In ancient Greece, Stoics developed the image of kosmou polites (world citizen), arguing that each of us dwells, in effect, in two communities — the local community of our birth, and the community of human argument and aspiration, in which “we measure the boundaries of our nation by the sun”. This image of the world citizen has been the source of the great philosopher Immanuel Kant’s idea of the “kingdom of ends”, and more recently in the writings of Rabindranath Tagore.
This trait is exemplified in Amartya Sen, economist, philosopher, social commentator — or world citizen. As Sen forcefully argues, it does not preclude him from his identity as a Bengali, as an Indian or an Asian.
While making a documentary on Sen [A Life Reexamined], I had the privilege of observing him at close quarters to find that he is as much at ease at his home in Santiniketan as he is at the Masters Lodge at Cambridge — the home and the world.
It was fitting that the French President Francois Hollande calling Amartya Sen the “greatest humanist” and a “great thinker”, also remarked that “he is an Indian by birth and is an Indian at heart as well though he travelled and worked in far-away West” while presenting to him the Legion of Honor on February 15.
It is telling that the previous Bengalis to have been conferred this honour are Satyajit Ray and Pandit Ravi Shankar. Each of them has bridged the world through their contribution in their respective fields but the common thread that binds the three towering individuals is their humanism.
The Legion of Honor, created in 1802 by Napoleon, is France’s highest public decoration, and though normally reserved for French nationals who have served the country in a military or civil capacity, the title is also given to non-citizens as a recognition of extraordinary service to humanity.
In 2008, upon the request of former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, Sen served as chair adviser of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. This commission underlined the importance of measuring progress by more than just GDP, focusing on overall quality of life and factors such as crime, environment, health care access, and income inequality.
Amartya Sen with French President Francois Hollande at the programme in New Delhi where the economist was presented the Legion of Honor. (PTI)
In this way Sen worked directly with the political leadership of not only France, but of all industrialised countries, since the commission was closely associated with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The final report of this commission, published in 2009, has apparently contributed to making France a better place to live in by taking the emphasis off a “production-oriented” measurement system. The findings are being implemented, notably, by the National Institute for Statistical and Economic Studies.
As a scholar, Sen has been as variegated as his personality, constantly probing his argumentative trait, starting from his brilliant thesis at Cambridge, Choice of Techniques, in 1960, and continuing unabated with the equally brilliant Idea of Justice, his latest book. His scholarly zest towards the marginalised of the world has attributed the tag of “conscience of economics” to Prof Sen.
If one just focuses on the last decade of his brilliant career one gets a snapshot of that trend. In the early years of the last decade, he started work for the United Nations on “human security”, working closely with the then UN secretary general, Kofi Annan. The term “human security” is described as “the keyword to comprehensively seizing all of the menaces that threaten the survival, daily life, and dignity of human beings and to strengthening the efforts to confront these threats.”
The Commission on Human Security (CHS) was launched in 2001 to prepare a report on human security issues and promote public understanding of the concept of human security and its use as an operational tool for policy formulation and implementation. The CHS was chaired by former UN high commissioner for refugees, Sadako Ogata, and Amartya Sen.
What is remarkable is the linkage between his theoretical contributions on welfare economics in the early years of his scholarly life and the worldwide implementation of the basic concerns which he has harboured throughout his life, through a world body like the UN. It goes without saying that in this worldwide rush for market implementation, Sen stands stubbornly concerned for basic human existence.
Let me end this piece on a contrasting and personal note. A few years back, I visited him and his mother, the late Amita Sen, in Santiniketan. A cobbler, who seemed to be close to the Sen household, had come to the house. I watched with pleasant amazement how Prof Sen got involved in an engrossing conversation with the cobbler. The conversation saw Prof Sen updating himself about the cobbler’s daughter’s school to whether there was waterlogging in his hut the last rainy season. More importantly, it was a dialogue among equals.
Therein lies the microfoundations of what President Hollande referred to as the “greatest humanist” while presenting the Legion of Honor.
Suman Ghosh is a Miami-based professor of economics and a National Award-winning film-maker