Academic journal article The Journal of Philosophical Economics

Shifting Economics: Fundamental Questions and Amartya K. Sen's Pragmatic Humanism

Academic journal article The Journal of Philosophical Economics

Shifting Economics: Fundamental Questions and Amartya K. Sen's Pragmatic Humanism

Article excerpt

Introduction, motivation and purpose

Amartya Kumar Sen (AK Sen or Sen) is a semi-transformative thinker who encourages the excessively narrow, technical, reductionist, and parochial discipline of economics, to inculcate new habits of mind that take human complexity hi all its dimensions into account. He lias liad a discernible influence on economics, giving it a renewed vision and purpose by re-connecting it with fundamental concerns of humanity and society. Sen's body of work is an unrelenting project that consistently and coherently re-focusses the attention of economists and economics towards foundational questions (concerns and objectives), thus earning him the informal title of second phase classical thinker (Walsh 2010).

His genius is not to openly urge radical departures in the field, but to subtly direct the habits of mind in the discipline. He has nudged economists away from artificial human motivations and narrow methodological individualism, arcane theories, and abstract formalism towards a humanism that treats real human beings and their flourishing as the subject matter of economics. His focus on justice, as well as his subtle ideas about what might be rational for individuals to do- when we understand them not as one-dimensional beings, but both as egoistic and social creatures- builds bridges between economics, moral philosophy, and political theory. Without such bridges, economics can only be arid because choices regarding resource allocation- and all decisions and activities related to the economic process of provisioning- are moral choices within a largely public, and hence political, setting. Even the family can flourish or not only in a social and political context.

In Adam Smith, economic growth, he., the wealth of nations,' is the subject of inquiry. In Sen, human development is the subject of inquiry, where economic growth and the expansion of wealth are means to an end. Sen subtly shifts us away from directly focusing on economic growth and instead, towards the creation of opportunities, where the latter serves as the means to achieve a broader end which he calls well-being. His body of work culminates into a substantive project that calls for re-examining and expanding the informational base used in evaluating, i.e. judging 'well-being and advantage. Prendergast (2004, p. 39) notes:

It is argued that Sen lias done a great deal to rescue welfare economics from the consequences of methodological individualism by seeking an objective basis for the comparisons of well-being, by insisting on the need for interpersonal comparability and by creating a space for normative evaluations.

People's 'well-being is intrinsically, not just instrumentally, important, which implies that there are moral dimensions to the goals we pursue in economics. Capability, i.e. substantive freedoms to choose a life one has reason to value, is the evaluative space of well-being, not utility. Sen clarifies that expanding people's capabilities (not commodities) and functionings are the end goals. The regarding how people establish command over commodities and expand their1 ability to achieve the goals that they value (agency) are central to his approach. Here, the idea of social advantage is relevant. For Sen, the social space is not in contrast to the economic space. Public provisioning of education, health care, potable water, sanitation etc.- along with directly addressing repressive social institutions such as those that disallow or discourage girls and women from accessing publicly provided education, or from having equal opportunity to participate irr the labor market- constitute various elements of the 'social'. Widely available public education in rural and urban areas would constitute a legal entitlement' in a society for individuals. Being disallowed to attend school would be the articulation of an extended entitlement' irr the negative direction, deriving from extant social and familial norms. …

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