This short work exhibits (often, perforce, only in fleeting cameo) the current state of Amartya Sen’s decades-long engagement with problems of equality and its absence. The book provides not only an exhilarating tour d’horizon of ideas developed at greater ease elsewhere, but also fresh nuances that are designed to accommodate and deflect some of the extensive criticism and comment which Sen’s magnetic work has attracted.footnote＊
In the present appreciation, I first describe the leading idea—‘capability’—which Sen has brought to this field of discourse. I then take up one of the book’s sub-themes, regarding the connection or lack of it between freedom and control. Finally, I defend Sen against some scepticism about the practical relevance of his work that has recently been expressed by André Béteille.
Two questions arise with regard to the measurement of inequality. The first concerns the respect (in economists’ language, the space) in which people should be accounted equal or unequal: what is the right type of advantage to examine when equality and its absence are at issue? Representative answers to this first question are: utility (some economists and some philosophers), income (other economists and no philosophers), primary goods (John Rawls), and resources, capaciously conceived (Ronald Dworkin). The issue was broached by Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971), which argued that not utility or welfare but primary goods (things everyone needs to pursue their goals in life, whatever those goals may be) constitute the right metric for distributive justice. But it was in Sen’s 1979 Tanner Lecture, called ‘Equality of What?’,footnote1 that that question was first put in an expressly general form, and it was there that Sen ventured his now quite well-known thesis that capability is the thing to look at when judging how well a person’s life is going.
The second and independent question with regard to the measurement
Now, although Sen’s official topic is inequality, his motivating interest is poverty, which appears, when it does, at the downward end of the spectrum of advantage, and which is a phenomenon distinct from inequality, since everyone might be equally poor, and since there is (at least) money inequality between millionaires and billionaires. His special interest in poverty is shown in Sen’s choice of capability as the premier space of advantage: capability provides a highly suitable measure of the deprivation that poverty imposes, but it is not so evidently serviceable when the object is to identify degrees of inequality as such.