Amartya Sen


Posted on: Thu, 2014-05-08 20:46   By: glue

Well-being is the primary concern of the metaphysics emerging within the apparatus of electracy, to complement the concerns of the previous apparati (Orality = Religion, Right; Literacy = Science, Truth).  Our project to invent an electrate Justiice functions within this concern.  EmerAgency consulting as the means for this invention introduces Arts & Letters research on well-being into the public sphere in the context of democratic policy formation.  In an EmerAgency konsult (whose form is Appiphany, as distinct from Scenario associated with scientific consulting), our point of departure specifies well-being in the terms formulated by Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics. A first step is to outline briefly Sen's thought-provoking vision, followed (in subsequent posts and topics) by a review of this vision in the context of contemporary art and philosophy.

The question for Sen concerns how a free democratic society measures the in/justice of its policies, relative to the well-being of individuals and communities affected.  He admits that public reason (deliberative or practical reason) has its limits, but he insists that it is imperative to apply reason to problems to the extent possible.  Referring to both the Enlightenment tradition in philosophy, and a tradition of jurisprudence in his native India, Sen identifies two overall approaches to social justice (each identified by the Indian terms):  niti -- organizational or institutional propriety and ideals; nyaya -- the actual lives that people are able to lead.  The philosophical division is between contractual approaches (Hobbes, Rousseau) or comparative approaches (Bentham, Marx).

What recommends Sen's vision for us is his focus on capability or capacity.  Well-being, quality of life, is relative to an ability (power) to reason and choose, with freedom to decide according to one's values and preferences, the kind of life (life-style) one lives.  Every term in this summary statement is problematic in a positive sense, meaning that this vision helps organize our consultation. Sen rejects the Kantian deontological ethics that judges according to principle, regardless of outcomes. Sen clarifies that his approach differs also from utilitarian wellfare economics, or approaches that center on resources, happiness, or fairness.  He claims that examination of the actual lives people live suggests that the best measure of thriving is neither principles nor outcomes, not accomplishment or achievements, but conditions in which citizens have both the capability and the opportunity to act upon their preferences. One of his most telling points, made while observing the lack of correlation between the wealth of a society and its measurable happiness, is that there is precisely a capacity for happiness.  An implication is that it might be useful to revise the United States Declaration of Independence to identify the inalienable right not as the "pursuit of" but "capacity for" happiness.  Sen's argument raises the possibility that a society or culture may be set up in a way that renders citizens incapable of satisfaction.

There are four terms structuring Sen's measure, constituting a dynamic tension:  agency and freedom on one side; well-being and achievement on the other.  As you might expect, Sen in his books qualifies and justifies his position fully, at least relative to the academic discourse within which he is working.  Sen acknowledges that Martha Nussbaum noted the relevance of Aristotle's ethics to the capability approach, and this context is indeed the one that we will explore, by adding another pair of terms to Sen's dichotomy:  potentiality/actuality.  This context references the entire tradition of Western philosophy, from Aristotle to Deleuze, a tradition that has undergone a fundamental change in modernity: not only a change of epoch, but a change of apparatus.

See Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice, Harvard University Press, 2009