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Awards & Honors: 2011 National Humanities Medalist

Amartya Sen

When Amartya Sen recounts his intellectual biography, he likes to emphasize different strands of his thought rather than present a unified narrative. “It has been clear from my childhood that I have a lot of curiosity,” he explains, “and unfortunately, or fortunately, it has not been limited to one subject.” This momentary indecision, this uncertainty about considering his diverse interests as good or bad luck, represents the glory and the paradox of his career. Here is a Nobel laureate in economics receiving the United States’ top prize in the humanities. Does this latest honor represent a unique chapter in his life or just another aspect of a piercing mind let loose on the world?

Sen was born to an academic family in India. His early education and career were impressive; he was named professor and department head of economics at Jadavpur University in Calcutta when he was not even twenty-three, before he completed his doctorate. He is now the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and a professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University. He has written or edited more than thirty stand-alone volumes, challenging the foundations of every subject he engages. He is always concerned with making lives better, whether it is by advocating for the “100 million missing women” in the world or finding a more honest metric to measure equity and welfare. Yet, he admits, “I’ve taken very little risk in my life,” and speaks with awe about activists who have taken “enormous risks.”

Sen’s early work focused on economics, but the social sciences and the humanities are not discontinuous for him. “I don’t really find the division between the subjects contrary to human understanding,” he says, “but if someone were to say to me, you’re an economist and you can’t study philosophy, that would be contrary to how the human mind works.” In the past three decades, he has written on violence, peace, development, equality, and cultural identity—a true marriage of economics and the humanities.

Sen’s philosophical work is deeply inspired by his disagreement with the late Harvard professor, John Rawls, another National Humanities Medal winner, a central figure in late twentieth-century political philosophy, and a dear friend to whom Sen dedicated his latest book, The Idea of Justice. This critique, more than any other, can be said to unify Sen’s work on justice. He has argued that equality should not be measured the way economists want, by comparing a person or group’s satisfaction or pleasure. Nor should it be evaluated based on the primary goods Rawls recommends. Sen argued that equality should be measured by attending to a person’s capabilities, whether someone can read, lift water from a well, or function intellectually.

The “capabilities approach” has been tremendously influential, but Sen distances himself from it, claiming that capabilities can never reveal equity. Instead, he advocates comparing gradations of injustice, rejecting the search for a single ideal that began with Plato and his contemporaries. Despite this, Sen’s core emphasis on human rationality is both capability-based and anchored in his earlier social-choice theory.

Social-choice theory investigates how individuals make collective decisions while remaining true to their desires; it is traditionally a mathematical endeavor. But in Sen’s hands, it becomes much wider. Rationality, the term economists define as the ability to choose the best means to achieve a goal, becomes less quantitative and more focused on critical thinking, or, as he writes, on “subjecting one’s choices—of actions as well as of objectives, values and priorities—to reasoned scrutiny.” This, too, is representative of Sen’s connected understanding of the disciplines. “There is no tension between the mathematical nature of rationality and the one described. There is only a conflict with a very narrow view of the human mind.”

This “narrow view” is the claim that all human activity is motivated by self-interest; a position held by many economists and often falsely ascribed to Adam Smith, a philosopher whom Sen repeatedly returns to. Deemphasizing Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Sen particularly enjoys calling attention to Smith’s neglected book on ethics, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and building on its argument that adopting an impartial perspective can make people attend to voices the world over. “I didn’t study philosophy to do economics better,” he reveals. “I was doing it because I was interested in philosophical problems.” This desire is most revealing. Through Sen’s discrete interests, we see how connected human knowledge really is.

By Jack Russell Weinstein
Jack Russell Weinstein is a professor of philosophy at the University of North Dakota, the director of the Institute for Philosophy in Public Life, and host of public radio's Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life.