The Book of Calculated Morality

April 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Choice, Welfare and Measurement (Sen, Amartya)  

I know so little about so many subjects that if I knew just a little less about only a few more, I’d know absolutely nothing about everything. Economic analysis is a case in point – the more I read about it, the less I feel I know it.

The first book of Amartya Sen’s that I read was The Argumentative Indian, an impressive collection of essays on the Indian identity. I have also read his more seminal but slimmer, contributions On Ethics and Economics and Poverty and Famines, and though I have grasped his basic conclusions, it was clear to me that there was a whole lot of theory and technical detail that I was never going to fully understand, unless I invested significantly more than I was prepared to do. The book under review is the same, only more so.

Choice, Welfare and Measurement, as the blurb describes it, is a collection of essays that contains Professor Sen’s most important contributions to economic analysis and methods, including papers on a variety of topics, such as choice, preferences, rationality, public decisions and social measurement. Much of it is mathematical and abstract – symbolic notations, formulaic definitions and rigorous proofs of various propositions. If you are, wish to be, or ever were a student of economics, this is invaluable stuff, Nobel Prize winning material, in fact. Otherwise, like me, you can gloss over the technicalities and still appreciate and admire Professor Sen for his flawless prose, regular flashes of humor, clarity of thought and sheer humaneness.

The parts that I loved best included the lucid piece on the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the criticism of Paul Samuelson‘s Revealed Preference theory, the scathing rejection of utilitarianism, and most of all, the entire last chapter, on description and choice. What comes first – preference or choice? What’s the difference between sympathy and commitment, and how do they influence one’s decisions?  What is a good description – one that adheres scrupulously to the truth, as Samuelson demanded, or one that is useful for making accurate predictions, as Milton Friedman suggested? These are questions that Sen handles with wit and wisdom, quoting economists, philosophers and poets at will, refuting other theories, and completely unafraid to state controversial and utterly original views of his own.

Welfare and Development Economics is at the very cusp of  econometrics and ethics; Amartya Sen straddles both subjects with aplomb. There’s a lot to debate about in the mathematics, a lot to calculate in the morality. And it is entirely human, and perfectly rational, to engage simultaneously in both pursuits, even when they give contradictory answers – and this is the core message that I take away from Amartya Sen’s book.


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