is one of the most influential thinkers of our time, a Nobel laureate who has been described as ‘the conscience of economics’.
Roy McCloughry sought him out in the heart of London on 29 July 2009.
Photography: Andrew Firth
Can you talk about the values instilled into you as a boy that have stayed with you throughout your life?
I don’t know that there was an enormous amount of effort on the part of my family to instil particular values in me. My parents believed in God but there was no particular institutional activity that they associated with that belief. I think that reading religious texts was generally encouraged, but… My maternal grandfather, with whom I grew up, actually was a religious scholar, as well as a great Sanskritist. He wrote, I think, the most widely read book on Hinduism in English, which was published by Penguin in 1961.1Hinduism by Kshiti Mohan Sen, reissued by Penguin in 2005 with a foreword by Amartya Sen
He always took the view that it’s wrong to practise any kind of religion unless you are convinced of it yourself, and so there was no suggestion that I do any religious practice until I could think about religion myself. He was very confident that I would come to God (as it were) as I grew up. But I didn’t. But then he told me that clearly I had placed myself on the atheistic branch of Hinduism, which is quite well established, and he thought that was fine as long as I had thought about it and would go on reflecting on these questions.
Was he the grandfather who told you during the Bengal famine of 19432www.wikipedia.org that you could give a cigarette-tin full of rice to each starving family you saw? That seems to have had a big impact on you.
The impact of these experiences gets so exaggerated in one’s memory – it’s never easy to be sure. Certainly, one’s thoughts are illustrated by such events, but the distinction between what is an illustration and what is an instigating initiator is very difficult and I haven’t really had the time to reflect on my life sufficiently – and it’s really rather a wasteful exercise, perhaps – to see what was it that influenced one. (I wouldn’t even be concerned about this except that I see it in articles that this influenced me very much and I am a little worried by that, since I do worry about truth a great deal.)
It’s very dangerous to think of public reasoning as something that takes place among experts. Some of them are right and some of them are wrong and it’s for the public to judge
Certainly, it moved me tremendously, but was that the first time I’d heard of poverty? No. The first time I’d heard of famine? No. I hadn’t actually seen people starving and dying, and behaving in an almost inhuman way to each other out of desperation; and that was very disturbing. But I had already thought a little about the nature of inequality.
Did the things you witnessed in any sense make you feel that you were called to reflect on these issues?
I think it would be wrong to say that I felt I should dedicate my academic life to this subject… I originally intended to do maths and physics – or I could have done Sanskrit, which next to maths was my favourite subject in school.
I don’t think I would accept that if I had done maths instead I would have betrayed the cause, because the fact is that I see a response to deprivation as a requirement for every human being, and not just a matter for academics in particular. I think it’s very dangerous to think of public reasoning as something that takes place among experts: I think it takes place among people, and the experts come into it and some of them are right and some of them are wrong and it’s for the public to judge that. In my new book on the theory of justice,3The Idea of Justice (Allen Lane, 2009) the hero of the piece is public reasoning; and public reasoning is for the public.
In a recent lecture, you observed that the idea of justice goes back at least 3,000 years. Are you influenced by any of the ancient traditions in particular?
Well, I am quite catholic in this respect – within my home country, India, itself there are a variety of different traditions. On one side, there is Buddha, the Enlightened One, who was of course an agnostic but was extraordinarily committed to humaneness as a necessity of the good life. It’s quite clear that he regarded as his main intellectual rivals not the religious Hindus but the atheists, like the Lokayata and Carvaka;4See www.iep.utm.edu. and these people took the view that nothing in your behaviour should depend on whether you assume there exists a God or not. You ought to do good because it is good: not to be looked on with favour by an Almighty but out of compunction. This is what makes you a good person.
It is a very non-Christian idea, I think.
I think there are versions of Christianity that –
There indeed are, but I am referring to the version that I encountered most commonly. I was, of course, exposed to other lines of Christian thinking. A very close friend of my grandfather was [the English missionary and social reformer] Charles Andrews (who was also a friend of Gandhi and Tagore). I never met him, but I knew that one of the points he was constantly making was exactly the denial that Christianity encourages you to think in such terms.
The thought that doing good things is ultimately to your advantage, is in your interest, comes so naturally to the human mind that whenever you are trying to do something out of a high degree of nobility (if you can say it yourself without blushing), nevertheless you feel compelled to say, ‘Really it can’t be that noble. There must be something I am expecting to get out of this.’ I think that’s wrong. I think human beings are capable of great nobility, even if it’s not a very good idea to go around saying that and applauding oneself.
I was involved in a lot of activism in my student days in Calcutta – a lot of marching, a lot of shouting, a lot of public speaking. Do I think such protests are important? Yes, extremely
One of the reasons Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759 was that he thought that it was not adequately recognised that human beings have an interest in each other. Of course, he identifies a role for many different values – crude self-interest, refined prudence, generosity, public spirit – and doesn’t try to exclude any of them by overplaying any of the others, as many of his followers have done.
I think Smith was a big influence on me. I remember reading The Theory of Moral Sentiments in Calcutta, I must have been 17 or 18. It was a great book, I thought. John Stuart Mill was certainly another one. And I read a lot of Marx, as did everybody else in Calcutta, and he was quite a big influence on my thinking.
You are well known for insisting that self-interest is not the only motivating factor in human behaviour…
It’s the most banal thought that any human being could ever have! Roughly – if you want a vulgar statement – if you can’t think beyond self-interest, you show a limitation of mind. It’s not only an ethical failing, it’s basically an intellectual failing. If you can’t see any reason to do something other than that it serves you, if when some guy asks, ‘Could you please pass the salt?’ you reflect, ‘What do I get out of it?’, I would say it shows an inability to comprehend the reach of reasoning.
Reasoning is a very important aspect of human life, and this is how one determines what is the role of self-interest in one’s life and what is the role of generosity, public spirit, co-operation, reciprocity, and altruism without expectation of reciprocity. All are thoughts we are capable of. Of course, there would be nothing absolutely wrong in somebody, after considering all the options, saying: ‘Self-interest is the only thing I can find reason to defend.’ But is it the end of the argument? I think it’s not. I think it’s the beginning of an argument, and the next question is: Why?
When you look at some of the things that are happening in our world, do you feel a sense of outrage?
I think it’s a minimum requirement of all of us. It’s very hard to live in a world in which there’s so much affluence alongside so much poverty and deprivation and needless agony, children undernourished, people dying without medicine that could be produced very cheaply if the world was organised better, and not to have a sense of outrage. And those people who don’t have that sense – if they were to reflect on these issues, are they likely to feel outrage? I would answer: Yes.
Here again, if you don’t have that sense of outrage, if you can’t even understand why others are outraged, I think it’s not just an ethical limitation but an intellectual limitation. I think epistemology and ethics are very close to each other, and the kind of watertight compartments in which they are often placed by people who see that distinction, that dichotomy, is a confusion. I think that confusion is very widespread at present.
When your first wife, the writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen, went on a Ban the Bomb march, you were quoted as saying you were ambivalent about the value of activism.
I absolutely don’t take that view, and I was involved in a lot of activism in my student days in Calcutta – a lot of marching, a lot of shouting, a lot of public speaking. Do I think such protests are important? Yes, extremely.
I don’t know who quoted me saying that, but that has never been my view. But, you know… Once these wrong reports are published…
People think of you as a man of the left, but you have never been identified with any particular political party. Why is that?
If there was a particular party with which I was in 100-per-cent agreement, I would see no reason not to join it; but I’ve not been privileged to live in such a world. I have been, you’re quite right, on the left of the political spectrum, and still am – in my undergraduate days I had a lot to do with the left, including Marxists. But these are people who in the 1950s were talking about ‘bourgeois democracy’ in India and I thought that was very stupid, not to see the importance of democracy.
I mean, the left were the only people who were talking about inequality and the poor, and the rights of the underdog, so they had my natural sympathy; I just didn’t agree with them in all respects. And those who agreed with me about democracy often took the view that you don’t have to worry very much about poverty – with economic growth, wealth will trickle down to everybody. And that I didn’t believe in either.
And you’ve never wanted to start your own party?
Now, that would be the right way to proceed if I were 50 years younger and if I had more energy and more confidence in myself than I have.
For some time now, we’ve been told that there is a crisis in capitalism. Is that how you see things – or are we just at the bottom of a trough that we will climb out of?
There are so many presumptions in that statement, I don’t know where to begin. To say that capitalism was doing jolly well and now we are in a crisis is a complete misreading of what’s been happening. Is this a crisis of capitalism? It’s a crisis of the system, caused by an attempt to rebalance the system in the direction of exclusive reliance on the market. When people ask me, ‘Why didn’t you see the crisis coming?’, I don’t know where to begin. One’s certainly been talking about it for a long time. Did I expect it to come in the winter of 2008? No. But did I think there was a crisis to come? Yes.
There was also a certain amount of rank ineptitude in the management of the world’s economies, primarily in America but to some extent Europe, too.
Do you think it was also a moral failure?
I want to underplay the moral angle of this, because I think it’s an epistemic failure, primarily: a failure to see what’s going on. But also because people say, ‘Of course, you’re taking the moral position,’ which is a way of undermining it. They’re saying: ‘Well, yeah, very moral of you – but you’re living in human society, and people aren’t like that.’
And, you know, I think there may be some truth in that, that people will not be moved by moral considerations unless they also see an intellectual failure in there. But there is an intellectual failure in there: first, in not seeing that the crisis came as a result of changing an institutional balance in a very ineffectual and counterproductive way and, second, in not seeing that as a result the lives of many people have been made intolerably hard and that there is good reason for us to think about them. That, to me, is much more important.
If democracy is a conversation – and a kind of statement of humility, that none of us has all the answers – who can that intellectual failure be attributed to?
We’re never going to live in a world where mistakes will not be made; but we need a world in which, when mistakes are made, they can be detected, scrutinised, discussed and remedied
I think we were caught in a bad cycle, in which forces that came from different quarters reinforced each other. If you take the Clinton-era removal of controls on credit default swaps, this was supported by the pundits of the American establishment, including the Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan. The view that the market basically gets things right was held by most economists, even those who were advising Clinton – and they are economists I admire, and many of them are close friends of mine. But they, too, make mistakes and I think they overestimated the reach of markets.
We’re never going to live in a world where mistakes will not be made; but we need a world in which, when mistakes are made, they can be detected, scrutinised, discussed and remedied. That’s the way politics has to go and that’s how I think we have to see our role.
The Idea of Justice cites Adam Smith’s idea of the need for an impartial spectator. How can we step outside ourselves to criticise our own positions? Which is what is needed, isn’t it, if the discussion in civil society is to be fruitful.
I think that part of the claim Smith is making is that of course we can’t understand the world without stepping outside ourselves. If we see another human being in pain – or a dog, for that matter – how do we understand that there is pain? The only pain we experience is our own. What is happening to this man, this animal? To answer this requires us to step out of our own self.
And the second step is to ask: What should we do? Here ‘the impartial spectator’ raises the question: Had I been not myself but somebody else, how would this look to me? There’s some guy dying here, I could help him but I don’t. How would that look to someone else? Now, that’s a thought that comes naturally, out of our curiosity about the world: What would this behaviour look like? And once you have asked the question, there is an ethical implication: actually, I should help the dying man so that an impartial spectator does not have just cause for regarding me as a defective human being.
That is how epistemology merges into ethics in the Smithian line of reasoning. I think it’s a very profound line of reasoning, and I found it very influential when I first read it. I still find it very influential.
Is the rise of fundamentalism a threat to that way of looking at the world?
Yes. The main threat is the denial of reasoning. This is why I feel very critical of anything that reduces the opportunity to examine and re-examine your position – and this applies to al-Qa’ida telling you it’s your duty to kill those who are ‘against Muslims’ and it applies to Hindu fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists.
It also applies to more benign ways of thinking that are anti-reason. I am very opposed to the introduction and cultivation of faith schools by the government in this country. I think it does so much harm to an understanding of our need to live in a world with a variety of concerns and priorities and convictions.
The most successful faith schools in the world have of course been the Christian missionary schools, and they have done a lot of good work. In India, they promoted literacy and gave essential dignity to people who were marginalised. But that came sometimes with a price tag – namely, that in exchange you had to subscribe to certain beliefs that you could not question. And I don’t think you can reproduce the best Jesuit education in the new Muslim or Hindu or Sikh schools, or the very narrowly defined Christian schools, in Britain.
What I’m really concerned about is the reduction of the role of reasoning that faith schools can produce. In fact, I think that relying on faith goes against reason, and that may be a fundamental difference that I have with religious people. Not all religious people. In my last book, Identity and Violence,5Identity and Violence: The illusion of destiny (Penguin, 2006) and also in The Idea of Justice, I discuss the [Moghul] emperor Akbar, who in 1590 provided, I think, the most definitive argument why reason has to have priority over faith. He says he does have faith – namely, Muslim faith – which he examines and affirms; but he, first, wouldn’t like people simply to accept that faith without reasoning about it and, second, if other people reason differently and arrive at a different conclusion, deciding to remain Hindu or Christian or Jewish or Parsee (all of whom were represented in his court), he wouldn’t say they were doing something wrong and he would be interested as to why they thought that way.
So, I think faith and reason may not be contradictory, but to say you have to give priority to faith rather than reasoning is not something I find easy to support.
I would say that faith and reason are complementary.
Well, I would go further. I would say that a faith that you arrived at on the basis of reason, like Akbar, is for that reason supportable in a way that unreasoned belief is not. I wouldn’t say that faith and reason are complementary in the sense that they have equal status. I don’t take that view.
I think the issue is whether you begin with reason or whether you begin with faith. It’s one thing to say, ‘I’ve put my faith on the table and you can criticise it,’ it’s another to say, ‘I’ve put my reasoning for my faith on the table and you can discuss that.’ That is the distinction.
Akbar is not the only one who did it, though I think his conversations with his close friend Abu’l-Fazl are among the most moving on the subject. But there are others, including the Buddhist emperor Ashoka [in the third century BC].
Your new book is called The Idea of Justice but in many senses it is about reducing injustice in the world. What are the injustices that most concern you at present?
The book is mainly a work in philosophy. It’s not diagnosing the ills of the world; it’s using some of the ills of the world to illustrate the problems.
The prime moving question in the dominant tradition in the theory of justice, from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant all the way down to contemporary political philosophers like the finest political philosopher of our time, John Rawls,6John Rawls (1921–2002) was a US moral and political philosopher whose theory of ‘justice as fairness’ recommends equal basic rights, equality of opportunity and promoting the interests of the least advantaged members of society is ‘What is a perfectly just world?’ and, more narrowly, ‘What are perfectly just institutions?’ That is the quest in which they’re all involved. I think it’s the wrong quest.
There also exists a tradition, in Europe and in India and elsewhere, to ask the question: What are the manifest injustices in the world that we could remove, whose removal would in our judgement be an enhancement of global justice, and an enhancement in which, if people used their reason, we could expect to get agreement? I think that’s the kind of territory the book covers.
Can you explain the distinction between niti and nyaya?
Sanskrit has 20 or more words for ‘justice’ and they all have slightly different connotations; but niti and nyaya are the main ones. A lot of Indian legal thinking in the first millennium BC is concerned with niti, which is used mainly of the justice of rules, policies, institutions. Nyaya, on the other hand, is concerned with the justice of how people’s lives are going – or the lives of all living beings. It is about the justice of what is happening to the world, no matter whether it has been brought about by what look like good rules or bad rules.
The right question to ask is ‘What does reason require us to do?’ If that fits in with Christian or Hindu or Islamic or Sikh thought, good for them! If it doesn’t, maybe they need a re-examination
For example, in the great debate in the [Bhagavad] Gita, Krishna is really arguing for niti. The cause is just, he tells Arjun: he is an invincible warrior, without him his side cannot win and it is his duty as a member of the warrior caste to do his job. And Arjun is resisting him by saying: Well, of course it’s a just war and we will win it, but a lot of people will die. Do we want to live in a world – to create a world – in which justice is done and yet the overall outcome is unjust?
As the story goes, Krishna, who is an incarnation of God, overwhelms Arjun’s argument and Arjun says his doubts are resolved, and he fights and wins the war. The Gita’s message is similar to that of Kant in some ways: you have to do your duty regardless of the consequences. But it’s interesting that the Mahabharata, the epic in which the Gita is set, ends with a great sense of tragedy, with funeral pyres burning everywhere and women weeping for the dead. If you are a discerning reader, I think the Mahabharata does not really take a position as to which side really won.
In my book, I don’t ignore niti, both because rules are instrumentally important and because some types of niti have intrinsic value, like non-discrimination between men and women, or between one caste or race and another; and yet ultimately you have to judge what is just in terms of ‘realisation’ – that is, how people’s lives go.
You talk a little about Jesus in the book…
He comes in in a number of cases, but the main discussion is about the Good Samaritan story.7Luke 10:25–37 A central issue today is whether you can think about justice without thinking about global justice, and that story is quite subversive. The question with which Jesus ends the debate is not ‘Did the Samaritan do right? Did the priest do wrong?’ but ‘When the wounded man is able to think about it, who would he think was his neighbour?’ Once again, the epistemic leads to the ethical.
This is the point David Hume makes in the 1770s when he says that there were lots of people we did not know anything about but now that we have trade and other relations with them we cannot ignore their existence – and so the boundaries of justice have to grow wider. One of the problems with the existing theories of justice that are based on the social contract and look for the perfect society is their parochial nature – namely, you’re thinking of one state at a time. Many people have argued that there can be no such thing as global justice because you can’t have a global sovereign state; but if you follow Smith you can think: ‘What would it look like to people far away?’
Second, the fact that there is not a global state doesn’t prevent you from being effective in removing injustices like lack of medical care, lack of education and so on. This is an important difference from the social-contract approach to justice because that is so rigidly national.
There have been some attempts recently to think of a global social contract, but that requires such flights of fancy that it boggles one’s imagination. I think we are better off, both analytically and practically, thinking about what are the injustices on which, as things stand, we can expect to get agreement if people use their reason. In Smith’s time or Mary Wollstonecraft’s, it might have been the abolition of slavery or the subjugation of women. Today, it might be the prevailing hunger in the world, or global warming and its impact on people’s lives.
I would argue that if you reasonably can get agreement on these concerns, a theory of justice has reason to pursue them.
Can the Christian church be a positive influence in terms of global justice?
I’ve never liked lecturing what churches should do – or temples or mosques for that matter – because in order to decide what they should do, you have to square it with the theology and the basic understanding of the nature of the world that goes with it, and so I’m not competent to judge that. There is no question that some Christian activity in the world, connected with education and caring for the sick and so on, has made a huge difference; and to some extent the Islamic commitment to equality has played a part, too – though that is confined to the umma, the Muslim population of the world.
In my judgement, it isn’t so much the right question to ask what religious people should do, but ‘What does reason require us to do?’ If that fits in with Christian or Hindu or Islamic or Sikh thought, good for them! If it doesn’t, then maybe they need a re-examination.
A slightly longer version of this interview was originally published in the October 2009 issue of Third Way.
[ + ]
|1.||⇑||Hinduism by Kshiti Mohan Sen, reissued by Penguin in 2005 with a foreword by Amartya Sen|
|3.||⇑||The Idea of Justice (Allen Lane, 2009)|
|5.||⇑||Identity and Violence: The illusion of destiny (Penguin, 2006)|
|6.||⇑||John Rawls (1921–2002) was a US moral and political philosopher whose theory of ‘justice as fairness’ recommends equal basic rights, equality of opportunity and promoting the interests of the least advantaged members of society|
Amartya Sen was born in Bengal in 1933. His family was from Dhaka but he was educated at Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan. He studied economics and mathematics at Presidency College, Calcutta and economics at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received his PhD in 1959.
On a two-year leave during his doctoral research, he was appointed professor and head of economics at the newly established Jadavpur University, Calcutta, at the age of 23. He then won a Prize Fellowship at Trinity and took the opportunity to study philosophy for four years.
From 1963 to 1971, he was a professor at the Delhi School of Economics and Delhi University. He then accepted a chair at the London School of Economics. In 1977 he moved on to Oxford University, where he was professor of economics at Nuffield College and then, from 1980, Drummond Professor of Political Economy and a fellow at All Souls.
In 1987, he moved to Harvard to become Thomas W Lamont University Professor in the department of economics and philosophy, the post he still held at the time of this interview.
From 1998 to 2004, he returned to Cambridge to serve as Master of Trinity.
His many books, which have been translated into over 30 languages, include Collective Choice and Social Welfare (1970), Poverty and Famines (1981), On Ethics and Economics (1987), Inequality Reexamined (1992), Development as Freedom (1999), Identity and Violence (2006) and The Idea of Justice (2009).
He received the Nobel Prize in 1998 for his work on welfare economics, and in the following year India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna. In 2000, he was made an honorary Companion of Honour. Other distinctions include the Senator Giovanni Agnelli International Prize in Ethics, the Alan Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Award, the Edinburgh Medal, the Eisenhower Medal, the Brazilian Order of Scientific Merit and the George C Marshall Award, as well as honorary doctorates from more than 90 universities around the world.
He has two children from his first marriage (which ended in divorce in 1976) and two from his second, which was cut short by the early death of his wife in 1985. He married the historian Emma Rothschild in 1991.
Up-to-date as at 1 September 2009