Amartya Sen

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Amartya Sen during a lecture at the University of Cologne in 2007 on the occasion of the awarding of the Meister Eckhart Prize

Amartya Kumar Sen , CH ( Bengali অমর্ত্য সেন Amartya Sen , [ ˈɔmort: o ˈʃen ]; born November 3, 1933 in Shantiniketan , West Bengal ) is an Indian economist and philosopher . His main research interests include the problem of poverty and welfare economics . He is Professor of Economics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts .

In 1998 Sen received the Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics for his work on welfare economics, the theory of economic development and the standard of living .

His contributions to the interdependence of economic freedom, social opportunities and security and political freedom ( democracy ), the relationship to poverty reduction and the theory of collective decisions were also groundbreaking . He saw the importance of the gender issue and the feminist economy early on. He is considered one of the most prominent critics of the theory of rational decision .

The establishment of the Human Development Index , which the United Nations Development Program has published regularly updated since 1990, goes back to Sens's suggestions . The Sen index is also named after him. In 2020 he was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade .

Life and school


Amartya Sen comes from an educated and well-off family. His father was a professor of chemistry at the University of Dhaka . In his early years he was shaped by the various campuses on which he lived with his family. "I was born in a University campus and seem to have lived all my life in one campus or another." (I was born on a university campus and seem to have lived on some campus all my life.) He attended the Shantiniketan School founded and directed by Rabindranath Tagore .

Aside from the political turmoil that struck India in the 1940s, there are two key experiences of social injustice that shaped Sen at a young age that sparked his interest in economics , ethics and political philosophy :

He experienced one in 1941 at the age of eight. Hindu extremists stabbed Muslim day laborer Kader Mia in the back on the street. He fled to the Sen family home, from where his father immediately took him to the nearest hospital. On the way there, Kader told Mia that he had been warned by his wife not to work in an area with local unrest. However, his economic situation forced him to accept such dangers. He died in the hospital. This experience opened Amartya Sen's eyes to how closely social injustice and lack of freedom go together.

The second important experience was the famine of Bengal in 1943. Although it killed around 1.5 to 4 million people, Sen could not see the slightest signs of the catastrophe in his immediate vicinity, because only the lowest, the ones, were affected "Invisible" layers of society.


After completing his school education, Sen studied economics at the Presidency College in Calcutta , where he received his bachelor's degree in 1953 . He then deepened his studies in economics at the University of Cambridge in England . There he received, among other things, the Adam Smith Prize of the University in 1954 and another prize which enabled him to take a four-year course of his choice. Since, in his opinion, philosophy and economics are close to each other on many levels, he decided to study the first as well. Bachelor's degree in Economics he obtained in 1955 and the Masters 1959th

Amartya Sen taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology , Stanford , Berkeley, and Harvard University as a visiting professor in the 1960s . From 1963 to 1971 he taught economics at Delhi University and the Delhi School of Economics . He then worked at the London School of Economics and, from 1977, at Oxford , where he taught both economics and political economy and published his first works, including the book Collective Choice and Social Welfare , which earned him a worldwide reputation. Sen was one of the founding fathers of the World Institute for Development of Economic Research (WIDER) in Helsinki, a department of the United Nations University (UNU), for which he worked on various projects from the mid-1980s. From 1987 onwards, Sen worked closely with the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum , who developed a specific variant of his “ skills approach ”.

In 1988 Amartya Sen moved to Harvard , where he was professor of philosophy and economics for ten years. From 1998 to 2004 he served as the head of Trinity College, Cambridge before returning to Harvard.

Further work

Sen is a Fellow of the British Academy , a fellow at Darwin College , Cambridge and a member of the American Philosophical Society . He also works as a volunteer consultant for the Oxfam organization.

Sen is one of the founders of the World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University (UNU-WIDER) and was Research Adviser on several UNU-WIDER projects from 1985 to 1991.

In 1994, Sen presided over the American Economic Association as president-elect.

Since the beginning of 2008, Sen has been the scientific director of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress ( Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi-Commission ), which, on behalf of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, determined innovative measurement criteria for qualitative economic growth ( prosperity indicator ) and in September 2009 submitted their final report. In September 2010 he was involved in the founding of the Spinelli Group , which advocates European federalism .


Sen was first married to Nabanita Dev Sen , an Indian writer. With her he has two daughters, Antara and Nandana. After moving to London, the couple divorced in 1971.

In 1973 he married Eva Colorni , the daughter of Ursula Hirschmann and Eugenio Colorni and the stepdaughter of Altiero Spinelli , who died of cancer in 1985. They have two children, the daughter Indrani and the son Kabir.

In 1986 he met Martha Nussbaum at the World Institute for Development of Economic Research in Helsinki. She is a renowned philosopher and professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago. In the following seven years, Nussbaum led a philosophical project at the institute founded by Sen, familiarized himself with the reality of India and later carried out his own field studies there. The two lived together for several years, raised their children from previous marriages together and initiated initiatives that should build bridges between a committed university and (development) politics.

Sen has been married to Emma Rothschild for the third time since 1991 . She is a British economic historian and a professor at Harvard University.

Thought and work


Amartya Sens's thinking is shaped by the question of how the different needs of people can be mapped in economic theory in such a way that the theory provides clues as to how general welfare can be improved. Traditional economic theory deals with this question in microeconomics and there specifically in household theory or in welfare economics . Initiated by the work of Kenneth Arrow and his impossibility theorem , Sen developed a comprehensive critique of the classical and neoclassical theories of economics. At the same time, he insisted on looking for solutions to his concerns within the framework of economic theory, and made important contributions to the social choice theory founded by Arrow (Social Choice). In 1970 his basic work Collective Choice and Social Welfare appeared on this .

The core of Sens's criticism of the traditional economy is directed against the fact that it does not allow any statements about social inequality and distributive justice without significant restrictions . The 1973 book On Economic Inequality summarizes his views on the subject. Sen dealt with the issue of poverty and famine in the 1981 essay Poverty and Famines . In addition to improving the underlying theories, the aim of Sens's research was also to expand the methodology used to record and measure social inequality and, above all, poverty. A number of important articles appeared in the anthologies Choice, Welfare and Measurement (1982) and Resources, Values ​​and Development (1984).

In the 1980 essay Equality of What? Sen entered the debate about the justice theory of John Rawls and for the first time took the view that it was not primarily about the distribution of goods, but about opportunities that people can achieve. Income is not decisive for the quality of life, because even with a good income there can be oppression and lack of freedom. The standard of living is a step forward in this regard, but not yet sufficient, according to Sen in his Tanner Lectures of 1985 ( The Standard of Living , 1986). Traditional economics must recognize that, in addition to egoistic self-interest, other values ​​are also decisive for human agency, even if both regularly influence each other ( On Ethics and Economics , 1987). Involved in various UN projects carried Sen significantly to the development of the first 1990 World Development Report published the Human Development Index (English Human Development Index , HDI for short) at. In the 1980s and 1990s Sen also dealt with empirical work on the problem of hunger. He published extensive studies on this together with Jean Drèze ( Hunger and Public Action , 1989). One focus was on his home country India; he also highlighted the success of Indian democracy in fighting hunger ( India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity , 1995).

Sen addressed a wide audience with his writing Development as Freedom (1999), in which he summarized his thoughts without using formal economic representations. Another contribution to political philosophy is the book Identity and Violence (2006), in which Sen turns against the debate about the war of civilizations . Through blanket ascriptions of peculiarities and mentalities, prejudices of fundamentalists would be reinforced and the identity trap would snap. It can be overcome if pluralism is not only accepted but actively promoted.

Sen's most recent book is a fundamental elaboration on the idea of ​​justice (2009). In it Sen u. a. the ideas of the capability approach and social choice theory to sketch a theory of justice that he contrasts with those of John Rawls , Immanuel Kant , David Hume or Jean-Jacques Rousseau . He criticizes their theories because, according to him, they only define the ideal, just world, which makes the ethical evaluation of real conditions hardly possible. In addition, he opposes both consequentialism and narrowly understood deontological ethics and instead suggests evaluating justice on the basis of what has actually been achieved as well as the institutions leading to it. He builds on a distinction from ancient Indian jurisprudence between niti (about justice in the sense of institutions) and nyaya (justice in the sense of what is actually realized). Another important aspect for him is objectivity and impartiality (here he builds on a figure of thought by Adam Smith , the impartial spectator ).

To social choice

The social choice theory (English Social Choice Theory ) addresses the context of the collective decision of a group with the preferences of their individuals. Their aim is to unite them and to ask whether such decisions are an expression and reflection of the preferences of the individual.

Amartya Sen, who is very optimistic about social choice theory, noted that the reactions and waves of 1950s publications and their interpretations that followed Arrow 's “ impossibility theorem ” negatively overshadowed the prospects of social choice. Sen were not satisfied with these negative interpretations. He therefore set out in search of a way that could preserve the systematic and axiomatic nature of the theory and still achieve a positive result with its practical usefulness. He assumed that the idea of ​​using ratio to build a better and more desirable society had always spurred mankind. The increase in freedom and the achievement of development goals are primarily shaped by values ​​and rational considerations. He then made it his business to provide evidence of their feasibility through philosophical reflection and economic evidence. Sen states that “Arrow's theorem” does not indicate the impossibility of a social choice, but the necessity of using several information bases. However, one should not rely solely on majority rule in disputes at the economic level, as it is not clear whether the social and economic positions of the minorities are included. Information necessary for decisions (e.g. poverty ) could be hidden.

A translated to social unity policy should not act on the basis of given individual preferences and directives, but must also take part in their development. The public discussion plays a significant role in this. However, no social consensus is required for a functioning solution. Most of the solutions have unexpected and unintended consequences. Their likelihood should also be considered in order to better evaluate arguments for certain institutions. For example, the increase in abortion and child mortality rates in China - and especially for female fetuses and children - had increased dramatically after the introduction of the one-child policy . The legislators only wanted to get the population growth under control and by no means induce people to neglect or even kill their children. Anticipating unwanted consequences is an important part of the effort for institutional transformation and rationally based social change.

Amartya Sen is also known for the paradox of liberalism .

Development as freedom

Amartya Sen presented the thoughts on this topic in the work Development as Freedom (German title "Economics for people"). The twelve chapters of the book are based on six lectures he gave at the World Bank .

Sens's main idea here is aimed at increasing individual freedoms in order to reduce social, global injustice . First he drafts a concept according to which freedom or the chances of realization are the basis of ethical action and the actual development goal (“capability approach”). The increase in gross domestic product is just a by- product of this process. He concludes from this that it is important that developing countries should establish a general education and health system at an early stage. The equality and education of women is not only necessary to increase the standard of living, but also the best way to birth control.

As you can see from the original English title, the concept of development is of central importance. His understanding of development is far removed from modernization and dependence theories . Sen does not understand the yardstick for development alone - as is customary from a neoclassical point of view - in the growth of per capita income. For him, development is seen as the freedom of people to achieve a life that they can appreciate. This requires much more than just a high income - especially since the gross domestic product does not provide any information about income distribution and people's needs. Disabled people need z. B. a higher income in order to achieve the same degree of freedom as non-disabled people. In addition to economic factors, social and political factors also played a significant role. In doing so, he attempts to revive the ethical dimension of economics. He wants to bring economics and philosophy closer together. Development is the enlargement of the freedoms of the people - it is supposed to expand the human possibilities of realization ( capabilities ).

Freedom, a concept that is in constant interaction with development, manifests itself in procedures that allow both freedom of action and freedom of choice, and in opportunities that people have given their own social circumstances. Furthermore, freedoms are the basic building blocks of development, with the freedom to expand individual chances of realization playing the greatest role. Individual freedom enables people to help themselves and to influence their surroundings. It is therefore both the means and the goal of development.

The status of development can be seen on two levels:

  • Evaluative level: it is determined when the freedoms have increased.
  • Effectiveness level: Here, the freedom of action is used to measure whether development has been achieved or not.

Five complementary freedoms are important for the development process:

1. Political freedom
For them, democracy plays an essential role, because it increases people's chances of realization and is therefore the best form of government . It is an essential way of expanding freedoms. The reason is that it enables people to express their opinions. At the same time, the values ​​and priorities of society can be set publicly and communicatively.
2. Economic institutions
An additional important factor for development is undisturbed and free access to the market and to work . Because state regulations are legitimate or even necessary under certain circumstances, Sen does not advocate a pure market economy .
3. Social opportunities
Starting with the social institutions , people are enabled to participate in economic progress. The performance of the market depends not only on political but also to a large extent on social conditions.
4. Social transparency
Transparency is the basis of trust on which a functioning society is built. It works to prevent corruption and the irresponsible use of financial resources and power. Political and economic freedoms are strongly influenced by transparency guarantees. In the same breath, Sen mentions the development of capitalist morality as the historical merit of capitalism .
5. Social security
It is one of the instrumental freedoms that are on the one hand an aim and on the other hand a means of development. Social insurance often prevents extreme misery or poverty from occurring, and can even save people from death. Among other things, this category includes help for the unemployed, support in times of famine and the poor. In The Economy for Humans , Amartya Sen speaks out against two common objections against state social systems. On the one hand, the claim that too much support would deprive the recipient of unemployment benefits of motivation to look for work. Since empirical evidence does not provide any data or statistics on this alleged phenomenon, Sen questions this statement. Apart from that, the dependency is a degrading condition for the beneficiary. He rejects the second criticism, which says that the system is often abused. He argues that such support cannot be reduced or eliminated without affecting those who really need it.

In contrast to views such as those advocated by Robert Nozick , for example , who describe the Sen as “neoliberalist” , he is of the opinion that the state and society have to expand the individual chances of realization so that the basis for independent action can be created, because people are actively involved in shaping their fate.

Sen then explains the prospects for development - overcoming hunger and malnutrition, combating poverty and inequality, increasing life expectancy and curbing population growth .

The problem with hunger in the world is that it is accepted and accepted as if nothing can be done about it. Famines are less the result of food shortages and more often the result of a distribution problem, insofar as some have inadequate access to the available food.

Causal for famine can be:

  • unexpected fluctuations in the relative price level of products,
  • a general shortage of jobs,
  • a one-sided economic upswing that does not benefit the majority of the population,
  • an exaggerated fear of food shortages, which in the short term drives up prices.

According to Sen, there are three strategies that can be used to escape hunger:

  1. The aim is to systematically restore a minimum level of income and access rights for everyone affected by economic change.
  2. Public job creation programs should be reliable so that the famine victim is not degraded to a passive, charitable person.
  3. However, the best remedy for famine is democracy.

Poverty is an expression of a lack of fundamental opportunities for realization. The relationship between income and attainment opportunities is influenced by:

  • Marital status, number of children, gender and social role,
  • Difficulties in changing income in offices,
  • Division within the family - e.g. B. the preference of the male sex,
  • a corresponding shortage of income, which brings with it a universal shortage of opportunities for realization.
  • Unemployment as a major impediment to human attainment.

Greater real incomes and rapid economic growth did not, as is often claimed, automatically lead to an increase in life expectancy. Sen differentiates between a growth-related and a socially supported reduction in the death rate.

Since the earth will undoubtedly be overpopulated by the end of the 21st century with continued population growth, Sen advises countermeasures. The most effective method is the equality, employment and education of women in all parts of the world. Above all, improving the position of young women in society is an effective approach. He illustrates this with some studies that link the increased level of education of women or their integration into the work process with the lowering of the birth rate.

Awards, prizes and memberships

Works (selection)


  • Collective Choice and Social Welfare . Holden-Day, San Francisco 1970.
  • Poverty and Famines. An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation . Clarendon Press, Oxford 1982, ISBN 0-19-828463-2 .
  • Commodities and Capabilities . North Holland, Amsterdam 1985, ISBN 0-19-565038-7 .
  • The standard of living . translated by Ilse Utz. Rotbuch-Verlag, Hamburg 1990, ISBN 3-434-53062-2 .
    • English original edition: The Standard of Living . Tanner Lectures in Human Values, The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, Cambridge 1987.
  • Economic inequality . translated and introduced by Hans G. Nutzinger . Campus-Verlag, Frankfurt / New York 1975, ISBN 3-593-32138-6 . (New edition: Metropolis-Verlag, Marburg, ISBN 978-3-89518-698-1 )
  • Martha Nussbaum , Amartya Sen (ed.): The Quality of Life. A study for the World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER) of the United Nations University. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1995, ISBN 0-19-828797-6 .
  • On economic inequality. (Extended edition with an appendix: “On Economic Inequality” after a Quarter Century with James Foster). Clarendon Press, Oxford 1997, ISBN 0-19-828193-5 .
  • with Jean Drèze: Poverty and Famines. along with Hunger and Public Action. and India - Economic Development and Social Opportunity. In: The Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze Omnibus. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1999, ISBN 0-19-564831-5 .
  • Economy for people. Paths to Justice and Solidarity in the Market Economy. translated by Christiana Goldmann. Hanser, Munich 2000, ISBN 3-446-19943-8 . (also: dtv, Munich 2002, ISBN 3-423-36264-2 )
    • English original edition: Development as Freedom . Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • The identity trap. Why there is no war of civilizations . translated by Friedrich Griese. CH Beck, Munich 2007, ISBN 978-3-406-55812-2 . (also: dtv, Munich 2010, ISBN 978-3-423-34601-6 )
    • English original edition: Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny . WW Norton, New York 2006.
  • The idea of ​​justice . CH Beck, Munich 2010, ISBN 978-3-406-60653-3 .
    • English original edition: The Idea of ​​Justice . Harvard University Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-674-03613-0 . Review: Alexandra Kemmerer, ideals have to put up with the practical test (Amartya Sen: The Idea of ​​Justice), in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung v. October 29, 2009, available online:
  • Working paper in collaboration with Joseph E. Stiglitz and Jean-Paul Fitoussi : The Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress Revisited: Reflections and Overview . Document de travail OFCE 2009, (PDF; 437 kB) .
    • Also published as a book: Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn't Add Up . The New Press, New York / London, 2010. ISBN 978-1-59558-519-6 .
  • with Eric S. Maskin (Ed.): The Arrow Impossibility Theorem . Columbia University Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0-231-15328-7 .
  • with Jean Drèze : India, a country and its contradictions . Beck, Munich 2014, ISBN 978-3-406-67029-9 .
    • English Original Edition : An Uncertain Glory. India, and Its Contradictions . Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, USA 2013, ISBN 978-0-691-16079-5 .
  • The Country of First Boys: And Other Essays . Oxford University Press, 2015, ISBN 978-0-19-873818-3 .
  • Collective Choice and Social Welfare: Expanded Edition . Penguin, 2017, ISBN 978-0-14-198250-2 .

Essays and professional articles

  • Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal . In: Journal of Political Economy . tape 78 , no. 1 , 1970, p. 152-157 .
  • Choice Functions and Revealed Preference . In: Review of Economic Studies . tape 38 , no. 115 , 1973, pp. 307-317 .
  • Partha Dasgupta , Amartya Sen, David Starrett: Notes on Measurement of Inequality . In: Journal of Economic Theory . tape 6 , no. 2 , 1973, p. 180-187 .
  • Poverty - Ordinal Approach to Measurement . In: Econometrica . tape 44 , no. 2 , 1976, p. 219-231 .
  • Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory . In: Philosophy and Public Affairs . tape 6 , no. 4 , 1977, pp. 317-344 .
  • Social Choice Theory: Re-Examination . In: Econometrica . tape 45 , no. 1 , 1977, pp. 53-89 .
  • Equality of What? Paper presented as part of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, held at Stanford University on May 22, 1979, online (PDF; 181 kB), accessed May 10, 2012.
  • Poor, relatively speaking . In: Oxford Economic Papers. New Series . tape 35 , no. 2 , 1983, p. 153-169 .
  • The Profit Motives . 1983, In: Amartya Sen (Ed.): Resources, Value and Development. Blackwell, Oxford 1984, ISBN 0-631-13342-9 .
  • The Moral Standing of the Market . In: Dieter Helm (Ed.): The Economic Borders of the State. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1986, ISBN 0-19-828606-6 .
  • Freedom of Choice. Concept and content. In: European Economic Review . March 1988, pp. 269-294, doi: 10.1016 / 0014-2921 (88) 90173-0 .
  • Socialism, Markets and Democracy 1958. In: Indian Economic Journal . April-June 1990.
  • The world population bomb. A global problem - delusion and reality . In: Lettre International . Issue 27, 1994, pp. 6-13.
  • Health: Perception versus Observation - Self-reported Morbidity Has Severe Limitations and Can Be Extremely Misleading . In: British Medical Journal . tape 324 , no. 7342 , 2002, pp. 860-861 .
  • Elements of a Theory of Human Rights . In: Philosophy and Public Affairs . tape 32 , no. 4 , 2004, p. 315-356 .


Web links

Commons : Amartya Sen  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Nobel Prize Winner Amartya Sen - Reason is more than self-interest. Retrieved on October 11, 2020 (German).
  2. Amartya Sen: The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity . Penguin, London 2006, ISBN 0-14-101211-0 , pp. 115 (English).
  3. UNU WIDER: Amartya Sen - Publications and CV
  4. ^ WHO biography
  5. ^ Past and Present Officers. ( American Economic Association ), accessed October 27, 2015 .
  6. Autobiography on the homepage of the Nobel Prize Committee.
  7. Like (professor) father, like (rapper) son , accessed February 19, 2011.
  8. Who thinks for tomorrow ?: Not from bread alone , accessed on February 19, 2011.
  9. Emma Rothschild ( memento of October 4, 2009 in the Internet Archive ) , accessed on February 19, 2011.
  10. Interview with Amartya Sen, in: Herlinde Pauer-Studer (Ed.): Constructions of practical reason. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 2000, 185.
  11. Amartya Sen: Economy for the people. Paths to Justice and Solidarity in the Market Economy. Hanser, Munich 2000, pp. 70-89.
  12. Georges Enderle: Amartya Sen: Nobel Prize Winner in Economics 1998 and Pioneer of Business Ethics, Forum Business Ethics 1/1999.
  13. ^ Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought., accessed October 12, 2015 .
  14. Bruno Kreisky Prize for the Political Book Prize Winners 1993–2018 ,, accessed December 1, 2019
  15. Members: Amartya Kumar Sen. Royal Irish Academy, accessed May 12, 2019 .
  16. Amartya Sen - Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Retrieved June 17, 2020 .