Economics and Philosophy

Symposium on Amartya Sen's philosophy: 1 Capability and freedom: a defence of Sen

Philip Pettit a1
a1 Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University


In a recent discussion of Amartya Sen's concept of the capabilities of people for functioning in their society – and the idea of targeting people's functioning capabilities in evaluating the society – G. A. Cohen accuses Sen of espousing an inappropriate, ‘athletic’ image of the person (Cohen, 1993, pp. 24–5). The idea is that if Sen's formulations are to be taken at face value, then life is valuable only so far as people actively choose most facets of their existence: if they fare well in the material stakes, for example, they must fare well as a result of active choice and effort, not because anyone else looks after them. ‘That’, says Cohen, ‘overestimates the place of freedom and activity in well-being’ (p. 25).