Equality of What?


Sen, A. (1980). “Equality of What?”. In The Tanner Lecture on Human Values, I, 197-220. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Type of work: Article (academic)


Development | Economics


Well-being is not just a question of the wealth or pleasure that a person has; it is a question of how people manage to live their lives and the ability they have to do certain things that are important to them. This was the argument put forward by Professor Amartya Sen in 1979.

In his seminal Tanner Lecture – ‘Equality of What?’, Sen unites economics and philosophy to explore how a person’s well-being might best be measured. It was the first in a series of writings in which he developed his capability approach. This focuses on the actual capability and freedom people have to live the kind of life they value. The capability approach has since become a main (inter-disciplinary) alternative to the standard economic frameworks for analysing inequality.

Sen examines and critiques three traditional approaches to equality: utilitarian equality, total utility equality and Rawlsian equality. These relate well-being to either wealth (income or possessions), utility (pleasure, getting what you want) or access to primary social goods (basic liberties and basic goods). Sen shows that each of these approaches has shortcomings; even a combination of the three fails to provide an adequate framework for understanding individual advantage.

Sen builds on and goes beyond Rawl’s theory of justice, with its focus on primary social goods. The Rawlsian approach, he argues, fails to recognise the fundamental differences between human beings. Sen proposes an alternative framework for thinking about equality which he calls ‘basic capability equality’. This approach focuses on a person being able to do certain basic things, such as feed themselves and participate in community life. It concerns a person’s ability to function and achieve.

Key arguments of this thesis include:

  • It is essential to recognise the diversity among people.
  • People’s needs vary depending on a range of factors: for example health, body size, location, climatic conditions.
  • Because people’s needs differ, people will also differ in the use they can make of certain goods: for example, a disabled person may need certain things that an able-bodied person does not just to achieve mobility.
  • The capability approach focuses on a person’s actual capability to make use of the goods, services and opportunities available to them.
  • Capabilities depend on people’s health (physical and mental) and the circumstances in which they are living.
  • Some capabilities are universal while others can be culturally specific.

(from id21)