Book Festival: Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize-Winning Welfare Economist

Edinburgh Festival review
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Amartya Sen; Chair, Brian Taylor
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Amartya Sen wished to reassure us he was not ‘The Mother Theresa of Economics’. Although he speaks truth to power about the plight of the powerless, Sen is perhaps both shrewder, and, dare one say, tougher in his analysis of the world’s ills than that remarkable lady, to whom Sen paid generous tribute for her efforts to focus attention on the world’s poor.

Appearing on the final day of the Edinburgh International Book Festival to discuss his most recent book, The Idea of Justice. There can be few who have thought longer or harder about how we may achieve greater social and economic justice than Amartya Sen.

Clearly at least as much at home with philosophy as with economics, Sen, who has recently written an extensive introduction to the Penguin edition of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, argued for both Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft as proponents of theories of social justice.

Sen, however, pointed out that theories of social justice had complicated, rather than clarified arguments, and that theory has to become genuinely informed by practice; on the other hand practice uninformed by theoretical underpinning becomes impulsive and short-termist.

There was much to digest in Sen’s lengthy responses to the questions audience members posed, the questions themselves ranging from the simplistic to the clearly professional. Sen replied to as many as could be fitted in to the crowded hour of his appearance, demonstrating that even in distinguished old age his razor-sharp intellect remains as forensic as ever.

Sen’s arguments are not always easy to follow, his style at this event being reminiscent of a disquisitioning tutor, taking us across a wide-ranging discussion including far more than the syllabus contains. It was nevertheless a privilege for us to be in such wise and well-informed company.

Amartya Sen, An Audience With The Nobel Prize-winning Welfare Economist, was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 29 August