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Amartya Sen's Impact on Social Justice

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

How one philosopher and economist changed the way we see prosperity.

Amartya Sen illustration
A noble economist by Aveera Juss

'What kind of equality does justice require?’ Amartya Sen has raised and answered questions like these through his influential work in welfare and developmental economics. With a Nobel prize in economic science, he has driven a paradigm shift towards a practical approach to justice. His work relates justice and equality to development, health, environmental conservation, and environmental justice. The capabilities theory and capabilities approach pioneered by him and Martha Nussbaum are relevant even today as they create emphasis the ethical issue of social choice.

The capabilities approach proposes that people have different capabilities to utilize the same resources. For example, a disabled person will benefit more from $100 than an able-bodied person. This is because the disability reduces the capability of the disabled person to access the resource of money. Thus, the evaluation of a person’s well-being must be based on accessible resources and more importantly value of the resource for the person. Objecting to the utilitarian approach of measuring well-being and allocation of the commons, Sen believes it limits the view of real well-being. While a utilitarian may argue that a disabled person ought to receive more resources, goods, and freedoms to enjoy the same level of well-being as an able-bodied person, Sen says a less capable person will derive more pleasure from an input than a more capable person. Therefore, in practice, the utilitarian approach will be centred towards providing even more benefits to the more capable individual than the less capable individual (Sen, 1979).

The capabilities approach also recognises that there should be an enhancement of capabilities through policies that increase disposable income, education or access to healthcare. It addresses the climate that enables the lower capabilities of minorities, genders, sexualities, castes, and more. The ethical climate can be defined as a set of ideas and values relating to morality that may be commonly agreed upon in a community or society. Sen’s normative ethical theory is both deontological (driven by duty) and consequentialist (driven by outcome). It is based on the notion that the person(s) allocating the resources have a duty towards social justice and that social justice is desirable for good outcomes in society. According to Simon Blackburn, an ethical climate governs society’s view of right and wrong and acts as a network of norms that sustain our lives. The ethical issues that Sen addresses through the discipline of economics are those of justice, which have hugely impacted the perception of justice in the ethical climate and academia.

The main thesis of Sen’s work is that the goal of development is freedom, freedom to achieve one’s potential without being restrained by circumstances beyond one’s control. Sen proposes 5 freedoms to be essential towards well-being, in no particular order: political freedom, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparent guarantees and protective security (Sen, 2014). Some argue that Sen was unable to illustrate the ‘root cause’ of the problem which is capitalism. However, his work urges us to wonder whether our current way of organising our economy is a problem.

Interestingly, Sen’s ideas have been used to conceptualise the well-being of people with regard to public health, development or environmental justice to the well-being of non-human entities such as rivers. Rivers are seen as living beings whose welfare can be measured and enhanced. Furthermore, non-human animals can also be assigned functions according to the capability approach for their welfare. Thus, Sen’s perspective includes Gaia- viewing the earth as an organism. ‘Participant’ is one of the attitudes with the highest form of respect for nature, and this is reflected in how Sen’s work has been interpreted and appeared in sustainability literature.

The implications of Sen’s far-reaching work are witnessed in national governments and institutions such as banks and the United Nations that allocate resources as humanitarian/financial aid within society. He poses pertinent ethical questions for us as a society and individuals to think about. Across the world, a deliberate approach to be reflexive must be adopted with the moral duty of enhancing capabilities. On this day of social justice, his work helps establish the foundation for achieving social justice in the new digital economy.


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Blackburn, S. (2003). Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.

DeGrazia, D. (2002). Animal rights: a very short introduction. OUP Oxford.

Green, D. (2020, March 2). Could Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum help us have a more grown-up conversation about aid? – FP2P. OxFam F2P2.

Kramm, M. (2020). When a river becomes a person. Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 21(4), 307-319.

Miller, D. (2003). Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.

Navarro, V. (2000). Development and quality of life: A critique of Amartya Sen's development as freedom. International Journal of Health Services, 30(4), 661-674.

Sen, A. (1979). Equality of what. The Tanner lecture on human values, 22.

Sen, A. (2014). Development as freedom (1999). The globalization and development reader: Perspectives on development and global change, 525.

Sen, A. (2014, August 23). Global Warming Is Just One of Many Environmental Threats That Demand Our Attention. The New Republic.

Zweers, W. (2000). Participating with Nature Outline for an Ecologization of Our World View.

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