The concept of equality in Nobel Laureate A. K. Sen's work: a critical assessment.

Author:Kamath, Shyam J.
Position:Critical essay


This article analyzes the theoretical foundations of Nobel Laureate A.K. Sen's concept of equality as reflected in his work in many areas of economics and social thought. The fundamental approach of "functionings" and "capabilities" that has been the hallmark of Sen's approach to equality is first presented and the common bases identified. The basic concept used is then analyzed from a logical and empirical perspective. The adequacy of this approach is then scrutinized by contrasting alternative approaches of end-state and process notions of equality. A comprehensive critique is developed, and the major shortcomings of Sen's concept of equality are detailed. Sen's conception of equality is found to be inadequate on logical and methodological grounds. Hence, it is suggested that this approach may be an inappropriate guide for economic policy and social intervention to facilitate human development.


Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen's work in economics, political theory and philosophy has been founded on the principle of end-state equality. His magisterial contributions to economics and social thought have covered a wide canvas, with his theoretical writings being at the center of the controversies that have raged in social choice theory and welfare economics; economic philosophy; public choice and political theory; the economics of poverty, distribution and development; and the economics of famines. His contributions in each one of these fields of human inquiry are so prolific that a full-length treatment of these contributions in each area would take many pages to write. However, the notion of end-state equality has permeated all his work in these areas. This paper limits itself to a critical examination of Sen's concept and application of end-state equality. No attempt is made here to detail or assess other aspects of his many contributions in the areas identified above.

This paper focuses on Sen's concept of equality with a particular emphasis on the theoretical basis of this important concept as reflected in his two major books on inequality, On Economic Inequality (1973), abbreviated to OEI, and Inequality Reexamined (1992), abbreviated to IER, as well as in his more extensive work on freedom and development (see Sen 1991, 1992a, 1992b, 1993, 1999 and 2002). While Sen has been sensitive to the process that generates inequality and has tried to deal with criticisms of his end-state notion of equality in his later work, I will argue that this attempt remains unpersuasive. This later work is also permeated by the same concept of outcomes that he uses in the books analyzed in detail here (see, for example, his Development as Freedom, 1999).

Sen on Equality

Throughout his writings, Sen focuses on human development as being measured and assessed in terms of the provision of "social opportunities" and "capabilities" (in terms of health, literacy, education, nutrition, longevity, self-respect, etc.). This focus on the expansion of "social opportunities" and "capabilities" is predicated on the notion of freedom seen as the range of options a person has in deciding what kind of life to lead. According to Sen, the capacity to enjoy such freedom is predicated on equality of opportunity in attaining the requisite capabilities (see OEI, Annexe A.7). This underlying focus is clear from his discussion on the Demands of Equality in IER,

The particular approach to equality that I have explored involves judging individual advantage by the freedom to achieve, incorporating (but going beyond) actual achievements. In many contexts, particularly in the assessment of individual well-being, these conditions can, I have argued, be fruitfully seen in terms of the capability to function, incorporating (but going beyond) the actual functionings that a person can achieve. The 'capability approach' builds on a general concern with freedoms to achieve (including the capabilities to function) (IER: 129). Sen's argument for equalizing capabilities can be summarized as follows:

(1) Ultimate well-being is dependent not upon one's income, ownership of commodities or resources, but on the capability set (of functionings such as good health, literacy, education, security, self-respect, etc.) that one possesses.

(2) The 'capability set' that one possesses can be seen as the overall freedom that one enjoys in pursuing well-being.

(3) Since individual well-being depends crucially on the capability to function, it is only by achieving equality of opportunity in acquiring this capability set that one can maximize the wellbeing of the individuals in a society.

Sen explicitly recognizes that the analysis of equality has fundamentally to face two underlying realities: (1) that human beings are heterogeneous and diverse in both external and personal characteristics, and (2) it is a complex and difficult task to define and measure equality in terms of the multiplicity of variables that can be used to evaluate it. However, he argues that nevertheless any theory of social arrangements must endorse equality in terms of some focal variable, even though the equality in terms of the one or more variables chosen by a particular theory inevitably implies inequality in terms of some other variable. Thus, equality of opportunity entails unequal outcomes in terms of distribution of income, wealth, etc.

Following his justification of the primacy of equality in any theory of social arrangements, Sen then goes on to assert his own choice of focal variable for assessing the nature, type and level of equality underlying a particular social arrangement. This choice of focal variable forms the basis for the assessment of the processes and outcomes of his work on development. The equalization of resources or the ownership of primary goods (rights and liberties, powers and opportunities, income and wealth, self-respect, etc.) does not equalize the substantive freedom to achieve of different individuals, since significant differences can occur in the manner in which resources and primary goods are converted into this freedom. Thus, a focus on freedom of choice requires that one look beyond resources and primary goods to an assessment of the individual's "functionings" and constituent "capabilities," where the former are related to the achievement of well-being and the latter being related to freedom of choice (see OEI, Annexe A.7). Hence, the focus on equalization of functions and capabilities is claimed to be superior for purposes of evaluation of the efficacy of various social arrangements. Based on this foundation, Sen's work has concentrated on assessing human development in terms of the...

To continue reading