//Ethics and the economist

Ethics and the economist

A COUPLE of columns ago, I wrote about Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. The time has come to pay tribute to its author.

Amartya Sen is one of the foremost public intellectuals of our time. "I've always liked arguing with people," he once told me. Appropriately enough, he was born (in 1933) on a University campus, that of Rabindranath Tagore's Vishwa-Bharati, in the West Bengal village of Santiniketan. It was Tagore who prophetically chose the name Amartya ("immortal") for the only other Bengali who has so far emulated his Nobel Prize. Sen won it (in 1998) in economics, though, as his writings demonstrate, he could just as convincingly be described as a sociologist, a historian, a Sanskritist, a political analyst or a moral philosopher.

Lifelong interests

Identity and violence are lifelong interests. At the age of 11, Amartya saw a bleeding Muslim labourer, Kader Mia, stumble into his Hindu family's home after being knifed in a communal riot; the man had only ventured into the "wrong" neighbourhood because he needed work to feed his family. Kader Mia was rushed to hospital by Amartya's father, but died. Economics, politics and morality intersected in that tragic episode, indelibly marking Amartya Sen's growing mind.

Initially, like virtually every Calcutta collegian, Sen's politics was leftist, but it was leavened by an abiding faith in freedom and an early interest in philosophy. His pioneering work as a "technical economist" in welfare economics and social choice theory (how the wishes of a society can be aggregated from the diverse views of its members) was cited by the Nobel Committee. But he has become better known to a wider audience for his work on famines (in particular the proposition that there has never been a famine in a functioning democracy) and on "development as freedom", which argues compellingly that it is more important to be free than to be rich, and that different kinds of freedom — political, economic and social — enrich and reinforce each other.

Concern for the marginalised

Sen's concern for the impoverished, undernourished and marginalised, especially women, comes through strongly in his writing. His Nobel Prize money has largely gone to two trusts he founded, one each in India and Bangladesh, focusing particularly on education and healthcare for the poor. The Nobel citation also lauded his restoration of "an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems". Though he says he is not interested in the philosophy of economics, a profound moral sense is never absent from his prose.

Nor is his pride in our country's rationalist, scientific, mathematical and secular heritage. The son of a professor of soil chemistry, he vividly recalls going to the lab with his father, "testing hypotheses, seeing whether experiments worked out or not". That "scientific spirit of enquiry", he says, has its roots in ancient India. His previous book, The Argumentative Indian, cites 3500-year-old verses from the Vedas that speculate sceptically about creation, and details India's contributions to the world of science, rationality and plural discourse, fields treated by Orientalists as "Western spheres of success".