central question is always “equality of what?” This is a point of logic, not of economics or ethics. Things are equal only in some respect or other (2+3 equals 5, yes, but only because we have an implicit criterion of identity for numbers). More than a few English words resemble “equal” in this respect. The word “resemble,” for example. Nothing is just two, it must be two of some kind. How many are on the stage in Bartok’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle? We must ask, how many what? Two singers, five people, one opera. In political economy we must ask, equality of what? Income? Rights? Opportunity?

In these reactionary times, equality has become, for different reasons, unpopular among both the strong and the weak. Sen observes that when you examine positions that question equality you will find that they oppose one measure or another that mitigates inequality—welfare, minimum support for the homeless, or better education for the poor. But it makes literal sense, in English, to oppose equality only if you oppose equality in some particular respect or other. This is not some deep fact of political science, but a bald point of logic. It leads to a substantive thesis, which Sen states in two ways. First, as a matter of history, virtually all theories that are about how rightly to order a society are, he writes, “egalitarian in some significant way.” All the theories we know of argue “resolutely for equality of something which everyone should have, and which is crucial to their own particular approach.” Libertarians want equality of rights, welfarists want equal welfare, free marketers want equal access to the market. It is a little mischievous of Sen to say that libertarians are “egalitarian”—a word commonly used to describe programs or attitudes that advocate aspirations, in the socialist tradition, for the political, social, and economic equality of all human beings. The intention of his mischief is to wake us up. Those who see political confrontation as between those who favor and those who oppose equality are bound “to miss something central to the subject.”


Quite aside from history, Sen asserts that any economic or political theory that can be plausibly defended today must resort to proposals for equality of something or other. For a dramatic example, take Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve. One of its tirades against egalitarianism begins on page 532, but by 534 the authors write that “equality of rights is crucial while equality of outcome is not.” This is simply another instance that supports Sen’s view that any plausible political theory, even including that which motivates The Bell Curve, concerns not equality in general, but equality of something.

If Sen is right about the history and the need for some type of equality in order for a theory to seem plausible at all, then, there has been an extraordinary change in Western thought since the first use of the motto “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” The explicit demand for equality, in any respect, was long rejected in dynastic and other hierarchical societies and it is by no means a human universal. At least Sen holds that even the most inegalitarian among us take equality as a fundamental claim because of our “need to have equal concern, at some level, for all the persons involved” in the community, or the world. I disagree with Sen, for I doubt that many people have equal concern, at any significant level, for everyone. When Sen writes in this way, we hear the voice of fraternity. He never asks, not even once, “equality for whom?” That’s solidarity with the rest of humanity for you. In the past “for whom?” was always in question, no matter how the question “equality of what?” was answered. John Stuart Mill was confronted by many who accepted some doctrine of equal political rights for men but who took it for granted that women had no such equal rights. His own “equality of political rights” was “for” (roughly speaking) all Britons of minimum education, and it was accompanied by the proposition that all had a right to such education. The history of slavery provides an even more painful example in which it is important to speak of “equality (of what) for whom?”

I do not think that the case for equality derives its justification from a consensus about equal concern for others. The fact that people want equality in some respect—even those who would curtail even a minimal system of welfare or health care—is, I think, grounded not in concern for all, but in pure reason. This way of thinking may have emerged only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. If a proposed system of social arrangements treats people differently in a certain respect, it must give reasons for doing so. Every difference, every case of privileged or inferior status, demands a reason—or so taught the logicians of the Age of Reason. Of course one person may give a reason for a difference, such as wealth or race, that another finds odious or irrelevant. I am concerned only with Sen’s question of why all plausible (even if repugnant) social theories invoke equality of something as a starting point before they try to show why inequality may be justified. If you go back to first principles, it seems, you must go back to equality of something. Otherwise you would have a difference without a reason. Sen would say that I am treating the demand for some sort of equality as a methodological rather than substantive demand. For once I am more of a rationalist than he, for I see equality as a logical demand, an instance of what Leibniz called the need for a sufficient reason.

These abstract thoughts come down to earth with a thump in Sen’s third observation that people differ in innumerable ways. The question “equality of what?” matters, he says, because of “the actual diversity of human beings, so that demanding equality in terms of one variable tends to clash—in fact and not just in theory—with wanting equality in terms of another.”

Diversity is Sen’s watchword, the concept that turns a logical exercise into economic practice and theory. In the course of their polemic mentioned earlier, Herrnstein and Murray write: “The egalitarian ideal of contemporary political theory underestimates the importance of the differences that separate human beings.” That is not true of Sen, who has dedicated his entire career as a theorist to introducing the realities of human diversity into the basic structure of economics. This is because of his fourth observation. If we were “all the same” we could not only have equal rights but we could achieve equal physical prowess or educational status, and would have comparable health needs, and endlessly on. But human beings are so varied in so many ways that economics must start from its recognition of difference and find ways to assure that the needs of very different people will be taken account of in any proposed economic system.

Sen’s four observations seem plain enough. To repeat: (1) Equality is in respect of something or other. (2) Any plausible economic theory must invoke equality at some level—as a point of logic, as I claim, or as a point of brute historical fact, as Sen suggests. (3) People are diverse in both their circumstances and their aspirations. (4) There are incompatible respects in which people can be equal or unequal. When these four points are planted squarely before the question “equality of what?” they compel us to think about the very purpose of an economic system. Most philosophically minded liberal economists self-consciously refuse to pass judgment on the particular values upon which individuals settle. To do so would be to infringe upon personal responsibility. Each person must remain the private judge of what is personally valuable in his or her own life. Theorists who would equalize income or resources profess to be neutral about how those goods are to be used. Libertarians with strong demands for particular rights hold that how you exercise those rights is nobody’s business if you don’t infringe on the entitlements of others to the same rights. All these strands in the liberal heritage seek neutrality among the conflicting desires of diverse people.

Sen himself does not go so far as to decree what others should value. He does, however, insist that men and women should be truly free in their choices of what to value, of what to do with their rights and liberties. Many, he argues, are so ground down by disease, or the customs of race, gender, disability, or all three, that they cannot see their own horizons. Hence they are not free to choose their aims. Sen is closer than one might expect to critics of the liberal tradition who insist that we are not individual atoms, each of us discovering his or her own values. We grow up in a world of values, some determined by material circumstances (the serf’s aspirations differ from those of the landowner) and social practice (American women feel very differently about the chador than traditional Iranian women). Even if a theory refuses (as Sen’s does) to commend a particular vision of the good to everyone, it must still acknowledge that most people have values and goals that they did not freely choose at all.

Sen names his own approach a theory of “capability.” The title of his book now comes into its own, for the problem of inequality, rather than equality, takes over. As a welfare economist Sen favors social arrangements that diminish disparities of freedom to choose and achieve. A good world is not just one in which individuals are satisfied with their lot, but one in which they are free to choose among possible aspirations, so that what they strive for is not determined by fate’s lottery but by their own free choice.

Sen draws powerful consequences from this high ideal. He does not strictly give one answer to the question, “equality of what?” He points to two aspects of inequality. The first has to do with attainments. How do we fairly compare the attainments of a gifted person with those of a handicapped one? Positively, according to their respective levels of achievement, or negatively, according to the extent each falls short of what each could, ideally, have achieved? Sen takes both comparisons to be important, but unlike most other moralists he favors arrangements that tend to equalize differences in shortfall.

Switching the variable that you emphasize, in this case inverting the focus from positive attainment to negative shortfall, is virtually an occupational tic of economists. Shortfalls have been used as a basis for evaluating abstract systems in welfare economics for some seventy years. Sen transfers the idea to the human plane. Women in Kerala have, as a group, far less shortfall in life expectancy than women in other parts of India. Of course Sen does not want to equalize longevity shortfall by improving the expectation of Indian women at the expense of their sisters in Kerala. But he does urge, as one general principle, that out of fairness, while maximizing attainments, we should choose systems that minimize differences in shortfalls.

Sen does not tell us nearly enough about how to compare shortfalls. An economic parodist should delight in sentences beginning, “If the maximal achievement that person 1 can have—under the most favorable circumstances—is, say, x, while person 2 can maximally manage 2x….” What is x!, we scream in frustration. Is x a measure of achievement of a starlet in Hollywood or Bombay? Is the shortfall of the second violinist greater than that of the orchestra percussionist? In reply, we have to grant Sen two points. First, he is saying to his fellow economists, however you measure attainment, I aim at, among other goals, equalizing shortfalls along that measure. Second, Sen, as a working welfare economist concerned with extremely poor populations, is most often interested in only the coarsest types of measure—longevity, food, self-respect, satisfaction of self-chosen goals. Thus as moral theorist he would equalize shortfall, as measured by any chosen moral theory, and as practical economist, he knows full well which shortfalls matter to most human beings, now.

Sen says over and over again that there is no one dimension along which we should be egalitarian. Equality of shortfall is one that has simply been too much neglected. He tempers it in several ways. Those whose maximum possible attainments are low, because of some inherent disability, should be brought closer, in every way, to their potential, than is the case with the more fortunate. Secondly, he acknowledges that considerations of efficiency of the entire system may warrant violating his demand for equality. That is, the system may work better, for all citizens, if the more gifted are allowed to get closer to their full potential. But in Sen’s view, that would be the chief justification for rewarding the gifted with more attainment. Needless to say, the gifted, who are often powerful, may not care for this idea, but Sen never balks at commending self-sacrifice for the well endowed. For him, distributive justice involves distributing more than goods and resources equally. In a truly diverse world, filled with individuals with so many types of possible attainments, he wants “attainment shortfall” to be distributed as evenly as possible.

Sen’s second aspect of inequality has to do with the lack of freedom to make significant choices. For Sen thinks of shortfalls not as measured in actual hopes but by the real capacities people have. A young woman may be able to see herself only as the future wife of a serf, bearing children until she is too ill to do so, engaged in ceaseless toil, and dying younger than her husband. Some might say she has no shortfall in her attainments because she achieves all that she in fact hopes for, namely a reasonably decent husband, enough to eat, and the survival of most of her children. For Sen, this view of her attainment shortfall would be wrong. It must on the contrary be conceived according to what she really is capable of, not what custom has led her to expect.

Sen here comes close to contradicting the liberal faith I mentioned earlier, that political economy should be neutral about the values people choose. He would not be neutral about the religious and ethnic fundamentalists of every creed who maintain that it is better for most people, including themselves, to be protected, in virtually any way, from rival sets of goals and aspirations, and to be socially prevented from freely making choices in favor of what they believe are the wrong goals. Sen’s principles apparently do not allow him to be neutral about the values of such fundamentalists. He opposes them. One could observe here that he often refers to what he calls “basic capabilities,” such as health or longevity. One might think that such references are neutral and uncontroversial on his part since even a fanatical believer in an exclusive faith favors health and longevity for all his people. But in the real world of diverse human beings, that is false. Recall, for example, the factual analysis for which Sen is well known. If you don’t provide for the education of women, they will have several years of shortfall in age compared with women in a neighboring community who do have education.

Sen modifies his measures of shortfall for various types of inherent disadvantage. Some people who are physically disabled are often capable of less than the able-bodied, so their attainment shortfalls may be less than others. Hence if we were simply trying to equalize attainment shortfall among all citizens, we needn’t do anything for them. But if their attainment goals are lower (as measured by those of the able-bodied), the general measure of shortfall should be adjusted in their favor. This may sound as if they should somehow be compensated by society for their relative disadvantage, a position which some activists on behalf of the disabled detest. The point, with which Sen would not quarrel, is that the world should be altered so as to increase potentials—a practice in which in many ways the US has offered remarkable leadership, providing free electronic readers for the blind, or simply public toilets the handicapped can get into. (It is no surprise that some of the current conservative leadership would like to limit further funding for measures like these.)

Sen’s argument leaves me unclear about what to do about elderly people who have fallen short of their potential attainment. How do we weigh respect for those who were prudent when they were young against concern for those who were not? This is probably a side issue for Sen, because he is concerned with the attainments of an entire life, not with prudence or imprudence at one stage of life or another. Other side issues concern questions made pressing by the difference in potential, in America, for those who came of age in 1946 and those who come of age now. The more central question for Sen concerns the possible attainments of the young and physically fit who have their lives before them. Here again perplexing questions arise. In those post-industrial parts of the world where certain types of verbal and calculating skills are increasingly well rewarded, the attainment shortfall of most people who can acquire those skills will far exceed those whose gifts do not lie in those directions. Just because they have skills with much potential for high income and creative work, they will, most of them, fall short of this potential.

Sen’s basic principles demand keeping attainment shortfalls as close to equal as possible, while giving extra consideration to the lesser shortfalls of the less capable. Hence in principle he favors changing our present system of rewards; he might in practice have to settle for making extra payments to those who are less able to do the current run of jobs, which increasingly demand computational or verbal skills. He gives no hint of how, in practice, he expects our present elites to agree to make such sacrifices, giving up their own advantages.

Skeptics will find that one of the complexities of life is little discussed in Sen’s book. Some people try harder than others who, in much the same circumstances, have the same goals. This is as true of courtship as of football, of growing sorghum as of managing a money-market portfolio. It is foolish to insist that in every case the flagging suitor is less in love than the one who persists, and that this shows he has different values. He may try less hard to win the love of the person whom he cherishes not because he loves her less, but simply because he tries less hard.

This fact of life, it seems to me, casts a disturbing shadow on Sen’s concepts of capability and shortfall attainment. A similar criticism has often been addressed to Rawls, who argued that the people who exert themselves do so because they are able (or think they are able) to benefit from taking the initiative or working harder with more concentration—why else would they do it? If they do benefit, they are the lucky ones, and should not be additionally rewarded for this good fortune. That is not an essential feature of his theory. But since trying and achieving are so intimately connected, a theory that has attainment shortfall at its core seems to me more directly in the line of fire of those who have disagreed with Rawls about reward for effort. It would be interesting to know what Sen might reply.

It is a grand vision, Sen’s world in which people are equally free to choose, and will be fairly equal in the extent to which they succeed, or fail, in the projects that they do choose to pursue. As I said, Sen’s short book is a philosophical theory of justice, not a practical primer for working out policies that create a free, equal, and fraternal world. To even begin to realize such a vision, we have to start invoking some of the principles of welfare economics that have evolved over the years. Sen thinks that he can draw for this purpose on much traditional applied economics. The mathematical methods used to model equality of welfare achievement or possession of primary goods can also represent equality of shortfalls. To see whether that is true, we would have to turn to Sen’s more technical work. But note where we have arrived. Sen started with a logical argument that what is at issue among all serious thinkers today is not equality, but equality “of what”? In proposing an equality of shortfalls, Sen has given a new answer to that question. We can expect that he will apply, in a rigorous and formal way, a great deal of more familiar economic theory to show how his vision might be workable.

Is it not a utopian vision, one beyond any previous utopia? Not exactly, for Sen is an optimist and a realist at the same time. He is realistic because he thinks that there are certain manifest inequalities in shortfall attainment, upon which no one disagrees, even if they won’t face up to the causes of those shortfalls—ill health, for example. The most pressing problems today lie in those inequalities, and the problems are so stark that no theoretical fine points should divide people of good will in agreeing that something can be done to reduce them. Sen is optimistic for the reasons that I mentioned at the beginning of this review and that are stated, but perhaps understated, in his book. His work on regions such as India and Southeast Asia suggests that even in situations of severe inequality of attainment shortfalls—shortfalls as cruel and simple as starvation or early death—cooperation and reason, aided by a semblance of democracy and unfettered information, have in some places worked wonders. They can go on doing so.

This Issue

September 19, 1996