Amartya Sen: Ethics, Economics and Politics

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Course TypeCourse CodeNo. Of Credits
Foundation CoreNA4

Semester and Year Offered: Winter semester 2019

Course Coordinator and Team: Dr. Malabika Pal

Email of the coarse coordinator: malabika[at]aud[dot]ac[dot]in

Pre-requisites: None


The aim of the course is to introduce the basic framework employed by Amartya Sen to discuss the issues of individual freedom, inequality, justice, democracy and development. This is done by going through some of Sen’s most important books. The objective is to bring out Sen’s emphasis on the normative side of economics. This is important in order to analyze contemporary issues of policy since the mainstream approach has been to focus on development as an increase in national income. Understanding Sen’s approach could help in conceptualization of development as a humane process and as enhanced individual freedom and capability rather than just an increase in monetary income.

Course Outcomes:

On successful completion of the course, the students will be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an understanding of the key ideas and approaches of Amartya Sen regarding famines, inequality, development and democracy.
  2. Demonstrate an ability to understand the relationship between ethics, economics and politics and thus relate better to the contemporary events in India.
  3. Demonstrate an ability to understand India’s development experience in comparative perspective and gauge the direction that development economics has taken towards incorporating substantial freedoms in arriving at a wider concept of development.


Brief description of the Modules/Main modules:

The course begins with a brief biography of Amartya Sen to highlight how his early childhood experiences influenced much of his later research. His most widely cited work on poverty and famines is taken up next. This module also introduces the entitlement approach. The third model goes deeper into the conceptual framework that are the building blocks of his approach. Starting with his discussion on the link between ethics and economics, this module details the capability approach that has gained influence the world over (and was incorporated in UNDP’s Human Development Reports). This module also includes Sen’s reexamination of inequality and his contribution to the ‘idea of justice’. The highly technical work in the field of social choice is excluded but a lucid introduction to the 2017 edition of his seminal work Collective Choice and Social Welfare is included as an additional optional reading for the motivated student. The fourth module concentrates exclusively on his analysis of development as freedom in which he emphasizes that economic and political freedoms help to reinforce each other. The final module selects one comprehensive collaborative work with Jean Dreze to highlight their emphasis on the two-way relationship between economic growth and human capability in the context of the Indian experience. The overarching theme of the book, as has been in most of their writings, is their emphasis on the necessity for the lives, needs and demands of the underprivileged people to command greater attention in public discussion and policy making, and in democratic politics.

Module I:

Amartya Sen: A Brief Biography

This module will introduce the life of Amartya Sen who was born in pre-independent India and witnessed famine, deprivation and injustice. They have had a deep impact on him and greatly influenced his future research.

1 week


  • Amartya Sen- Biographical- Https://>prizes>sen
  • Documentary film ‘An argumentative Indian’ by Suman Ghosh (2017)
  • Sen, Amartya (2005). The Argumentative Indian-Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity, Penguin Books, England, Chapters 1 and 2, pp.3-44.


Additional Reading (Optional):

Kaushik Basu and Ravi Kanbur ed.(2009), Arguments for a Better World- Essays in Honor of Amartya Sen, Oxford University Press, New York. Introduction, pp1-4.

Richa Saxena (2011), Amartya Sen- A Biography, Rajpai Publications, Delhi.

Morris, W. Christopher ed. (2010), Amartya Sen, Cambridge University Press, Chapter 1, pp.1-12.

Module II:

On Poverty, Famines and the Entitlement Approach

After an introduction to Sen’s childhood exposure to the problems of famine, poverty and deprivation, this module goes into Sen’s perspectives on poverty and famines and his conceptualization of the entitlement approach. A somewhat technical analysis of the Bengal Famine is provided to gauge the character of the famine.

2 weeks


  • Sen, Amartya (1981), Poverty and Famines, Oxford University Press, New York. Chapters 1-6, pp 1-83.
  • Devereux, Stephen (2001), Sen’s Entitlement Approach: Critiques and Counter Critiques, Oxford Development Studies, Vol.29, No.3.


Module III:

An Introduction to the building blocks of Sen’s approach

This module attempts to provide an exposition of the conceptual framework that Sen introduced. His extremely important perspective on ethics and economics is the starting point of the discussion, followed by the widely cited capability approach and his work reexamining the important issue of inequality. The module includes Sen’s idea of justice which is aimed to address questions of enhancing justice and removing injustice rather than attempting to resolve questions about what constitutes perfect justice, is introduced.

3 weeks


  • Sen, Amartya (1987), On Ethics and Economics, Blackwell Publishers Ltd., UK. Chapter 1, pp 1-28.
  • Sen, Amartya (1987), Commodities and Capabilities, Oxford University Press, New Delhi. Chapters 1-6, pp. 1-32.
  • Sen, Amartya (1995), Inequality Reexamined, Oxford University Press, New Delhi. Chapters 1-4, pp. 1-69.
  • Sen, Amartya (2009), The Idea of Justice, Allen Lane, London, Introduction pp.1-31
  • Hartley, Dean (2009), Critiquing Capabilities: The distractions of a beguiling concept, Critical Social Policy, Vol.29, No.2. Sage.


Module IV:

On Development, Participation and Freedom

This module explores the deep complementarity between individual agency and social arrangements that Sen emphasizes in his discussion on development.

3 weeks


  • Sen, Amartya (2000), Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, New Delhi. Chapters 1,2, pp. 13-53; Chapters 5,6,pp. 111-159.
  • Dreze, Jean and Amartya Sen (2002), India- Development and Participation, Oxford University Press, New Delhi. Chapters 1, 2; pp.1-53; Chapter 10, pp.347-375.
  • O’Hearn, Dennis (2009), Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom: Ten Year’s Later, Policy and Practice, A Development Education Review, pp.9-15.


Module V:

On India and its Contradictions

In this module we look at Sen’s collaborative work with Jean Dreze on India where they argue that the achievement of high growth must ultimately be judged in terms of the impact of that economic growth on the lives and freedoms of the people. While India has been climbing the ladder of economic growth rates, it has fallen behind in the scale of social indicators of living standards. This module looks at the development experience of India using the lens of Sen’s framework developed so far in the course. This module briefly introduces Sen’s work on identity and violence.

3 weeks


  • Dreze, Jean and Amartya Sen (2013), Uncertain Glory, Allen Lane, London. Chapters 1,2, 3 pp. 1-80; Chapters 7,8, pp.182- 242.
  • Sen, Amartya (2006), Identity and Violence, Penguin Books, England. Chapters 1,2, pp.1-39; Chapters 9, pp.170-186.

Assessment Details with weights:

Class assignment20%
Mid-term examination40%
End-term examination40%


Reading List:

Provided above with module descriptions.