Francois Hollande honours AMartya Sen with the Legion d'Honneur in New Delhi in 2013 ©Swarup/Rex/Shutterstock

Amartya Sen keeps his cool

Having teased out democracy's paradoxes, Amartya Sen is keeping his calm as politics runs wild
February 16, 2017

Amartya Sen is an eminently reasonable man. Over six decades as an economist and political theorist—he won the Nobel Prize in 1998—the 83-year-old has kept faith with rational thinking. This is as much to do with personal experience as intellectual preference. As a boy growing up in Bengal, Sen saw a bleeding labourer stumble into his garden. He was a Muslim who had been stabbed by Hindus. “Aside from being a veritable nightmare, the event was profoundly perplexing,” Sen wrote in his Identity and Violence (2006). It provoked revulsion, but also consideration. Through his career, even while working on emotive subjects like famine, poverty, justice and inequality, he has maintained a calm equilibrium.

When I spoke to him in London about the emotions unleashed by Donald Trump, Sen put things in perspective. “There is nothing new or extraordinary in his rejection of  reason,” he said, in the Bengali accent that western universities have never drummed out of him. “Even the French Revolution, which was so enormously well-backed by reason, led to a reign of terror.” One victim was the philosopher the Marquis de Condorcet, whose theories influenced Sen’s work on social choice. Under threat from the Revolutionary regime, Condorcet committed suicide in 1794.

The US president keenly targets his enemies—if only via Twitter. “He has managed to unleash a kind of thinking which drew more on prejudice than on cool reasoning,” said Sen, with magnificent understatement. “And I would apply this to Brexit,” he continued, “where some of the sentiments of hatred of foreigners came into the story in a big way.” He quotes Thomas Jefferson: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Without  it, democracy can be “taken over by forces that play up other things, especially hatred of particular communities.”

His home nation India has recently taken a nasty turn in that direction. When the Prime Minister Narendra Modi was governor of Gujarat in 2002, he was accused of stoking anti-Muslim riots that led to 2,000 deaths. Sen took a stand against Modi in 2014, telling me with relish how he “flew from Boston to New York, New York to New Delhi, New Delhi to Calcutta, and took a car to my village to vote against Mr Modi’s BJP candidates.” His criticism drew a sharp response. He was due to be re-appointed Chancellor of Nalanda University in Bihar, but was unexpectedly rejected, apparently under government pressure.

Was it depressing, I asked, that both Americans and Indians were prepared to ignore the bigotry in favour of economic interests? “I don’t really think the [economic] policies are that good,” he replied, “but even if they were,” irrespective of whether Modi was personally culpable or not, the “amount of bloodshed” in a state he controlled should be “taken into account.” He cites two recent scandals involving Hindu extremists: the whipping of Dalits for skinning a cow, and the killing of a Muslim on suspicion of keeping beef in his fridge. “These are absolutely atrocious things that have no place in a secular, democratic India.” Elections do not guarantee good government. “Democracy is not a ready-made solution for anything; it just creates an opportunity.”

Sen’s 1970 book Collective Choice and Social Welfare, which he has just updated and expanded, touches on deep problems in the theory of democracy. One of the starting points is the economist Kenneth Arrow’s famous 1951 “impossibility theorem.” The impossibility is designing a voting system that reliably aggregates personal preferences into coherent social choices. Something gets lost in the totting up, so that you end up either without a complete set of results, or with perversities—such as everyone preferring candidate A to B, but B nonetheless coming out on top, or with one voter effectively deciding everything, which doesn’t sound much like democracy at all.

Sen gave it a twist, mixing formal logic with an eye-catching example. Enter two citizens, Mr Lewd and Mr Prude, and one copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. What should happen to it? Lewd is keen to read it himself, but would be even more thrilled at the idea of buttoned-up Prude having to do so. Prude, of course, thinks the book should go straight in the bin, but feels that—if someone must read it—then it would be better if it was his upstanding self, not a Lewd seeking cheap thrills. So what to do? A good liberal would want to allow Lewd his literary pleasure, and let Prude avert his eyes. And yet—if we count up the votes—both Lewd and Prude prefer Prude reading it. The example may sound contrived, but it points to a deep tension between liberalism and democracy. And Sen turned this field upside down, by integrating ethical complexities into economistic accounts of democracy.

Sen also argued that the “rational choice” presumption of everyone acting in their own economic interests was flawed. “It’s the individual who is the agent of action,” he told me, “yet it does make sense to think of social values. Not because there is an abstract entity called ‘society’,” but because “it is the collectivity of individuals that allows some understanding of what the social values might be.” He finds it “much more attractive” to avoid the pretence that individuals are not “affecting each other’s lives.”

Sen characteristically explains his ideas using practical examples. He asks me to imagine being offered a plate with six oranges and an apple. Suppose I like apples more than oranges. But I decide not to take the last apple because I don’t want to be inconsiderate to others. Or at least, not wanting to seem inconsiderate.

“You could say it’s in your own interests [to be selfless], but you could also say it’s not. Suppose you think, ‘oh people will think I’m very greedy but what the hell, they might just think I did it without thinking at all and I wasn’t being greedy.’ ... Even then I might do that on the grounds it might be the best way to behave.”

It’s similar to voting. “We know that it’s extremely unlikely that my vote will make a difference, and yet we go to great trouble to vote. Why? Because we think we are doing something together... I don’t vote by saying I voted for party A but we voted for party A.”

"Democracy is not a ready-made solution for anything; it just creates an opportunity"
During an election, competing notions of the good are on offer. Sen believes they can sometimes be of equal worth—there is no one absolute path to justice. In response to his friend John Rawls’s influential and highly prescriptive Theory of Justice, Sen argued that a plurality of views is desirable—and he gave an example. Imagine three children, Anne, Bob and Carla, each of whom could lay claim to a flute. Anne is the only one who can play it; Bob, unlike the others, has no toys; and Carla has spent months making the flute. Who should get it? An egalitarian would give it to poor Bob; a libertarian to the budding craftswoman Carla; and a utilitarian to Anne, who would get and give pleasure by playing it. Each option has some merit. Sen’s point is that justice is comparative, not transcendental. “Our ideas of justice may differ between one person and another,” he told me. “I don’t assume that ultimately everyone has one view of justice, one understanding of justice.” That’s all very well, but who gets the flute? And what do we tell the two left empty-handed? “We could contribute by generating public discussion: we can’t go beyond that; they have to decide what they want to do.” He adds with a chuckle that discussing how people should actually behave could make you “a party bore.”

Sen didn’t think much of the quality of debate during the Brexit campaign. “Public discussion is extremely important both preceding a referendum and, I believe, following a referendum. I take a view of democracy like that of JS Mill: democracy is government by discussion. I’m really quite shocked that one vote on the basis of a campaign in which many factors were distorted,” and by “a small margin victory... should be taken to be the end of all argument, no further argument, the rest is just engineering,” that is to say, a mere argument about practical implementation. He adds: “The shortage of public discussion is not to the credit of one of the oldest democracies in the world.”

Sen’s pluralistic vision of democracy is tied to his view that we all harbour plural selves. In arguing against fundamentalism in Identity and Violence, he wrote that: “we have to draw on the understanding that the force of a bellicose identity can be challenged by the power of competing identities.” But we seem to be returning to a world where the dividing lines between various political, ethnic and social tribes are becoming sharper, with more antagonism, and less room for overlapping membership. The liberal thinker Mark Lilla argued shortly after Trump’s election that “identity liberalism” had cleared a space for nationalist politics. I asked Sen whether Lilla was right.

“The article was right to say it is wrong to take refuge in identity politics—that is surely not what you want to do. I was delighted that somebody said that.” On the other hand, he believes minority rights need special attention. As usual he takes the long view. In 1790, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Men—by which she meant the universal rights of mankind. And yet, says Sen, “she expressed opposition to the American Declaration of Independence and American revolutionary movement on the grounds that it didn’t talk about slaves.” He continued: “The metric of universal rights should also capture the rights of minorities such as African-Americans.” In 1792, Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. “She was right to take on the special rights of women in the second book... It’s a book that is profoundly important both for those interested in universal or any other kind of rights. So I wouldn’t go against the special rights point of view when it is needed, but never forgetting that they stand on the solid rock of universal rights.”

There is something reassuringly unflappable about Sen. Every comment is laced with a benevolent charm that makes clear he has already carefully considered your counter-arguments. He is intellectually sociable, and has a talent for befriending powerful thinkers. His books are full of politely phrased disagreements with other big names, giving them the feel of a genial seminar room.

On New Year’s Day, Sen lost two close friends: the economist Anthony Atkinson and the philosopher Derek Parfit. He is visibly moved recalling Parfit, who was 74 when he died. “I mourn his death tremendously,” he said. Parfit was “an enormously powerful thinker,” he added, who tackled personal identity and meta-ethics with “excellent arguments.” While at Oxford, Sen taught a course with Parfit with Ronald Dworkin and Jerry Cohen. He is the only survivor. “I am the only one to recollect what happened—the collaboration, the interactive teaching.” He laughed quietly. “I shall miss those days as long as I live.” Sen quickly gathered himself: there were more people to meet and ideas to discuss. As we said goodbye, another interviewer arrived. I left him to what he loves best, living life as a perpetual conversation.

An expanded edition of “Collective Choice and Social Welfare” is published by Allen Lane