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Amartya Sen

To resume discussion of the question I raised yesterday: is any living thinker with academic cred a cognitivist and intuitionist in meta-ethics, as well as a teleologist and  pluralist in substantive ethics.

I did receive one answer from my various postings of this question that deserves further inquiry: Amartya Sen (1933-).

I looked into it a bit further. Sen is the author of COMMODITIES AND CAPABILITIES (1985); ETHICS AND ECONOMICS (1987); DEVELOPMENT AS FREEDOM (1999).

In the first of these books, Sen looked at empirical evidence on gross national product per capita in various countries, and asked whether it correlates with other sensible-seeming measures of the well being of a country: life expectancy and infant mortality. Brazil and Mexico, he found, had more than SEVEN TIMES the per capita production of Sri Lanka, India, or China. But does that extra money buy them happiness? Sri Lanka does better than any of the other countries just listed by longevity and child mortality.

Sen built on this thought and proposed a way of evaluating ethical success or failure based on human capabilities, and an understanding of the multi-variant nature of the activities that give rise to happiness.

In ETHICS AND ECONOMICS, Sen tried to bring those two fields of scholarship into closer contact than has been their wont. Even if economics seeks to be entirely descriptive and predictive it may benefit from recognizing that ethical principles do inspire behavior. This recognizing might widen a science that in his view has tied itself to a narrow notion of self-interested behavior.

So far as I can tell from a still very superficial understanding of his work, we may have a winner in terms of finding Berlin an heir.

Intriguingly, it was only after I reached that tentative conclusion that I found that Sen had delivered the 2011 Annual Isaiah Berlin Lecture at Oxford University. Here's a link.


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