What if the pursuit of happiness wasn’t enough?

Every Sunday I like to post an article about a contemporary thinker (a philosopher, sociologist, economist, etc) who is in the news.  After Edgar Morin (What if our disintegration becomes a metamorphosis?), I now turn to Amartya Sen: Indian economist and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in economy for his work in the economics of well-being who has recently published a work called The Idea of Justice.  For Sen, justice is not an ideal, but rather it is a progressive objective that one should strive for.  Knowing what makes a just world is less important than eliminating injustices that can be repaired.  This weekend, he sat down to an interview with Le Figaro.  The article is titled “The Pursuit of Happiness cannot be Society’s Sole Purpose”.

Recap by Wikipedia:

“In 1981, Sen published Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), a book in which he demonstrated that famine occurs not only from a lack of food, but from inequalities built into the mechanisms for distributing food. Sen’s interest in famine stemmed from personal experience. As a nine-year-old boy, he witnessed the Bengal famine of 1943, in which three million people perished. This staggering loss of life was unnecessary, Sen later concluded. He presents data that there was an adequate food supply in Bengal at the time, but particular groups of people including rural landless laborers and urban service providers like haircutters did not have the monetary means to acquire food as its price rose rapidly due to factors that include British military acquisition, panic buying, hoarding, and price gouging, all connected to the war in the region. In Poverty and Famines, Sen revealed that in many cases of famine, food supplies were not significantly reduced. In Bengal, for example, food production, while down on the previous year, was higher than in previous non-famine years. Thus, Sen points to a number of social and economic factors, such as declining wages, unemployment, rising food prices, and poor food-distribution systems. These issues led to starvation among certain groups in society. His capabilities approach focuses on positive freedom, a person’s actual ability to be or do something, rather than on negative freedom approaches, which are common in economics and simply focuses on non-interference. In the Bengal famine, rural laborers’ negative freedom to buy food was not affected. However, they still starved because they were not positively free to do anything, they did not have the functioning of nourishment, nor the capability to escape morbidity….. Sen’s revolutionary contribution to development economics and social indicators is the concept of ‘capability’ developed in his article “Equality of What.” He argues that governments should be measured against the concrete capabilities of their citizens. This is because top-down development will always trump human rights as long as the definition of terms remains in doubt (is a ‘right’ something that must be provided or something that simply cannot be taken away?).”

Here is what I took away from his interview in Le Figaro:

“In a way, we have witnessed two extremes, each of which are currently crumbling: absolute confidence in the State and absolute confidence in the market.”

“There is a profound misunderstanding concerning liberal economic thought….Liberal thinkers, such as Condorcet or Adam Smith, were strong believers in the free market, and yet they did not think it infallible…Adam Smith never reduced human action to mere self interest or pleasure…he defended values which go beyond self-fulfillment such as disinterested sympathy towards others.”

”Philosophically speaking, a world without a moral compass would be a world without hope.  This is why the notion of justice is so important.  It is at the heart of the “capability”—the material and moral possibility– for individuals to lead their lives.  One can choose to fast in protest like Gandhi did, but if one does not eat simply because there is nothing to eat, freedom is inconceivable.  Victory over material poverty is not enough to create capability: people must also have psychological means to want what they deem necessary for their betterment.  This is why we must not only take into account material revenues, but also the level of education and the quality of health in a society.  This is what’s at stake for democracy…”

“Striving for greater justice, contributes to one’s happiness, but one doesn’t strive solely for that reason.  The idea of justice cannot merely depend upon happiness, the pursuit of justice must stay at the center of our preoccupations.”

The theory maintained by Amartya Sen in The Idea of Justice upholds justice and liberty for each person so that he may maximize his “capabilities”, and places liberty and justice above happiness. “The liberty to choose our lives can largely contribute to our well-being, but above this perspective, liberty in and of itself deserves to be valued.”

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