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Amartya Sen’s Unequal World
New Left Review I!"#$ %anuary&'e(ruary )**+
This short work exhibits (often, perforce, only in fleeting cameo) the current state of
Amartya Sen’s decades-long engagement with problems of euality and its absence! The
book pro"ides not only an exhilarating tour d’horizon of ideas de"eloped at greater ease
elsewhere, but also fresh nuances that are designed to accommodate and deflect some of
the extensi"e criticism and comment which Sen’s magnetic work has attracted! #$%
&n the present appreciation, & first describe the leading idea'(capability’'which Sen has
brought to this field of discourse! & then take up one of the book’s sub-themes, regarding
the connection or lack of it between freedom and control! )inally, & defend Sen against
some scepticism about the practical rele"ance of his work that has recently been
expressed by Andr* +*teille!
Two uestions arise with regard to the measurement of ineuality! The first concerns the
respect (in economists’ language, the space) in which people should be accounted eual
or uneual, what is the right type of ad"antage to examine when euality and its absence
are at issue- .epresentati"e answers to this first uestion are, utility (some economists
and some philosophers), income (other economists and no philosophers), primary goods
(/ohn .awls), and resources, capaciously concei"ed (.onald 0workin)! The issue was
broached by .awls in A Theory of Justice (1231), which argued that not utility or welfare
but primary goods (things e"eryone needs to pursue their goals in life, whate"er those
goals may be) constitute the right metric for distributi"e 4ustice! +ut it was in Sen’s 1232
Tanner 5ecture, called (6uality of 7hat-’, #1% that that uestion was first put in an
expressly general form, and it was there that Sen "entured his now uite well-known
thesis that capability is the thing to look at when 4udging how well a person’s life is
The second and independent uestion with regard to the measurement of ineuality is
how to compute the degree of ineuality that obtains, for gi"en sets of scores of
ad"antage (whate"er may be the right respect in which to reckon ad"antage, which was
the first uestion)! That second uestion dominated Sen’s On Economic Inequality
(1238), and, although it is briefly addressed in the work under re"iew, not it but the first
uestion, about the appropriate type of ad"antage to focus on, dominates Inequality
Reexamined! Accordingly, the present (reexamination’ is not, as the titles of the two
books might suggest, precisely and centrally of the topic of On Economic Inequality! #9%
The earlier work, one could say, has a comparati"e ad"antage (in the strict, .icardian,
sense) with respect to the interests (as opposed to the needs) of economists, while the
recent one has a comparati"e ad"antage with respect to the interests and needs of political
theorists and philosophers!
:ow, although Sen’s official topic is ineuality, his moti"ating interest is po"erty, which
appears, when it does, at the downward end of the spectrum of ad"antage, and which is a
phenomenon distinct from ineuality, since e"eryone might be eually poor, and since
there is (at least) money ineuality between millionaires and billionaires! ;is special
interest in po"erty is shown in Sen’s choice of capability as the premier space of
ad"antage, capability pro"ides a highly suitable measure of the depri"ation that po"erty
imposes, but it is not so e"idently ser"iceable when the ob4ect is to identify degrees of
ineuality as such!
5et me explain! 7hat Sen calls (capability’ is determined by the different forms of life
that are possible for a person, a person’s capability is a dis4unction of the combinations
a"ailable to her of what Sen calls (functionings’, which are states of acti"ity and<or being!
These functionings "ary, Sen says, (from most elementary ones, such as being well-
nourished, a"oiding escapable morbidity and premature mortality, etc!, to uite complex
and sophisticated achie"ements, such as ha"ing self-respect, being able to take part in the
life of the community, and so on!’ #8% :ow, the (elementary’ functionings listed here
ha"e ceilings of accomplishment, you can get richer and richer, but you cannot keep on
rising in the dimensions of nourishment and health! And something similar is true of the
more (sophisticated’ functionings, you cannot keep on adding to your stock of self-
respect, and there is necessarily a limit to how much you can, or can want, to take part in
the life of the community! These recurrently cited examples show that what Sen really
cares about is basic capability, #=% the pre-reuisite of adequate functioning, which, he
rightly complained, was a form of ad"antage neglected in the literature, despite being the
most fundamental one of all! >apacities beyond the basic (>an & run a mile- >an &
impress ?krainians with my impersonation of .ussians- >an & sew more uickly than
you-) seem uite irrele"ant to measurement of depri"ation, ineuality or anything else of
urgent concern from the point of "iew of 4ustice! (This point, that po"erty is the key
theme of the book, will pro"e to be conseuential when & come to comment on the
criticisms of Sen made by Andr* +*teille!)
7hether or not capability deser"es its assigned role as a metric of ad"antage, Sen’s "ery
identification of the capability dimension of assessment was impressi"e, in the light of its
pre"ious complete neglect! >apability lies, causally, between income or primary goods or
resources on the one hand and utility or welfare on the other! )ocus on capability means
emphasi@ing not goods as such, but what they enable a person to do, and it also means
disemphasi@ing the (often "agariously induced) utility associated with his doing it! The
trouble with a metric of goods or resources or income is that the point of goods (and so
forth) is to generate possibilities of choice for the indi"idual, much better, then, Sen
argued, to look not at their generators but at those possibilities themsel"es, which do not
"ary uniformly with what generates them, because of "ariations in people’s physical
(climatic, topographical, etc!) and social circumstances, and in their biological
constitutions! And the trouble with a metric of utility is that it is blind to the fact that
people ad4ust their expectations downwardly when in po"erty and upwardly when in
wealth! This and other sub4ecti"e "agaries mean that utility is not the right uantity to
focus on, it is unfair to a poor person to resource him less because he has de"eloped
modest tastes and therefore needs less wherewithal to achie"e a gi"en le"el of welfare!
7hat matters centrally is the causal intermediary, the effect of goods that causes utility,
functioning, and capability, as such! #A%
A person’s functionings matter because they are his life, considered apart from the utility
he gets out of it! And capability matters at least instrumentally, since functionings matter,
and adeuate functioning can obtain only if it lies within a person’s capability set! +ut
capability also matters in three other ways! )reedom to choose is good in itself, apart
from the goods it pro"ides access toB freedom to choose with adeuate functioning within
the scope of that choice is a person’s rightB and capability also contributes directly to
well-being, because a person’s life is (richer’ when the (opportunity of reflecti"e choice’
appears within it, capability is good not only, then, as a space of choice, but also because
free choosing, a process that reuires such a space, is itself good (pp! =CD9, A1D9)!
>apability is a form of freedom, the freedom, specifically, to choose a set of functionings!
7hen the "alue of that freedom is measured in terms of the forms of well-being those
sets of functionings constitute, then what Sen calls a person’s (well-being freedom’ is
displayed! +ut well-being freedom is not freedom as such! &t must be distinguished from
(agency freedom’, which is a person’s freedom to achie"e whate"er goals she has,
including goals other than her own well-being! &t diminishes a person’s agency freedom
that she cannot pursue a cause to which she is committed, but the restriction need not
commensurately detract from her well-being freedom!
The capability focus makes a difference to the analysis of po"erty, and, conseuently, to
anti-po"erty policy! Thus, for example, women often reuire, for biological, social and
cultural reasons, higher income than men do to secure the same capabilityB and factors
such as age, location, and epidemiological atmosphere also strongly affect a person’s
power to con"ert money into the elements of a worthwhile life (p! 118)! Accordingly, the
plea for attention in po"erty analysis not to low income as such but to income inadeuate
to sustain basic capability in gi"en circumstances has considerable practical significance!
To be sure, it may sometimes be too difficult and<or too in"asi"e for a state authority to
identify each person’s capability reuirements, and tailor his or her income support to
them! +ut, e"en then, it may be possible to identify aggregate differences between sub-
populations which affect the con"ertibility of income into capability, differences which
4ustify uneual per capita funds dispersal across regions and groups! And apart from the
sheer uantitati"e uestion of what income is needed, in different conditions, to generate
a gi"en amount of capability, attention to capability desiderata suggests modes of
inter"ention and enablement which secure substantial impro"ements for comparati"ely
little expenditure! #E% The benefits of the shift to capability show that (concepts matter’
#3% in practice!
'reedom Without Control,
& turn to my selected sub-theme, the relationship between freedom and control! Sen
claims #F% that there is a significant form of personal freedom en4oyment of which does
not in"ol"e (as freedom usually does, and is generally thought always to do) exercise of
control o"er what happens by the rele"ant free agent! A supposed case in point is the
freedom en4oyed by someone who li"es in an en"ironment without malaria! Sen does not
mean, by that freedom, the freedom to do things that can only be done when malaria is
absent, for, in that consequent freedom control is manifestly present! #2% ;e means the
(supposed) freedom that a person en4oys 4ust in that her en"ironment has no malaria in it!
This, Sen argues, is indeed a part of the person’s freedom, e"en though she does not (and
cannot) control whether there will be malaria in her en"ironment! Sen used to call this
(supposed) freedom, where control is missing, the freedom of poer! >ritics protested
that the situation of a person benefiting from a salubrious en"ironment no more manifests
her power than it does her control! Sen now accedes to this criticism, drops the word
(power’, and calls his theme (effecti"e freedom’!
Sen has here, once again, identified an undoubtedly important and neglected
phenomenon, but it is not freedom without control! &n this section, & show that Sen’s
argument for the existence of such a freedom is unsuccessful, and & then indicate what &
think is the true shape of the important phenomenon that he has discerned!
The failure of Sen’s argument becomes apparent when we ask hy a person benefiting
from an en"ironment rid of malaria ualifies in that respect as free! Sen "acillates
between two different answers to that uestion, corresponding to two conditions, one
strong and one weak, each of which he takes to be sufficient for (effecti"e freedom’! The
strong condition indeed identifies a form of freedom, but one in which, contrary to what
Sen reuires, control is present, howe"er (literally) remote! The weaker condition indeed
in"ol"es no control, but also, pari passu, no freedom! Through failing to distinguish the
two conditions Sen produces his fallacious result, that freedom can obtain without control
o"er what happens!
The stronger condition con4oins two elements, corresponding to the two phrases italici@ed
by Sen in his statement of it, (As long as the le"ers of control are systematically exercised
in line with what I ould choose and for that exact reason, my Geffecti"e freedomH is
uncompromised, though my Gfreedom as controlH may be limited or absent’ (pp! E=DA)!
&n illustration of this point, Sen instances the relationship between me and a proof-reader
of my book, who corrects the text as he does because he knows & would want it to be
corrected that way! #1C%
:ow it is true, in this example, that (the le"ers of control’ are not (directly operated’ by
me (p! E=), but the fact that Sen emphasi@es (directly’ betrays that they are indirectly
operated by me, which means that & do control what happens! & can be free without
exercising the le!ers of control precisely because & can control without exercising the
le"ers of control! (7hen & tell my obedient chauffeur where and how to dri"e & do not
exercise the le"ers which control the car #11% but & ne"ertheless control what it does!)
Satisfaction of the strong condition indeed yields freedom, but not freedom without
+ut Sen often uses a weaker condition for (effecti"e freedom’ or (supposed) freedom
without control, which is yielded by preser"ing the first italici@ed element but deleting
the second one in his statement of the strong condition which & ga"e two paragraphs ago!
The weaker condition is that whoe"er controls what happens does what & would choose to
do if & were in control, no matter for what reason, and, in particular, whether or not he
("nos what my instructions ould ha!e been if sought’ (p! E=)! So, for example, it may
conform to my will that my en"ironment has been rid of malaria, e"en though & did not,
and could not ha"e, made it so, and e"en though those who did make it so were rele"antly
unmindful of my wishes in the matter! & belie"e that this phenomenon, in which things
conform to my will although & do not myself exert it, is of great conceptual interest, but
that it is not freedom!
An indication, apart from his actual formulations and examples, that Sen also uses the
stated weaker condition for freedom without control is that, as & reported, he accepted the
criticism that freedom without control could not be said to ualify as power! )or
satisfaction of the first condition, as illustrated in the proof-reader case, does entail
power, & do not let the proof-reader operate unless & am satisfied that he will act as & want
him to! (&f the proof-reader is imposed on me willy-nilly, #19% then at most the weaker
condition holds, and freedom of choice disappears!) Another indication that Sen
sometimes employs the weaker condition is his description of the rele"ant form of
(supposed) freedom as (outcome-based’ (p! 18A)! )or the second element in the stronger
condition for (effecti"e freedom’ ((for that exact reason’) is a matter of process, not
>onsider the malaria clearance case, in which the controlling agent is the state, or some
state body! &f the policy of malaria elimination is adopted democratically, then people,
together, control what happens to them, and therefore exercise freedom and, for good
measure, powerB but Sen’s claim, that there exists freedom without control, remains
unillustrated! &f, on the other hand, the malaria clearance is achie"ed by an undemocratic
(but, at least in this respect, benign) administration, or, as Sen at one point suggests (p!
EA), by an international agency under distant direction, then there is neither control nor
freedom on the part of the benefiting people, but it remains true that what e"entuates
conforms to what they would choose, and is pro tanto commendable! Sen says that what
he calls (effecti"e freedom’ is important because, in a modern complex society, there is
much that we can secure not indi"idually but only collecti"ely! #18% As the contrast
between democratic and other malaria clearance shows, that is not a reason for
concluding that there exists freedom without control!
7e ha"e to do, in sum, with two phenomena, one more general than the other, and only
the more specific one in"ol"es freedom! The specific one, in which things go as & will
because it is my will, e"en though my hands are off the le"ers of control, is politically
important but philosophically not "ery interesting! The more general phenomenon, in
which things go in accordance with my will, but truly without my control, is "ery
interesting conceptually, but not rightly called (freedom’! & agree with Sen that the fact
that a central aspect of a person’s situation may conform to his will other than because he
himself arranges or sustains that conformity opens a (momentous perspecti"e’ (p! E2)!
)irst, a bit more on why the perspecti"e is not one of freedom! Then,an attempt to say
why the perspecti"e is ne"ertheless momentous!
>ontrary to what Sen says, when a person gets an unchosen thing that she would ha"e
chosen, no (ability’ on her part (to choose to li"e as #she% desires’ is thereby indicated (p!
E3)! (Ability’ is here infelicitous in 4ust the way that its cognate (power’ was, abilities,
like powers, are things that are exercised, and there is, ex hypothesi, no rele"ant exercise
of anything in this example, and nothing that pro"es the presence of an unexercised
ability either! &t is also false, in the pertinent sense, #1=% that (if people do desire a life
without hunger or malaria, the elimination of these maladies through public policy does
enhance their Gliberty to choose to li"e as they desireH!’ #1A% (Ability to choose’ and
(liberty to choose’ obtain only when it is possible to choose, and much of the interest of
the phenomenon misdescribed in these dictions is that the agent has no choice in the
matter (for example, of whether or not there is malaria in his en"ironment)! 6specially
when applying the weaker condition, Sen emphasi@es absence of control, while insisting
on liberty to choose, but liberty to choose entails control o"er what happens!
So, while & agree with Sen that the issue of whether people ha"e what they would choose
(is a momentous perspecti"e’, & do not think that when they ha"e what they would choose
they are pro tanto free! To see the true significance of the phenomenon to which Sen
draws our attention, let us begin by distinguishing between a person’s good and a
person’s will! )ollowing a traffic accident, my >hristian Scientist friend lies unconscious
on the road! & must decide between taking him home, as & know he would wish me to, and
taking him to hospital, as & think would do him more good! & do what conforms to his will
if and only if & take him home! A person’s will is how he would make things go if he
could, whether or not he is in a position to make them go that way, whether or not it
would be good for him if they go that way, and whate"er interest or lack of it he has in
his own good! #1E%
Suppose, in the example abo"e, that, because & respect my friend’s will, & take him home!
Then his fate conforms, thanks to me, to his will, but his will does not (systematically’
(Sen’s word #13%) determine his fate! )or it was pure chance that it was & who came
along, rather than, for example, a thief, or a differently minded friend who might ha"e put
the man’s welfare first, or not known about his will!
:ow, standardly, #1F% when freedom is exercised, the agent exercising it aims to make
the world (in the rele"ant respect) conform to his will! +ut what Sen correctly notes, and
rightly emphasi@es, is that the world may conform to a person’s will other than as a result
of his control (or, as we can therefore safely add, of his exercise of a freedom)! This is
shown by the >hristian Scientist case, and, indeed, by a case in which, unlike what holds
in that one, the world conforms to my will not only not as a result of my exercise of a
freedom but not at all because my will has the character it does, when a public authority,
perhaps acting for my good, but not out of respect for my will, deli"ers things that &
would choose to get if & had a choice in the matter!
The real substance of Sen’s inno"ati"e focus, then, is that the standard aim of exercises of
freedom is achie"able not only through exercises of it but also by other means, a friend
does what he knows is your will because it is your will, a benign (or otherwise) agency
does what happens to be your will! &n these cases, the standard effect of a successful
exercise of freedom, conformity of the world to the will, occurs without any such
exercise! +ut although the standard effect of a successful exercise of freedom, world<will
conformity, is thereby wrought, it is not therefore right to call the person whose will is
satisfied free, or to say that he has freedom without control! The >hristian Scientist is not
more free in being at home than he would be if he were in hospital, though his will is
better satisfied! )reedom, the (ability to get what we "alue and want’ (p! E=), obtains only
when it is the agent who secures the conformity of the world to its will!
Iy will is how & would make things go if & could do so! &f they go that way without my
inter"ention, then, except in special cases, & will unambi"alently welcome that! (Special
cases are ones in which it matters to me that & be the person who secures what & will, &
want it to be me, not someone else, who nurses my spouse back to health!) And the
malaria case is not a rele"antly special one, & shall not feel that & ha"e missed an
opportunity to eliminate noxious mosuitoes if the go"ernment does it for me (or e"en if
it does it not strictly for me)! There are two "alues associated with successful exercises of
freedom! Jne is that the world conforms to my will and the other is that it is & who
achie"e that result! Sometimes the second "alue does not matter much, and the malaria
example is a case in point!
There is a political reason why Sen insists on the phrasings that & ha"e stigmati@ed as
inappropriate! ()reedom’, he says, (is one of the most powerful social ideas’ (p! E2), and
he is therefore concerned (so & ha@ard) to pre"ent ideological enemies of state
inter"ention from obscuring the fact that freedom is among the benefits that such
inter"ention can bring! 6xtreme right-wing ideologues regard all state inter"ention as
diminishing freedom (e"en if some of them concede that inter"ention might be 4ustified
on other grounds)! Against that, & agree with Sen that freedom is pro tanto enhanced
when the state functions as an instrument of the democratic will! +ut what should be said
to a less extreme ideologue, who might grant that point, but who finds no freedom in a
malaria clearance which is not democratically instituted- :ot what Sen would say to her,
that she is blind to the fact that there is freedom here too! .ather this, that all or most of
what would make this situation "aluable if it did represent an exercise of freedom is
present here! The ideologue is blind, specifically, to that! She so makes a fetish of
freedom that she fails to notice that a large part of its "alue can be present when freedom
itself does not obtain! #12%
-overty$ Inequality and Uto.ia
& remarked abo"e that Sen’s animating concern is not so much ineuality as po"erty, and
& indicated some ways in which a reorientation from both income and utility to capability
both helps us to appreciate what the central e"il of po"erty is and has practical force in
the struggle against it! &t is the aspect of practice on which & shall concentrate in this
section, which is a reply to Andr* +*teille’s re"iew of Inequality Reexamined in the
Economic and #olitical $ee"ly for 13 April 1228!
Krofessor +*teille called his re"iew (Amartya Sen’s ?topia’! #9C% & think that phrase was
both ungenerous and un4ustified! &t suggests that Sen is a head-in-the-clouds theorist
yearning after an unattainable egalitarian ideal at the expense of what can actually be
done to impro"e the world! :ow, that is certainly false at the le"el of aspiration! &n
#o!erty and %amines, Sen confessed himself (immodest enough to belie"e that the
analysis presented in this monograph has a certain amount of rele"ance to matters of
practical concern’, #91% and the final paragraph of the book under re"iew a"ows that its
(analysis has been "ery substantially moti"ated’ by its (direct bearing on matters of
practical concern’ (p! 1A9, and see, too, p! 11)!
& ha"e indicated, sketchily (see p! 19C abo"e), how that bearing goes, and thereby how
the aspiration to practical rele"ance is in some degree fulfilled, with respect to po"erty in
general! +ut consider, for a moment, Sen’s extensi"e work on famine! +efore & had read
any of it, & found what & knew to be its leading proposition pu@@ling, not because &
thought it false, but because it seemed all too ob"iously true, that famines occur when
and because people lose their customary legitimate entitlement to (sufficient) life-
sustaining matter! #99% Jne may satisfy oneself of the truth of that generali@ation after a
short bout of clear-headed armchair reflection! &t is a truism, and not, as Sen some-times
misleadingly suggests (he freuently counterposes his own (entitlement’ conception to
(food a"ailability decline’ as though they were competing empirical theories), something
to be established by amassing and analysing obser"ational data! #98%
7hen & came to read the rele"ant writing, & disco"ered that the intellectual interest of the
stated truism lies precisely in its practical implications! )or, properly applied, it defeats
the unthinking presumption, still widespread at least in countries where famines are
unknown, that they occur if and only if, and because, food supply shrinks! &n truth, the
immediate cause of loss of access to food is, necessarily, the fracturing or withering of
indi"idual entitlement to it through wages, trading relations, personal production, and so
onB a fracturing or withering sometimes, indeed, caused by sheer shortage of food, but
often occurring in the face of continued physical a"ailability of food, because of price
shifts, "agaries of wages, and unintelligent or callous public policy! The identification of
entitlement as what finally matters implies that (a) food shortage need not be pi"otal with
respect to famine (and'this is an empirical truth unattainable by armchair reflection, and
one of enormous practical import'in se"eral ma4or famines it has not actually occurred)
and that (b) whether or not food shortage obtains in a gi"en case of famine, famine
pre"ention and relief reuires identifying, sustaining and repairing lines of entitlement
whose decay is what actually causes death! #9=%
:ow it might be said, in defence of +*teille’s characteri@ation of Inequality Reexamined,
that this particular book is not about famines! +ut it does contain some discussion of the
topic, and in any case no one should be charged with utopianism because his more
practical work happens to be laid out in places other than the one that misgenerates the
stated charge! To call Sen utopian on the basis of this book is like complaining that a
physician’s manual of diagnostics tells us little about how to cureB which is anyhow
beside the point, and which is doubly unfair when the same physician has also written a
manual of therapeutics!
+ut let us turn from po"erty and famine elimination to the less urgent issue of euality
itself! &f someone who fa"ours less ineuality offers a circumspect account of what
euality is, does it follow that he utopianly condemns anything that falls short of it- &f
someone explains what it would mean for the Augean stables to be perfectly clean, is it
pertinent to stigmati@e him as a utopian because it is not possible to eliminate all the dirt-
There is no rhapsodic depiction of complete euality in this book or elsewhere in Sen’s
work, and no affirmation that such a thing is feasible, or e"en desirable (since increases
in euality can reduce aggregate utility, income, and capability)! #9A% There is a cogent
demand for more euality and an excellent identification of where and how to start! Sen
offers not a utopia but a practically fruitful criterion!
+*teille writes that those, like Sen, (who dwell upon ideals tend to be a little impatient
about the little constraints of the actual world and it is then the obligation of the
sociologist to bring these constraints to their attention!’ #9E%
+ut Sen does not need to be ad"ised that, for example, there are structural tendencies in
society to ineualities of status and power! #93% Sen reexamines ineuality, but he does
not undertake to say e"erything rele"ant to e"ery aspect of that theme! ;e describes his
aims clearly in the first chapter of the book, and one could not say that he does not ha"e
enough significant aims, and should therefore also ha"e addressed the rather different
issues which engage +*teille!
Kursuing his theme that utopia is difficult to achie"e, +*teille asks, (>an the eual
e"aluation of persons and positions be generated through the construction of a social
arrangement in which all persons and all positions will be eually esteemed, more or
A negati"e answer to this uestion is less telling than +*teille appears to suppose! 7e can
distinguish three types of ineuality of esteem! There is, first, ineuality of esteem
sustained by explicitly inegalitarian ideology which assigns people to different categories
of uality or being! That is not the same as ineuality of esteem that deri"es from
differences in income and power, and neither of those is the same as the type that reflects
differential achie"ements as such! & shall comment on each of these three types of
ineuality of esteem, with a "iew to remo"ing the sting from +*teille’s semi-rhetorical
The first type of ineuality of esteem is well illustrated by the ;indu caste system!
Tenacious and sa"age though it is, it is surely not this status ineuality that +*teille has in
mind when he asks the uoted uestion, since he cannot belie"e that it is impossible, as
opposed to difficult, to eliminate it! Kroof that it can be eliminated is the fact that it does
not exist in e"ery society, and that analogues of it disappeared from many societies where
they were once strong, the anti-feudal bourgeois re"olution in 6urope is a salient macro-
example! :or is it mysterious how to proceed against it in incompletely bourgeois states
like &ndia, by outlawing and punishing the practice of untouchability, by struggling
against discriminatory caste taboos, by instituting intelligently designed programmes of
>aste ineualities of esteem differ from the two other types distinguished abo"e, in that
the latter super"ene on further ineualities, representati"e examples of which are
ineuality of income on the one hand, and ineuality of intellectual attainment on the
other! To the extent that it super"enes on income ineuality, there is no sense in pointing
at status ineuality as a supposed trump card that the egalitarian carelessly or wilfully
forgot was in the deck! )or you could not say, on this basis, that e"en if the ineualities
that egalitarians fix on (money, power, etc!) were somehow eliminated, there would still
be this other big one to reckon with! To the extent, finally, that ineuality of esteem
super"enes on differential achie"ement, the only ways of suppressing it entirely are by
restricting human achie"ement through denial of euality of opportunity or by some
awfully complicated and repugnant disinformation programme which spreads lies about
people’s accomplishments! Accordingly, no one should want to eliminate the ineuality
of esteem that tracks differential achie"ement! That ineuality would appear in the best of
all possible social worlds!
An old right-wing notion says that leftists seek to eliminate all significant ineualities,
yet cannot hope to eliminate ones like ineuality of esteem! +ut one of the signal merits
of Sen’s new book is its acknowledgement'indeed, its subtle and circumspect
demonstration'that, because of human di"ersity, euality in one dimension (e!g! of
opportunity to de"elop talent) means ineuality in others (thus, here, of achie"ement and
esteem)! So it is especially unfair to insist against Sen that not all ineualities are
eliminable (whether or not there exist less reflecti"e egalitarians who are less aware of
that truth)! #9F%
Since all eualities generate companion ineualities, we ha"e to decide which ones to
combat and which to tolerate! &f we set aside caste differences, we can say that
ineualities of esteem should be tolerated, for at least two reasons! )irst, the dis4uncti"e
one gi"en abo"e, that they can be eliminated only by telling lies and<or by suppressing
euality of opportunity! Second, that they do not in"ol"e transferable resources, maybe
you can pre"ent someone from obtaining the high regard he would otherwise get, but you
cannot take it from him and gi"e it to somebody else! >onseuently, the case for the
(independent #92%) in4ustice of status differentials is (at best) extremely weak, and it is
therefore not the right ineuality to combat! ?nder capability euality, and ine"itably
different uses of it, ineuality of esteem is both una"oidable and acceptable!
+*teille remarks that while we know that (actual social arrangements are different from
the one #Sen% prefers, #he% has told us "ery little about what we ought to do'or what we
can do'to bring the preferred social arrangement into being, and at what cost!’
Sen paints no picture of the total social arrangement that he would like to see, nor, a
fortiori (to this extent +*teille’s comment is correct), does he tell us how to reali@e such a
thing! Sen’s focus, in theory and in practice, is on particular e"ils! ;is concern is with
po"erty and hunger, and one could hardly maintain that he has said "ery little about what
we ought to do about them! The detailed discussion in this book of appropriate indices of
illfare and welfare, and, more so, the related discussions in #o!erty and %amines,
targeted on po"erty in particular, for example in its third chapter, are entirely rele"ant to
appropriate forms, le"els, and means of deli"ery of public pro"ision and support! &f
(utopian’ means starryeyed, Sen is not! &f it means wanting the world to be better, but
ha"ing no idea how to make it so, then, again, that is not Sen! &f it means wanting the
world to be better, then he is, commendably, guilty as charged! #8C%
#$% Amartya Sen, Inequality Reexamined (henceforth ie), >larendon Kress, Jxford 1229,
L12!2A! All page references are to this book!
#1% Kublished in Sterling IcIurrin, ed!, The Tanner &ectures on 'uman (alues, "ol! 1,
Salt 5ake >ity 12FC!
#9% As Sen himself makes clear, Inequality Reexamined, p! =!
#8% Inequality Reexamined, p! A! &t is indicati"e of Sen’s primary focus on po"erty that the
list of (functionings’ gi"en here to illustrate that concept in general is "irtually identical
with the list used elsewhere (p! 11C) to characteri@e po"erty as such!
#=% The section of (6uality of 7hat-’ introducing the notion of capability was entitled
(+asic >apability 6uality’! The phrase has something of the character of an oxymoron!
)or people can all ha"e basic capability without being eual in capability, income, or
anything else! (?ni"ersal basic capability’ would be both more felicitous and more
appropriate for what Sen has in mind when he speaks of (basic capability euality’!
#A% There are two powerful moti"ations for pointing to something other than either goods
or utility when concerning oneself with egalitarian policy, but the moti"ations point at
different things! There is good reason to look at what a person can achie"e, independently
of his actual stateB and there is good reason not to reduce the e"aluation of that actual
state either to an examination of his stock of resources or to an assessment of his utility
le"el! These are distinct points, and they ha"e often been conflated in Sen(s presentation!
(As & complained in (6uality of 7hat- Jn 7elfare, Moods and >apabilities’, Iartha >!
:ussbaum and Amartya Sen, eds, The )uality of &ife, Jxford 1229! & shall not here
resume the criticism pursued in that article of this and other minor dislocations in the
conceptual scaffolding that Sen has erected, or respond to Sen’s treatment of it in his
(>apability and 7ell-+eing’ (also in The )uality of &ife), or pass 4udgement on the
extent to which the criticism applies to formulations offered in the book under re"iew!)
#E% )or striking illustrations of this truth, see section 8 of chapter F of Inequality
#3% (0o >oncepts Iatter-’ is the title of section = of chapter 3 of Inequality Reexamined!
#F% As he did in earlier essays, see, in particular, (5iberty and >ontrol, An Appraisal’,
*idest +tudies in #hilosophy, "ol! 3, 12F9, section A!
#2% ie, p! E3, n! 13, where Sen acknowledges that (freedoms that result from not ha!ing
malaria #are% not in dispute’ between him and actual and potential critics! The uestion is
not whether you are freer in the absence of malaria (because you are free to do things you
could otherwise not do), but whether its absence is itself part of your freedom! ?nless this
distinction is grasped, the criticism of Sen in this section will not be understood!
#1C% &t is not entirely clear that Sen means us to take the proof-reader example in this
fashion, but it must be so construed for the phrase (for that exact reason’ to ha"e
#11% As opposed to the le"ers which control the chauffeur, my commands might be said
to be such le"ers!
#19% &t is unclear'see n! 1C abo"e'whether or not Sen would regard that as a rele"ant
"ariant of his proof-reader example!
#18% ie, p! EA, and see (5iberty as >ontrol, An Appraisal’, pp! 91E, 91F!
#1=% The ualification is necessary because of the distinction made in footnote 2 abo"e!
#1A% ie, p! E3, uoting &saiah +erlin, %our Essays on &iberty, 5ondon 12E2, p! 132!
#1E% The >hristian Scientist’s will does aim at his own (eternal) good, but we could
imagine a different example, in which the accident "ictim would wish to be elsewhere
than the hospital for self-sacrificing reasons!
#13% See the uotation from pp! E=DA at p! 191 abo"e!
#1F% There are exceptions which ha"e no bearing here, when (perhaps because & am
acting under duress) & hope to fail, or when & am picking indifferently between
possibilities and & do not care which one is reali@ed!
#12% & am also unpersuaded by Sen’s attempt to "indicate the phrase (freedom from
malaria’ as fitting (into a broad general concept of freedom’ (p! EF), and not 4ust
signifying absence of something undesired, like a cupboard that is free of dirt, but & shall
not pursue that issue here! See my (6uality of 7hat-’, pp! 9=DA!
#9C% And he garnished that title with +rowning’s couplet, (Ah, but a man’s reach should
exceed his grasp<Jr what’s a ;ea"en for-’
#91% Amartya Sen, #o!erty and %amines, An Essay on Entitlement and -epri!ation,
Jxford 12F1, p! xi!
#99% A little misleadingly, Sen uses phrases like (loss of entitlement to food’ to co"er
both the case where there may still be food, but & ha"e lost my entitlement to it, and the
case where, whether or not my entitlements as such are in good shape, there is no longer
enough food that & can use them to secure! & shall follow Sen by ignoring what logicians
would call this (scope ambiguity’, which generates difficulties that & shall not here
#98% &n calling Sen’s leading proposition a (truism’, & do not mean that it is true by
definition, for it is not! Keople star"e when they lose access to food, but, whether or not
that is true by definition, it does not follow, and it is not true by definition, that they
star"e when they lose legitimate access to food, if only because they can sometimes steal
enough to get by! +ut access and legitimate access largely coincide as a matter of fact,
and that is why legitimate access (that is, entitlement) to food is key to a"oidance of
#9=% See #o!erty and %amines, pp! F, 3FDF8, 198D2, and also /ean 0rN@e and Amartya
Sen, ;unger and Kublic Action, Jxford 12F2, pp! 9ED3, for compendious presentation of
#9A% See pp! 3DF, 29D8, 18ED=3!
#9E% Economic and #olitical $ee"ly, 13 April 1228!
#93% +*teille is, by the way, unclear, at least to me, as to whether he means to emphasi@e
the intrinsic or the causal importance of such ineualities! (&neuality is at bottom a
matter of social esteem’ (my italics) in"ites, gi"en its context, the first construal! +ut
uneual esteem is also described as (a far deeper source of ineuality than uneual
income’ (my italics), and that must be a causal claim! +*teille might want to make both
claims, but he should ne"ertheless distinguish them! Jne can ask, regarding the causal
claim, of hat ineuality are ineualities of esteem (and, +*teille adds, power) (deeper
sources’ than uneual income is- & find no hint of an answer to that uestion in +*teille’s
re"iew! 7hat he perhaps means is not that ineualities of status and power are either
intrinsically or causally more important than others but that they are especially tenacious
because robustly self-reproducing! (This third interpretation of what +*teille says is
suggested more by the actual truth than by +*teille’s words!)
#9F% )or Sen’s discussion of di"ersity and ineuality, see pp! ixDxi, 1D8, 12D91, 93DF,
192D81, 182! Somewhat inconsistently with his criticism of Sen, +*teille himself
highlights this element in Sen’s book!
#92% &ndependent, that is, of the in4ustices it sometimes reflects, such as that of grossly
uneual income, recall that the ladder of esteem that goes with caste is not under
comment in this paragraph!
#8C% & thank O!P! .amachandran and Arnold Quboff for fine criticisms of an earlier
"ersion of this article, which originally appeared, in an alternate form, in the Economic
and #olitical $ee"ly (+ombay), 9 Jctober 1228!
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