Life stories from Drew Faust, Howard Gardner, Annette Gordon-Reed, Martin Karplus, Toshiko Mori, Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, Paul Farmer, and many more, in the Experience series.
Coming from a long line of Hindu intellectuals and teachers, Amartya Sen enjoyed advantages and freedoms that few others did in a deeply-stratified India of the 1930s, during the waning days of the British empire.
Teaching was in his blood, and from an early age, Sen was struck by the stark economic inequities he saw all around him under the British raj. Identifying and understanding the causes and effects that inequalities, like those surrounding poverty or gender, had on people’s lives would become a lifelong intellectual lodestar for the political economist, moral philosopher, and social theorist.
Many economists focus on explaining and predicting what is happening in the world. But Sen, considered the key figure at the convergence of economics and philosophy, turned his attention instead to what the reality should be and why we fall short.
“I think he’s the greatest living figure in normative economics, which asks not ‘What do we see?’ but ‘What should we aspire to?’ and ‘How do we even work out what we should aspire to?’” said Eric S. Maskin ’72, Ph.D. ’76, Adams University Professor and professor of economics and mathematics.
Over his 65-year career, Sen’s research and ideas have touched many areas of the field. He’s credited as one of the founding fathers of modern social-choice theory with his landmark 1970 book, “Collective Choice and Social Welfare.” The book took up the late Harvard economist Kenneth Arrow’s ideas from the early 1950s about how to combine different individuals’ well-being into a measure of social well-being, intensifying interest in and expanding upon Arrow’s work.
“It was really Amartya who made the field what it became,” said Maskin, a 2007 Nobel laureate in economics who has taught with Sen, the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and professor of economics and philosophy, since the 1990s.
Sen’s 1970 paper, “The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal,” was deeply influential on philosophy and economics. In it, he pointed to an inherent conflict between individual liberty and the principle that making people better off is always desirable.
His work on famines and his novel view that in order to accurately evaluate people’s well-being, economists needed to consider information beyond just income has reshaped thinking in development economics and welfare economics. Known as the “capabilities approach,” the study of how policy affects a person’s life opportunities, an area of economics that’s grown in recent years, “is very much based on ideas that Amartya developed years and years ago,” said Maskin.
In 1998, Sen received the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for his theoretical, field, and ethics work in welfare economics and for his research advancing the understanding of social-choice theory, poverty, and the measurement of welfare.
He has received top civilian honors around the world, including France’s Légion d’Honneur (2012) and India’s Bharat Ratna (1999), as well as more than 100 honorary degrees from institutions on five continents. Sen received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Harvard Law School in 2000 and is a senior fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard.
At 87, Sen, who lives near Harvard with his wife, Emma Rothschild, the Jeremy and Jane Knowles Professor of History, has no interest in resting on his considerable laurels. In addition to teaching one course each semester, either in economics, history or philosophy, Sen is a sharp, frequent critic of contemporary Indian politics. He recently completed a new book, “Home in the World: A Memoir” set for release in July in the U.K., with a U.S. release soon to follow.
GAZETTE: Tell me a little bit about your family and life growing in India in the 1930s.
SEN: I come from a family with an academic background. My father was a professor of chemistry in Dhaka University, which is [located in what is] now the capital of Bangladesh. My mother had a mixture of professions. She was quite a successful dancer once, but she was also an editor of a magazine that she edited for about 30 years. Her father was a very famous professor of Sanskrit at Visva-Bharati University established in Shantiniketan, which is a small town about 100 miles from Calcutta. I spent quite a lot of time as a child with my grandparents in Shantiniketan when the war was going on with Japan. I studied there from the age of 7 to the age of 17.
They were not particularly strict. They were rather progressive parents. They themselves came from an academic background on both sides. They’d all been to the universities, and even though they had professions of other kinds, not always teaching — my paternal grandfather was a lawyer and a judge — I think they were just interested in academia quite a bit. My father was a natural scientist and a chemist; whereas on my mother’s side, they were much more interested in humanities.
GAZETTE: Why were you living with your grandparents and not your parents?
SEN: I was with my grandparents because the war was going on at that time between Japan and the Allied forces. The Japanese army came all the way into the eastern side of India from Burma. So that was the reason for me to be not in a big town like Calcutta or Dhaka, but in a small university town where my grandfather was teaching Sanskrit. Japanese bombs would not come down on a university town, but they could come down in Calcutta, in Dhaka. In fact Dhaka didn’t get any bombing at all; Calcutta did get some, but not very much really.
I liked the university town atmosphere. I loved the fact that my school was progressive. It was a coeducational school with an almost equal number of boys and girls. The library was open shelf, so I could go all the time up and down and look at my own books. That’s why I spent an incredible amount of time in the libraries. It’s a kind of life that suited me.
GAZETTE: The Visva-Bharati school was established by the Nobel laureate novelist, poet, playwright, philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, an associate of your grandfather’s who had a skeptical view of Western education. How unusual was the school’s curriculum and approach to education for the era?
SEN: It was unusual in many ways, even for it to be coeducational. In fact, my college at Cambridge, Trinity College, was the first single-sex educational establishment I studied at. But it was progressive in many other ways too, in terms of the freedom of choice that the students had. My mother, who went to the same school as me, learned, while in school, judo and other things which girls very often didn’t really do in those days. She also appeared on stage as a dancer. Established, middle-class families often hesitated in India to go on stage, but she did. She didn’t maintain her career as a dancer, though she was quite successful in that, but she stopped it when I was growing up. So it was a progressive school. We didn’t have formal exams and marks. When there were exams, the exam marks were not taken very seriously at all. There was no pressure to work.
When I was six, I did go to a school in Dhaka, in the capital of Bangladesh, which was a missionary school called Saint Gregory’s. That was a very disciplined school and academically quite excellent. So I did go there for a little over a year. And before that, between the ages of three and six, I was in Burma, in Mandalay, where my father had gone for three years as a visiting professor to teach chemistry.
GAZETTE: Outside of class, what were some of your passions as a young boy?
SEN: I was quite social and spent a lot of time chatting with people. Among activities, chatting with people is quite high on my list. I was a bicyclist of quite an extreme kind. I went everywhere on bicycles. Quite a lot of the research I did required me to take long bicycle trips. One of the research trips I did in 1970 was about the development of famines in India. I studied the Bengal famine of 1943, in which about 3 million people died. It was clear to me it wasn’t caused by the food supply having fallen compared with earlier. It hadn’t. What we had was [a] war-related economic boom that increased the wages of some people, but not others. And those who did not have higher wages still had to face the higher price of food — in particular, rice, which is the staple food in the region. That’s how the starvation occurred. In order to do this research, I had to see what wages people were being paid for various rural economic activities. I also had to find out what the prices were of basic food in the main markets. All this required me to go to many different places and look at their records so I went all these distances on my bike.