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Why Sen’s interpretation of the liberal tradition matters and is also problematic to understanding his social economics

David Weinstein (Politics and International Affairs, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA)

International Journal of Social Economics

ISSN: 0306-8293

Article publication date: 5 December 2016

Abstract

Purpose

Sen has recently acknowledged his “immense” debts to the liberal tradition of J.S. Mill and, to much lesser extent, to T.H. Green. This essay explores how identifying himself so enthusiastically with Mill sheds light on one’s understanding of Sen’s defense of the capabilities approach. But trying to understand him through the lens of Mill can be a double-edged sword. Sen not only risks causing his readers to append too much Mill to capabilities liberalism, but he also risks encouraging them to misinterpret Mill. These implications naturally bear significantly on how compelling readers find both Sen’s conception of distributive justice and the public policy recommendations based on it. Besides exploring some of the problematic implications of Sen’s readily identifying with Mill’s liberalism in particular, this essay also speculates on what it means to identify with any political philosophical tradition and how such identification colors and adds momentum to both one’s political theorizing and practical recommendations. The paper aims to discuss these issues.

Design/methodology/approach

Textual interpretation.

Findings

As noted above, this paper examines how Sen’s esteem for J.S. Mill sheds light on the capabilities approach. It also suggests that using Mill to understand Sen better is fraught with difficulties.

Research limitations/implications

The paper also speculates on what it means to identify with a particular political philosophical tradition much as Sen identifies with Mill’s liberalism.

Practical implications

This paper also explores how such identification with a particular political philosophical tradition colors and adds momentum to both one’s political theorizing and practical recommendations.

Originality/value

Using Mill to understand Sen better is certainly worthwhile. On the other hand, doing this sort of thing risks distorting Mill and even Sen.

Keywords

Citation

Weinstein, D. (2016), "Why Sen’s interpretation of the liberal tradition matters and is also problematic to understanding his social economics", International Journal of Social Economics, Vol. 43 No. 12, pp. 1219-1232. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSE-07-2016-0204

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2016, Emerald Group Publishing Limited