post-autistic economics review
Issue no. 24, 21 March 2005
article 5



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Amartya Sen Again


Emmanuelle Benicourt   (École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, France)

© Copyright 2004 Emmanuelle Benicourt



In issue 15 of this journal1, I argued that Sen was a neoclassical economist, and questioned why heterodox economists considered his “capability approach” as a real force in post-autistic economics. Two responses have appeared.  First, Ingrid Robeyns2 argued that the view according to which the capability approach is undeniably neoclassical, just a variation of standard economics, is “fundamentally mistaken” (i.e., Sen is not neoclassical). Second, Jorge Buzaglo3 admitted Sen was neoclassical, but argued that he was a radical-progressive economist (i.e., Sen applies the conventional apparatus to the advancement of a progressive cause). Curiously, these responses are contradictory.  I will examine each in turn.

Sen’s normative framework


Ingrid Robeyns pursues her Defence of Amartya Sen by saying :

“the capability approach gives a consistent normative framework to place these scattered studies [of development, development ethics, unemployment, famines, gender inequality, etc] , thus providing a sort of theoretical umbrella for existing empirical work. Moreover, the capability approach makes it very clear how different dimensions, such as commodities, observable outcomes and unobservable opportunities are related.”


This is incorrect. Indeed it runs contrary to Sen’s central idea. Remember that Sen’s normative approach is deliberately pluralist. This comes from his critique of and departure from utilitarianism. Sen refuses to apprehend well-being in a unilateral way (with the criterion of general happiness or public utility). As he says in Development as Freedom:

To insist that there should be only one homogeneous magnitude that we value is to reduce drastically the range of our evaluative reasoning. It is not, for example, to the credit of classical utilitarianism that it values only pleasure, without taking any direct interest in freedom, rights, creativity or actual living conditions. To insist on the mechanical comfort of having just one homogeneous ‘good thing’ would be to deny our humanity of reasoning creatures. It is like to make the life of the chef easier by finding something which –and which alone – we all like (such as smoked salmon, or perhaps even French fries), or some one quality which we must all try to maximize (such as the saltiness of the food). (Sen 1999, p. 77)4.


The system he proposes instead is, to the contrary, based on a “plurality of focus” (Sen 1987, p. 63). As Sen explains in “Capability and Well-Being”:

Because of the nature of the evaluative space, the capability approach differs from utilitarian evaluation (...) in making room for a variety of human acts and states as important in themselves (not just because they may produce utility, nor just to the extent that they yield utility). (Sen 1993, p. 33).


At first, all this seems obvious: who can deny the importance of “self respect”, of “fulfilling one’s creativity”, of “avoiding morbidity”, etc.?  No one I suspect, not even the utilitarians. So then why did they stick to a single criterion? This is a very old question, as old as ethics, but one which Sen seems to ignore. He contents himself with criticizing the “arbitrary” and “defective” nature (Sen 1987, p. 62) of monist approaches, as if he did not know of this long-standing problem so central to philosophical ethics.


The problem of the multiplicity of ethical criteria


If the multiplicity of ethical criteria has been refused by all great philosophers, utilitarian or not, it is for a very simple reason: it does not permit one to settle all situations with which a philosopher , or a man of action, may be confronted.  John Stuart Mill summarized the problem as follows:

There exists no moral system under which there do not arise equivocal cases of conflicting obligation. These are the real difficulties, the knotty points both in the theory of ethics, and in the conscientious guidance of personal conduct. (…) If utility is the ultimate source of moral obligations, utility may be invoked to decide between them when their demands are incompatible. Though the application of the standard may be difficult, it is better than none at all: while in other systems, the moral laws claiming independent authority, there is no common umpire entitled to interfere between them; their claims to precedence one over the other rest on little better than sophistry, and unless determined, as they generally are, by the acknowledged influence of considerations of utility, afford a free scope for the actions of personal desires and partialities. We must remember that only in these cases of conflict between secondary principles is it requisite that first principles should be appealed to” (emphasis added) (Mill 1861,  pp. 157-158).


Adam Smith (admired by Sen) also used a monist criteria :

“ All constitutions of government (…) are valued only in proportion as they tend to promote the happiness of those who live under them. This is their sole use and end. ” (Smith 1790, p. 185).


Emmanuel Kant, a non-utilitarian philosopher with whom Sen claims affinity, was also very clear on this subject:

Considered objectively, there can be only one human reason. (…) So the moralist rightly says that there is only one virtue and one doctrine of virtue, that is, a single system that connects all duties of virtue by one principle.” (Kant 1796, p. 81).


Relying on an ultimate criterion enables one to make, in all cases, a choice between two actions, rules, or institutions that are in conflict with one another. In the capability approach, how is one to choose between constructing a school and building a dam? No one knows. Séverine Deneulin seems to feel there is a problem when she explains and asks: “Sen gives a reason for not specifying what is to be counted as relevant capabilities: his concern for pluralism. (…). [But, ] if one refuses to take any position regarding the ends that are to be promoted, how then  can we know which opportunities have to be given to people in order to improve their quality of life? How can we give people conditions for a better human life, without knowing what a better life consists of?” (Deneulin 2002, pp. 500-501). Thus, Sen’s pluralist perspective is precisely what makes the approach non-operational for policy makers. 


This leads us to Jorge Buzaglo’s arguments. He rejects the partition of economics between the categories “orthodox/heterodox”, and asserts that although Amartya Sen is an orthodox economist, he applies the “conventional apparatus to the advancement of a progressive cause”.



Beyond the homo economicus?


Jorge Buzaglo  believes that the real force of the capability approach is that it enables us to go beyond the “homo economicus model of conventional microeconomics [which] does not specify how the preferences of the mind have been themselves determined, and even less how the mind determines the body to perform its “optimal” decisions in the market”. He proposes, following the “Spinozian roots” of the capability approach, to introduce “the notion of an (intersubjective) economic mental space”, which would make parts of standard theory lose their “enchanting power”: “A case in point is the Arrow-Debreu model of general equilibrium, the central piece of conventional economic theory, and the archetype of interaction between atomistic, self-caused minds, and passive bodies (consumers, factor owners, firms, etc.) acting in the markets”.


A few things need to  be noted here. First, Amartya Sen has never rejected the Arrow-Debreu model: he simply proposes to adjust it in order to extend it “to the perspective of substantial freedoms” (Sen 1999, p. 119). Second, Sen has never criticized the notion of society that this model represents. Regardless of how consumers are represented, the Arrow Debreu model of general equilibrium is not a representation of “decentralized” or “market economies”, as Sen (Sen 1999, p. 117) and Buzaglo imply. The society represented is a centralized system with price-taker agents and an auctioneer that establishes, through “tâtonnement”, the prices on the basis of the total quantities supplied and demanded. Agents can neither propose prices nor exchange directly.


Changing the representation of the consumer in microeconomic theory (from the homo economicus to some other representation) does not change the nature of the society which is represented. It does not remove the “enchanting power” of  “markets”, which, in  the idealized theoretical case, are centralised systems.


Because the society described by the Arrow-Debreu model refers to some kind of planned economy, real-life reforms based on this model would entail “more imposed rules”, “given prices”, etc.  Yet this is far from being Sen’s position. In fact if one looks at Sen’s works concerning the intervention of the state in the economy, no clear position can be found. Indeed, his stance is highly ambiguous and sometimes contradicts the theoretical framework he retains, that is, the Arrow-Debreu model.


For example, in “Radical Needs and Moderate Reforms”, Sen claims, concerning the economic reforms aiming at India’s “liberalisation”  and “deregulation”, that:

The departures are too moderate – and too tolerant of parts of established tradition of economic planning in India. More – rather than less -- radicalism is needed at this time. (Sen 1997, p. 4)

He also says:

The counter productive nature of some of the governmental restrictions, controls and regulations has been clear for a long time. They have not only interfered with the efficiency of economic operations (especially for modern industries), but also have often failed lamentably to promote any kind of real equity in distributional matters. (ibid, p. 9)


Yet, Sen admits in another book written with Jean Drèze:

The government may have a major role in initiating and facilitating market-reliant economic growth (…) This role is easy to understand in the light of economic theory – particularly related to difficulties of initiation, connected with such difficulties of ‘tâtonnement’ (pre-exchange negotiations about market prices, leading to simultaneous production decisions), economies of large scale, importance of technological externalities, and the integral nature of skill formation. The nurturing of an early market mechanism by an active state does not, of course, preclude a more self-sufficient role of the market later on.” (Drèze & Sen 1995, p. 19)5.

 Drèze and Sen would still have to explain how, theoretically, this “market” could “later on” be “more self-sufficient”…


One can indeed ask: Are the European and the US  markets “self sufficient”? To answer these sorts of questions, one has to think about what markets really are, to reflect on their actual “mechanisms”, etc.. And, as far as I know, studying Sen doesn’t help much in tackling these difficult questions.





Although Amartya Sen possesses admirable personal qualities (tolerance, enthusiasm and, as I myself experienced during an OFCE conference in Paris, a great sense of humour), I really do not see how the theory he proposes can be used for analysing real-world issues, nor how his positions in matters of economic policy can be considered “radical” or “progressive”:  Sen doesn’t propose anything, except generalities about “freedom”, education, and health. Furthermore, he never treats issues relating to the means to implement these general positions: How are the schools to be financed? What fiscal system leads to the “equality of capabilities”?


Furthermore, wouldn’t it be most peculiar if international organisations such as the World Bank took as a reference point a “progressive” and “radical” economist?  Sure, some neoclassical economists take “radical” and “progressive” positions. For example, Joseph Stiglitz harshly criticized IMF policy and supported Argentina’s non payment. But this is far from being Sen’s case, since he has never offered clear and open positions on concrete matters.





1. Emmanuelle Benicourt, “Is Amartya Sen a Post-Autistic Economist?”, post-autistic economics review, issue no. 15, September 4, 2002, article 4.


2. Ingrid Robeyns,  “In Defence of Amartya Senpost-autistic economics review, issue no. 17, December 4, 2002, article 5.


3. Jorge Buzaglo, “Capabilities: From Spinoza to Sen and Beyond.: Parts I and II”, post-autistic economics review, issues no. 20 and 21,  June and September 2003, and


4.He had already critiqued monist approaches in On Ethics and Economics: “In the utilitarian approach all the diverse goods are reduced into a homogeneous descriptive magnitude (as utility is supposed to be). (…) Not only is there a unified complete view of ethical goodness (weighting the different objects of value vis-à-vis each other), but even the objects of value must be all of the same type (singular and homogeneous) in this ‘monist’ conception.” (Sen 1987, pp. 62-63).


5.They also assert: “the formal theory of achievements of the market mechanism is, implicitly, much dependent on governmental action” (Drèze & Sen 1995, p. 19).





Deneulin, Séverine (2002), “Perfectionism, paternalism and liberalism in Sen and Nussbaum’s Capability approach”,  Review of Political Economy, Vol.14, N°4, October 2002, pp. 497-518.


Drexe, Jean & Sen, Amartya K. (1995), India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity, Oxford, Clarendon Press.


Kant, Emmanuel (1796), Métaphysique des mœurs : doctrine du droit, Paris, Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1988.


Mill, John Stuart (1861), Utilitarianism, in Utilitarianism, On Liberty and Other Essays, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 129-201.


Sen, Amartya K. (1987), On Ethics and Economics, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.


Sen, Amartya K. (1993), “Capability and Well-Being”,  Nussbaum & Sen (eds.), The Quality of Life, Oxford, Clarendon Press, pp. 30-53.


Sen, Amartya K. (1997) “Radical Needs and Moderate Reforms”, Drèze & Sen (eds.), Indian Development: Selected Regional Perspectives, Oxford, Oxford University Press.


Sen, Amartya K. (1999), Development as Freedom, New York, Anchor Books, 2000.


Smith, Adam (1790), The Theory of Moral Sentiments, The Glasgow Edition, Ed. D. D. Raphael & A. L. Macfie, Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, 1976.


Emmanuelle Benicourt, Amartya Sen Again “”, post-autistic economics review, issue no. 24, 15 March 2004, article 5,