Amartya Sen on ethics and economics

I have finished reading Amartya Sen’s On ethics and economics; it is one of the most challenging reads I had encountered in quite a while; I do not know if the economists consider it as reading material for lay public; however, having no training in economics, being unaware of the technical terminologies, and having never had even a fleeting acquaintance with the relevant literature, I could but understand what Sen is advocating or criticising in a rather sketchy manner; this, I think, is the main reason for my enjoying this book – running into hardly ninety pages, the book can only be read slowly with pauses after almost every sentence; further, the text can also be read at least a few times with benefit, and, with each reading, I presume, the understanding will deepen.

I understand that the book is an edited version of Sen’s Royer Lectures, delivered in 1986 at the University of California, Berkeley. The edition (Oxford India paperbacks) that I have with me also carries a foreword by John M Letiche (of UC, Berekeley, and the Series editor for the Royer lectures), who calls it

a “treasure-chest” for economists, philosophers and political scientists interested in the relations between contemporary economics and moral philosophy.

The foreword also summarises the thesis of the book and some of the ideas propounded in it, in a wonderful fashion; I can do no better than to quote from it:

Sen demonstrated that there has occurred a serious distancing between economics and ethics which has brought about one of the major deficiencies of contemporary economic theory. As he persuasively argues, since the actual behaviour of human beings is affected by ethical considerations, and influencing human conduct is a central aspect of ethics, welfare-economic considerations must be allowed to have some impact on actual behaviour and, accordingly, must be relevant for modern logistic economics. But while logistic economics has had an influence on welfare economics, Sen points out that welfare economics has had virtually no influence on logistic economics.

Understandably, though Sen is critical of economics as it stands, he does not think that the problems raised have been adequately dealt with in the ethical literature. Therefore, it is not a problem of merely incorporating the lessons from the ethical literature into economics. Indeed, he suggests that some of the ethical considerations can be helpfully analysed further by using various approaches and procedures now utilized in economics.

By the way, the footnote ridden book (with references alone occupying nearly 25% of the volume – nearly 30 pages out of the 120 pages or so) is not without its lighter moments; I especially liked the following limerick (from Stephen Leacock’s “Hellements of Hickonomics” I gather – which book, for the title alone, might be worth checking out):

‘Adam, Adam, Adam Smith
Listen what I charge you with!
Didn’t you say
In the class one day
That selfishness was bound to pay?
Of all doctrines that was the Pith,
Wasn’t it, wasn’t it, wasn’t it, Smith?’

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4 Responses to “Amartya Sen on ethics and economics”

  1. Pathma V Says:

    Amartya Sen is an oasis in this desert of humanity, that defines the economic theology of this world. A world where the likes of Ayn Rand can openly go forth on TV and say “Greed is good”, and have devout disciples like Greenspan. Her books are best sellers. Lately I read that
    one of her “groups” would provide funding to a university, if it made
    her book required reading in one of its courses. This is one of the creative new way to make best sellers, you buy all million of your own books, or donate it to somebody.

    Thats what I think he means when he says ethics and economics have parted company. Wasn’t economics the glue to hold a civilization, and so wouldn’t a civilization require a higher ethical system, then the suppressive regime we have ie. IMF, predatory banking sytems etc. whose sole purpose is to perpetuate a pyramid system to support the elites. Sen’s books would be a breath of fresh air.

    While the likes of Milton Friedman can mouth about open markets, while their so called open markets are unregulated and the back room boys are constantly hiding information, nay actually deceiving the public. This is Orwelian double-speak.

  2. An update and a few links! « Entertaining Research Says:

    […] In the meanwhile, here are a few links from the Hindu: 10 popular books of Amartya Sen (of which, I read only one and it was, though enjoyable,  not an easy read); John M Alexander’s tribute to Amartya Sen on his 75th birthday; and, the latest literary […]

  3. Oakville Home Renovation Says:

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    […]Amartya Sen on ethics and economics « Entertaining Research[…]…

  4. jaosn mark Says:

    after this reading clear my mind Amartya Sen on ethics

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