Amartya Kumar Sen, the Argumentative Conscience of Economics


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Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Kumar Sen is well used to arguing his point of view, especially on topics that he is most noted for: welfare economics, social choice, social justice, moral philosophy, decision theory, the well-being of countries, and famines.

Amartya Kumar Sen (1933-) is currently a professor at Harvard University and the 1998 Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economic Sciences.

He was born in Bengal when it was part of British India, to scholarly parents from Dhaka in Bangladesh. When he was nine years old, he witnessed the Bengal Famine of 1943, in which three million people died.

In 1951, while studying at the University of Calcutta, he was diagnosed with oral cancer. Doctors thought he wouldn’t live for more than five years, but with radiation treatment, he survived.

In 1953, he moved to Trinity College at Cambride in England to continue studies in economics. At the age of 23, he became the youngest chair to head the Department of Economics in Jadavpur University in Calcutta, where he worked from 1956-1958. Between 1960-1961, Sen was a visiting professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in America.

He also studied philosophy which he integrated with economics to formulate his views on inequality and depravation, and particularly on Indian work practices in the 1960s where workers were expected to become more productive for no extra pay.

In 1981, Sen published a book called Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, in which he argued that famines occur not only, or not always, from a lack of food, but also the inequalities of food distribution and supply, and raised food prices.

In Poverty and Famines, he also examined issues such as panic buying, hoarding, and price gouging.

His approaches on the causes of famines focused on positive freedom, which is a person’s ability to be or to do something, instead of the usual economic approaches of negative freedom—i.e. non-interference. He wrote that in the 1943 Bengal famine, people starved because they did not have positive freedom—the ability to do anything, nor the capacity to escape death.

His article, ‘More than 100 Million Women are Missing’ on the unequal rights between men and women in developing countries, particularly Asia, caused some controversy. He called this ‘economic unfreedom,’ a theory he commenced as a young boy. He developed this into his theory on five specific types of freedoms: political, economic, protective, social, and transparency in his book Development as Freedom. He is currently an Honorary Advisor with the United Kingdom Oxfam charity.

He lives between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Cambridge, England, often holidaying at his home in Shantiniketan in West Bengal, India.

Amartya Sen has been called many things—such as the Argumentative Indian, the Mother Teresa of Economics, and the Conscience of the Profession.

When asked, in an interview with the Guardian in 2001, how he relaxed, he responded, “I read a lot and like arguing with people.”

Amartya Kumar Sen


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