Revisiting Old Thoughts: Part I

I have decided to share with you what I wrote more than 5 years back! This post is the first part of a 3-part series.

Back in 2011, while I was still in the second year of my undergraduate college, I had the audacity to write a monograph. I named it ‘Tryst With Destiny’. In the last chapter titled ‘Another World Is Possible’, I aimed to show that the present world of violence, unfreedom, injustice, unhealthy competition and mass xenophobia is not inevitable[1] and that another world is possible.  For that purpose, I used no new concept. Instead I revisited very briefly some well-known ideas like identity, freedom, justice, democracy, non-violence and Satyagraha, and tried to re-think our 21st century problems through the prism of those concepts. 

Most of what I wrote cannot be published here without sacrificing my intellectual repute (if any is still left after these stupid blog-posts). But my writings on Freedom, Identity and Non-violence seem to me not altogether useless. That’s why I am going to share those with you.

I will exactly reproduce what I wrote back in 2011 without any editing. So there might be some references to events (particularly Indian ones) which were burning issues in 2011. And last but not the least, forgive my naivety.


Consider the situation of a homemaker in a multi-millionaire family, who has to regularly face the brunt of physical and mental torture from her husband only because she is not a breadwinner. Next, suppose a family having a right-wing political belief is socially ostracized by other people in a village, which is predominantly leftist in its political affiliation. Again, imagine the plight of a six-year-old boy who is sent out to work in a factory because his parents do not earn enough to sustain the family.

The first two examples show that having sufficient income is not enough for living a dignified and free life. The last one shows that income greatly determines the degree of freedom that a person is entitled to. Combining these observations, we can conclude that income and wealth are not significantly desirable for their own sake as they are general-purpose means for having more freedom to lead the kind of lives people have reason to value. This resonates with the Aristotelian proposition that “The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.” (Nicomachean Ethics) This “something else” is freedom and we shall see how to conceptualize such an abstract concept of freedom.

In his book, “Development as Freedom”, Professor Amartya Sen discusses in details a framework of thought rather than a formula for reform for advancing human development across the globe. Dr. Sen beautifully revolutionizes the concept of development from a mere pursuit of economic growth to the enhancement of the freedoms that we enjoy. “Expanding the freedoms that we have reason to value not only makes our lives richer and more unfettered, but also allows us to be fuller social persons, exercising our own volitions and interacting with — and influencing — the world in which we live.”

Viewing development in terms of substantive individual freedom directs attention to the expansion of the ‘capabilities’ of persons to lead the kind of lives they value. Public policy enhances these capabilities, but also, on the other side, the effective use of participatory capabilities by the public influences the direction of public policy. Freedom is central to the conceptualization of the process of development for two distinct reasons:

  • Evaluative reason
  • Effectiveness reason

On the evaluative side, the capabilities approach concentrates on a factual base that differentiates it from more traditional, practical ethics and economic policy analysis, such as the economic concentration on the primacy of income and wealth, the utilitarian focus on mental satisfaction and so on. Sen argues that poverty cannot be properly measured by income or even by utility; what matters is not the things a person has — or the feelings these provide — but what a person is, or can be, and does, or can do. What matters for well-being is not just the characteristics of commodities consumed, as in the utility approach, but what use the consumer can and does make of commodities, e.g., a book is of little value to an illiterate person.

The effectiveness of instrumental freedom lies in the fact that different kinds of freedom, like political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees and protective security, interrelate with one another, and freedom of one type may greatly help in advancing freedom of other types. Because of the mutually reinforcing connections among freedoms of different kinds, free and sustainable agency emerges as a major constitutive engine of development, which contributes to the strengthening of free agencies of other kinds. Thus, the capabilities approach looks upon development as a momentous engagement with freedom’s possibilities.

According to Professor Sen, a person’s ‘capability’ refers to the alternative combinations of functionings that are feasible for him to achieve, given his personal features and his command over commodities. Capability is thus, the substantive freedom to achieve alternative functioning combinations. While the combination of a person’s functionings reflects his actual achievements, the capability set represents the freedom to achieve the alternative functioning combinations from which the person can choose. Thus, in this approach, human life can be seen as a set of ‘doings and beings’ called ‘functionings’ and the quality of life can be evaluated by assessing the capability to function. The valued functionings may vary from elementary ones, such as being adequately nourished, escaping morbidity etc., to very complex activities or personal states, such as achieving self-respect, taking part in the life of the community and appearing in public with dignity. Therefore, development requires removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty, lack of functional education, neglect of public facilities like health as well as systematic social deprivation. Income and wealth are not required for their own sake but their crucial role in determining living conditions must be recognized.

What people can positively achieve is influenced by socio-economic opportunities, gainful employment, political liberties and the enabling conditions of good health, basic functional education, and the encouragement and cultivation of initiatives. The institutional arrangements for such opportunities are also influenced by the exercise of people’s freedoms, through the liberty to participate in social choice and in the making of public decisions.

Conflicts between the partially disparate and partially congruent interests within diverse social living are typically resolved through implicitly agreed patterns of behaviour that may or may not be particularly egalitarian. The deals people get as an outcome of such “cooperative conflict” depend heavily on the degree of different freedoms they enjoy.

The above discussion on freedom is instrumental in understanding that the establishment of a more just, equal and democratic world order is contingent upon the advancement of freedom in different spheres of life.

[1] “W.B. Yeats wrote on the margin of his copy of Nietzsche’s “The Genealogy of Morals”, “But why does Nietzsche think the night has no stars, nothing but bats and owls and the insane moon?” Nietzsche’s skepticism about humanity and his chilling vision of the future were presented just before the beginning of the twentieth century. The events of the century that followed, including world wars, holocausts, genocides and other atrocities, gives us reason enough to worry whether Nietzsche’s skepticism about humankind might not have been just right.” — “The Idea of Justice” by Amartya Sen (2009)

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