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 of inequality is how to compute the degree of inequality that obtains, for given sets of scores of advantage (whatever may be the right respect in which to reckon advantage, which was the first question). That second question dominated Sen’s On Economic Inequality (1973), and, although it is briefly addressed in the work under review, not it but the first question, about the appropriate type of advantage to focus on, dominates Inequality Reexamined. Accordingly, the present ‘reexamination’ is not, as the titles of the two books might suggest, precisely and centrally of the topic of On Economic Inequality.footnote2 The earlier work, one could say, has a comparative advantage (in the strict, Ricardian, sense) with respect to the interests (as opposed to the needs) of economists, while the recent one has a comparative advantage with respect to the interests and needs of political theorists and philosophers.

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.

Let me explain. What Sen calls ‘capability’ is determined by the different forms of life that are possible for a person: a person’s capability is a disjunction of the combinations available to her of what Sen calls ‘functionings’, which are states of activity and/or being. These functionings vary, Sen says, ‘from most elementary ones, such as being well-nourished, avoiding escapable morbidity and premature mortality, etc., to quite complex and sophisticated achievements, such as having self-respect, being able to take part in the life of the community, and so on.’footnote3 Now, the ‘elementary’ functionings listed here have ceilings of accomplishment: you can get richer and richer, but you cannot keep on rising in the dimensions of nourishment and health. And something similar is true of the more ‘sophisticated’ functionings: you cannot keep on adding to your stock of self-respect, and there is necessarily a limit to how much you can, or can want, to take part in the life of the community. These recurrently cited examples show that what Sen really cares about is basic capability,footnote4 the pre-requisite of adequate functioning, which, he rightly complained, was a form of advantage neglected in the literature, despite being the most fundamental one of all. Capacities beyond the basic (Can I run a mile? Can I impress Ukrainians with my impersonation of Russians? Can I sew more quickly than you?) seem quite irrelevant to measurement of deprivation, inequality or anything else of urgent concern from the point of view of justice. (This point, that poverty is the key theme of the book, will prove to be consequential when I come to comment on the criticisms of Sen made by André Béteille.)

Whether or not capability deserves its assigned role as a metric of advantage, Sen’s very identification of the capability dimension of assessment was impressive, in the light of its previous complete neglect. Capability lies, causally, between income or primary goods or resources on the one hand and utility or welfare on the other. Focus on capability means emphasizing not goods as such, but what they enable a person to do, and it also means disemphasizing the (often vagariously induced) utility associated with his doing it. The trouble with a metric of goods or resources or income is that the point of goods (and so forth) is to generate possibilities of choice for the individual: much better, then, Sen argued, to look not at their generators but at those possibilities themselves, which do not vary uniformly with what generates them, because of variations in people’s physical (climatic, topographical, etc.) and social circumstances, and in their biological constitutions. And the trouble with a metric of utility is that it is blind to the fact that people adjust their expectations downwardly when in poverty and upwardly when in wealth. This and other subjective vagaries mean that utility is not the right quantity to focus on: it is unfair to a poor person to resource him less because he has developed modest tastes and therefore needs less wherewithal to achieve a given level of welfare. What matters centrally is the causal intermediary, the effect of goods that causes utility: functioning, and capability, as such.footnote5