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Inequality Reexamined, Amartya Sen 1992

Amartya Sen is a contemporary economist of Indian origin, a professor at Harvard and a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998. In Inequality Reexamined, Amartya Sen revisits the foundations and the concepts of equality and inequality, which makes his book a rather theoretical work.

Inequality Reexamined, Amartya Sen 1992


Firstly, it is necessary for the author to question the actual definition of equality in order to detect the misunderstandings and subjectivity that can creep into it. Equality, defined as the equal consideration of individuals on a certain level [p45], is presented as a common objective that accompanies all ethical, moral and political proposals.

However, it seems difficult to really measure and establish true equality, as the diversity of variables to be considered is so great. Thus, the author proves the importance of the choice of focus in the observation of inequalities, all the more so as it is chosen according to the study carried out and the inequalities to be observed [p151].

A) The income variable

Despite the fact that the income variable is frequently used to account for concrete inequality [p59] since it represents the majority of the information available to statisticians and can be studied. However, inequality cannot be limited to this economic criterion because it leads us to neglect concrete inequalities through a tendency to simplify the analysis.

B) Achievement

The author proposes to differentiate between an individual's achievement and his freedom to achieve. Indeed, there has been a tendency to focus on achievement, i.e. actual realisation, rather than on freedom to achieve, which amounts to judging an individual's advantage by his or her potential power [p63]. For the author, this actual capacity to achieve is reinforced by the means to achieve [p66], i.e. resources, whose potential conversion into freedom is different for each individual according to physical differences, for example [p67]. Thus, the resources available to an individual are a very imperfect indicator of the freedom he or she can enjoy.

C) Welfare

Interpersonal inequalities can be observed through inequitable relations in the well-being of individuals, i.e. the quality of their existence. This existence is filled with more or less complex functionings, states and actions that make it possible to measure the level of well-being [p76]. But beyond these functionings, there is the notion of capability, representing a combination of functionings expressing one's freedom to choose between possible ways of living [p76-77].

It is essential to observe an individual's capability and not only his or her functionings, since some lifestyles, such as fasting, may be a choice and not an imposed state.

However, there is a differentiation to be made according to the relevance of one capability in relation to another, which leads us to keep only some of them, to the detriment of some other more negligible ones [p85].

In general, the author calls the achievement of objectives related to one's personal well-being or to the common good an agent quality [p.102]. This gives rise to agent freedom. However, agent freedom does not seem to systematically guarantee welfare since not all individuals are willing to make choices, and some choose not to be faced with more options [p.112-113].

The author argues, however, that because of the breadth of the concepts of welfare and equality, there is a "pragmatic reason to accept incompleteness" or "incompleteness" in agreeing not to try to translate them into a very precise, clear and exhaustive form, especially since such a definition might not be found [p89; p220-221].

D) Utility

The notion of utility can also be used as a function determining the capability of an individual. Indeed, it represents a satisfaction of desire such as the desire for happiness [p96-97]. However, this approach can be qualified by the author because of the downward reduction in the aspiration to well-being and happiness of people experiencing limited life and deprivation which can make this observation inaccurate [p98].

E) Control

The question of ownership of power does not necessarily determine freedom. An individual's lack of direct control does not necessarily reduce his or her effective freedom to live as he or she would choose, since the choices made by more capable people are counterfactual choices, i.e. the same choices the individual would have made [p114].

F) Other focuses to consider

The author argues that the role of environment and inheritance in interpersonal inequalities is too often overlooked, as they represent either assets or handicaps. In addition to these, there is the diversity of personal traits, such as physical disability, which cannot be compensated for by high incomes and which restricts the ability to act, thus representing an inequality in relation to able-bodied individuals, or the systematic contrasts between groups, for example between men and women regarding pregnancy, which is a clear disadvantage for women [p47; p57].

Other less systematic and socially embedded inequalities may occur between groups, such as the income differences between traditional classes outlined by Marx [p196].

Beyond class divisions, there are inequalities between races and skin colours, such as access to health care or employment [p202].

Finally, inequalities persist between the sexes, such as inequalities in ability or even mortality [p202-206]. However, these inequalities are not necessarily linked to regional wealth [p207] since some poorer regions, such as Kerala in India, which is well known to Amartya Sen [p209], value women's self-fulfilment better.

G) Nuance and criticism

However, the diversity of these criteria tends to give too many different interpretations to the notion of equality, which for some is an empty notion because it is too imprecise [p52].

Moreover, the author criticises the term 'equality of opportunity'.


Amartya Sen takes up the analysis of John Rawls (twentieth century philosopher) who theorises "justice as equity" [p130]. This is based on two conditions: an equal right to a set of freedoms and an acceptance of inequalities relating to functions and positions open to all and working in favour of the most disadvantaged, which Rawls calls a "political conception of justice", centred around the principle of tolerance [p131].

Yet, without contradicting Rawls' theory, Sen argues that it is doubly incomplete.

First, when Rawls asserts that social justice is the fact of an equal distribution of resources (primary goods) among individuals, the author adds that this approach is not sufficient insofar as it does not reflect the difference in ability and objectives that may intervene among them [p139-140].

Moreover, ignoring that a disadvantaged person does not derive equal benefits from the same resources as another individual, and granting them the same resources, is somehow working in favour of a certain inequality [p143].


A) Measuring inequality

The author sets out two ways of comparing the position of individuals in order to define equality between them:

either in terms of the achievement reached and the equality observed is then an equality of levels,

or in terms of the negative difference between the achievement achieved and the maximum achievable achievement, resulting in an equality of shortfalls [p155].

The diversity of instruments for measuring inequality leads to diverse results and findings within the same object of study [p218], which can influence political and social decisions to reduce inequality.

B) A manifestation of inequality: poverty

Amartya Sen identifies poverty as the recognition of deprivation [p179].

Several methods can be used to define poverty.

The "enumeration" method consists of counting the number of individuals below a certain poverty line in order to derive a ratio, the poverty index [p171].

However, the author expresses several criticisms of these methods. Firstly, they do not take into account the unequal distribution of income among individuals deemed poor [p176].

Furthermore, the focus on income distribution in order to judge poverty is insufficient according to him because it does not consider deprivation in terms of capability [p182]. Indeed, the author does not consider low income as an indicator of poverty, but rather inadequacy, which amounts to having an income that is too low to ensure one's capability [p185].

Thus, there are individuals considered poor in rich countries as well as in the poorest countries: indeed, the value of certain goods is different according to the country and certain expenses depend on cultural priorities (normally qualified as secondary), sometimes to the detriment of vital expenses [p192].

C) Justification and personal responsibility of the individual

Three plausible justifications for inequality are presented by the author:

- The space error: equality is non-existent for the variable under study but for another: one cannot then claim total equality [p227].

- Incentive (like operational asymmetry, considers that inequality is negligible compared to the benefits it brings): the function of inequality is to encourage efficiency [p229].

- Operational asymmetry: A difference in power and capability is justified in favour of more capable individuals or in favour of a small group of individuals for practical purposes [p230-231].

Moreover, the individual can be held responsible for his condition, unless his condition is not dependent on him in the first place [p241], and unless the information available to him at the time of making choices was imperfect [p243].

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