Equality of What by Amartya Sen (Summary)

Sen vs Rawls

The work of the economist Amartya Sen, sanctioned in 1998 by Nobel laureate, held in the global intellectual landscape, a place certainly atypical. By advocating an ethical dimension to economics, refuting the assumptions, such as the rationality of economic agents, neoclassical, focusing on themes previously set aside by the economy, such as famine, or still integrating the discussion of contemporary political philosophy revolving around the Theory of Justice Rawls, Sen is quite distinct in its discipline.

Rethinking Inequality

Sen tries to rethink inequality and seeks to build a new definition of equality, to find ways to think afresh the issue of inequality. According to him, the inequality can not be measured only in terms of choice of the evaluation space operated. Starting from the question “Equality of what? “He supports the idea that the defense of equality, whether of income or opportunity, is within a defined space and always against the expense of another space. Thus, any development, any defense of a particular gender, what Sen calls the variable focal length, ie the center of a theory, thus tolerates inequality in the periphery in that it makes them tolerable. Thus, Sen reviews the different areas of equality: freedom, income, welfare using the concept of “capability”.


This concept has renewed the approach of inequality, including that of poverty, both in rich countries than in developing countries, and can be considered as a reformulation of the notion of Rawlsian “primary goods”. Rawls, in fact, the principles of justice, the first words of freedom, and the second, said difference, provide to each personal possession of primary goods, such as dignity, freedoms extended to allow everyone to determine its sovereign life project. Sen opposes this conception of equality. For him, it must focus on the difficulties faced by individuals to convert, to accomplish these primary goods. These difficulties, Sen argues that Rawls evaded, are of two kinds: external and personal. External characteristics refer to anything that emerges from the environment of the individual, social class, geographic location, etc. The personal criteria are age, gender, mental and physical abilities.

This dual characterization of human diversity determines the capacity of individuals to realize their life plans. The example of a congenital disability immediately shows the limit of the income criterion used to determine the level of equality, because this individual, while enjoying the same income than another, will have opportunities to act on his desires limited by his handicap.

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