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Amartya Sen on Ethics and Economics

Amartya Sen on Ethics and Economics

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Published by: graciadiego on Jan 23, 2012
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  • Achievements and Weakness
  • Economic Behaviour and Rationality
  • Rationality as Consistency
  • Self-interest and Rational Behaviour
  • Adam Smith and Self-interest
  • Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility
  • Pareto Optimality and Economic Efficiency
  • Utility, Pareto Optimality and Welfarism
  • Well-being and Agency
  • Valuing and Value
  • Interdependence
  • Utility and Well-being
  • Achievements, Freedom and Rights
  • Self-interest and Welfare Economies
  • Rights and Freedom
  • Well-being, Agency and Freedom
  • Plurality and Evaluation
  • Incompleteness and Overcompleteness
  • Conflicts and Impasse
  • Rights and Consequences
  • Consequential Assessment and Deontology
  • Ethics and Economics
  • Welfare, Goals and Choices 4
  • Conduct, Ethics and Economics
  • References
  • Author Index
  • Subject Index

To recognize the distinction between the 'agency aspect'
and the 'well-being aspect' of a person does not require us
to take the view that the person's success as an agent must
be independent, or completely separable from, his success
in terms of well-being. A person may well feel happier and

better off as a result of achieving what he wanted to

achieve - perhaps for his family, or his community, or his

class, or his party, or some other cause. Also it is quite

possible that a person's well-being will go down as a result

of frustration if there is some failure to achieve what he

wanted to achieve as an agent, even though those

achievements are not directly concerned with his well
being. There is really no sound basis for demanding that
the agency aspect and the well-being aspect of a person

should he independent of each other, and it is, I suppose,
even possible that every change in one will affect the other

as well. However, the point at issue is not the plausibility of

their independence, but the sustainability and relevance of
the distinction. The fact that two variables may be so
related that one cannot change without the other, does not
imply that they are the same variable, or that they will have

the same values, or even that the value of one can be

obtained from the other on the basis of some simp'e


The importance of an agency achievement does not rest

entirely on the enhancement of well-being that it may

indirectly cause. For example, if one fights hard for the

the book version of my Dewey Lectures (and other essays), Well-

being, Agency and Freedom to be published by Blackwell and

Columbia University Press.

Copyrighted material

44 Economic Judgements and Mora/ Philosophy

independence of one's country, and when that indepen-
dence is achieved, one happens also to feel happier, the
main achievement is that of independence, of which the

happiness at that achievement is only one consequence. It is

not unnatural to be happy at that achievement, but the

achievement does not consist only of that happiness. It is,
therefore, plausible to argue that the agency achievement

and well-being achievement, both of which have some
distinct importance, may be causally linked with each

other, but this fact does not compromise the specific

importance of either. In so far as utility-based welfarist
calculus concentrates only on the well-being of the per-

son,15 ignoring the agency aspect, or actually fails to

15 Though utility is typically interpreted in terms of well-being, it is
possible to argue that it might be better seen as reflecting a person's
agency. That argument is particularly difficult for the 'happiness' or

'pleasure-pain' interpretation of utility. and it is not easy for the
`desire-fulfilment' interpretation either. But the 'choice' interpretation
may offer more immediate scope for being taken as standing for the
exercise of agency. not necessarily related to well-being. That is not,
of course., the way the choice-interpretation of utility is standardly

viewed (e.g. in 'revealed preference' theory). Indeed, choice is seen as
important in the typical utilitarian perspective precisely because of its
alleged congruence with well-being. But moving away from the
standard view. it is possible to argue that the choice interpretation
may make utility-based calculus more linked with agency than with
well-being, and futility' (thus interpreted) can then be valued on
grounds of the importance of agency. However. since the agency
aspects requires careful assessment of values and valuations. the

formula of taking any choice as reflection of valuable agency is plainly
inadequate. Further, the importance of agency may not be entirely
capturable in terms of the promotion of a person's goals and may
require a format that is not as crudely 'maximizing' as the numerical

representation of a choice function has to be (on this see Sen 1982b.

1983c. and also Lecture 3). Nevertheless. this perspective can serve as

the basis of a different interpretation of utility-based ethical

Economic Judgements and Mora/ Philosophy 45

distinguish between the agency aspect and the well-being
aspect altogether. something of real importance is lost.

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