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Arguments for a Better World: Essays in Honor of Amartya SenVolume I: Ethics, Welfare, and Measurement$
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Kaushik Basu and Ravi Kanbur

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780199239115

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199239115.001.0001

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The Sen System of Social Evaluation

The Sen System of Social Evaluation

(p.15) Chapter 2 The Sen System of Social Evaluation
Arguments for a Better World: Essays in Honor of Amartya Sen

S. R. Osmani

Oxford University Press

This chapter argues that Amartya Sen's writings in the diverse fields of development economics, social choice, and moral philosophy add up to an integrated and coherent system of social evaluation, and the chapter also provides a brief outline of that system. As an expositional device, the major elements of this system are best described by contrasting them with the three main components of utilitarianism — namely, consequentialism, welfarism, and sum-ranking. Consequentialism refers to a methodology of social evaluation in which the goodness or rightness of some action or rule is judged solely with reference to its consequences, without attaching any intrinsic value to the nature of the act, or the agent who acted, or the process through which the consequent state of affairs came about. While most critiques of utilitarianism reject consequentialism, Sen argues strongly in favour retaining the moral salience of consequences but in a manner that can also accord due weight to relevant non-consequence features and suggests ways in which this can be done. Welfarism judges the goodness of consequences solely in terms of the utilities enjoyed by individuals. Sen rejects welfarism and suggests replacing utility by the notion of freedom, i.e., the opportunity people have to live the kind of life they have reason to value. At the same time, he also rejects income or resources or anything else that has an instrumental role in achieving freedom as the basis of social evaluation. Sum-ranking employs a simple method of aggregation, for the purpose of social evaluation, that involves adding the well-being of all individuals. By contrast, Sen proposes a much more nuanced approach to aggregation that allows for the existence of multiple values — both across individuals and for the same individual — and sees possible incompleteness of social choice as a virtue rather than as a weakness of a system of social evaluation.

Keywords:   social evaluation, social choice, freedom, capability, consequentialism, welfarism

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