Inequality Reexamined

As democratization spreads through much of the world, nations become increasingly concerned over ideals of equality among humans. Sen studies closely what equality and inequality are in varying contexts. He urges his readers to think the matter through both practically and theoretically. His rallying cry, oft-repeated in this book, is “Equality of what?”: Sen takes this cry as the title of his first chapter.

As in his earlier treatises, notably POVERTY AND FAMINE (1981) and ON ETHICS AND ECONOMICS (1987), Sen is concerned here with what entitlements societies allow their people. He reminds us that famine does not always stem directly from an absence of food. Distribution and equality of opportunity to obtain food are political and, often, moral issues with which nations, particularly those in the Third World, constantly grapple.

Sen notes that starvation occurs dramatically and with lightning speed in settings where food is unavailable, but that in many Third World countries, such as his native India, undernutrition accounts for more death and disability than outright starvation. In such settings, food is available, but, because it is nutritionally wanting and is insufficient in quantity, segments of the society waste away, dying slowly over extended periods.

Sen promotes the “capability approach” to solving some of the problems about which he is writing. This approach allows individuals the right and the power to pursue their own well-being within their societies. The equality Sen promulgates stems largely from political and ethical empowerment: It is an equality of opportunity.

Sources for Further Study

The Times Higher Education Supplement. October 30, 1992, p. 26.

The Times Literary Supplement. March 12, 1993, p. 23.

Inequality Reexamined

Amartya Sen, Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, has devoted his substantial professional career to examining questions that relate to the ethical implications of economic realities and inequalities. He has long been centrally concerned with questions of famine and starvation, largely in Third World countries. Such questions have been major and consistent foci in his Poverty and Famine (1981)), Choice, Welfare, and Management (1982), Resources, Values and Development (1984), Commodities and Capabilities (1985), The Standard of Living (1987), and Hunger and Public Action (1989), all influential studies that draw from expertise in Sen’s two fields of crucial interest, economics and philosophy, notably ethics.

In Inequality Reexamined, Sen shows how social and political institutions, as they move toward democracy, characteristically call for an equality to be bestowed upon the populaces they encompass, but the equality they tout often assumes the stature of little more than a slogan meant to gain the support of—and ultimately to hoodwink—the masses. Suppressed people who are told, “All people deserve (and will be granted) equality,” gain hope—until someone asks, as Sen does throughout his book, “Equality of what?” This recurrent question pricks the balloon on which the enticing slogan has been etched and plunges the notion of equalities—as well as obvious inequalities—sharply into a new, more detached context, although a less lofty one.

For Sen, then, the promise of equality is a given in any society or institution that strives toward a democratic orientation. It is not always the given, however, that the masses are led to believe it is and that they are bamboozled into expecting. Sen, taking into account the vast diversity of human abilities and potentials, suggests that the concept that all people are created equal serves only to divert attention from differences that result in vastly divergent outcomes for every individual within a society that ostensibly proclaims and promotes notions of equality for those within its compass.

In the whole question of equality versus inequality, Sen contends that equality in one sphere of human existence is nearly always linked to inequality in other spheres: prizefighters are unlikely to be concert violinists, Clifford Odets’ golden boy notwithstanding; poets are unlikely to be first-rate accountants, and vice versa. The only equality among people of such divergent interests and capabilities is an equality of opportunity to do what they do best and to be valued within their social contexts for their contributions.

This treatise considers the question of “Why equality?,” but it views it consistently in the light of “Equality of What?,” the title of Sen’s first chapter. Sen posits that one cannot address the first question without first addressing the second. But having answered the second, he suggests, the need to address the first evaporates. Sen’s heavy—at times exasperating—dependence on the conventions of formal, Aristotelian logic is obvious within the first few pages of this book, as the argument cited above demonstrates. This mode persists throughout his labored discourse.

Most of Sen’s chapters are set up so that two related questions are posed. Sen proceeds to play these related questions against each other according to the conventions of formal logic. Often the fundamental ideas presented are quite simple and obvious ones obfuscated by the combination of Sen’s turgid, tortuous writing and his stolidly dogged adherence to a highly theoretical logical presentation unrelieved by the examples and illustrations that might help readers to follow more comprehendingly what he is struggling to communicate and to understand it within a social or human context. This caveat is not intended to denigrate the content of what Sen has to communicate. The author clearly has unique and important insights that merit— indeed, demand—serious consideration. Much of what he writes about has direct and compelling relevance to some of the most crucial social and economic issues of the early 1990’s. Such matters as world hunger and its implications, as exemplified by the Somalian situation that captured the attention of the world in 1992 or the Serbo- Croatian situation that has been a burr in the public conscience during the same year, are directly related to Sen’s concerns.

The rise of Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship in Germany or of Joseph Stalin’s in the Soviet Union might be viewed profitably in terms of Sen’s theories....

(The entire section is 1911 words.)