Inequality Reexamined

Amartya Sen

Oxford University Press 1992
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996
Sen begins Inequality Reexamined by arguing that equality plays a key role in all political philosophies of any consequence. Even those that are commonly perceived as anti-egalitarian advocate equality in some "space" — libertarianism advocates equality of libertarian rights, for example, while utilitarianism assigns equal weight to individual utilities. (As a result of human diversity, equality in any one domain implies inequalities in others.) Sen himself advocates an approach based on 'capabilities' — freedoms to achieve 'functionings', or 'beings and doings' constitutive of well-being. Having introduced this, he goes on to tease out some of the complexities in the relationship between freedom, agency, and well-being. The second half of Inequality Reexamined applies these ideas to various substantive topics: conceptions of justice (in particular that of Rawls); measures of inequality and their use in welfare economics; quantitative measures of poverty; and, briefly, class, gender, and regional inequalities.

With forty five pages of references and dense footnoting, Inequality Reexamined is very much an academic monograph — and one unlikely to be read outside a restricted area of academia. This is not because of its mathematical sophistication (references to partial orderings and Gini coefficients are only incidental) but because of its philosophical abstruseness. Its core is solid logico-linguistic analysis and, despite Sen's attempts to connect this with practical issues, readers unattracted by such analysis are unlikely to find Inequality Reexamined at all appealing. While I think it is a valuable achievement, in some ways it is a dead end — I doubt much (more) can be done in this area at this level of abstraction.

Acknowledgment: thanks to Robbie Gates for putting my first book review token to such good use.

October 1996

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%T Inequality Reexamined
%A Sen, Amartya
%I Oxford University Press
%D 1992
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 0198283342
%P xiv,207pp