Sen and sensibility: Detectives Beyond Borders schmoozes three Nobel Prize winners
"You can't have a humane society without considerations beyond your own interests," Sen told his audience at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and if that's a surprise from an economist, consider Wikipedia's summation of the economics classic with which Sen began his lecture. That book's author
"critically examines the moral thinking of his time, and suggests that conscience arises from social relationships. His goal in writing the work was to explain the source of mankind's ability to form moral judgements, in spite of man's natural inclinations towards self-interest. [He] proposes a theory of sympathy, in which the act of observing others makes people aware of themselves and the morality of their own behavior."
I won't bore you with statistics and numbers, because Sen didn't bore me with them. Rather, he made the simple case that social factors, ethics, and indices of social well-being and misery all have a place at the economist's table, and he did so without turning preachy or dogmatic. In short, he's the kind of professor who might have made me an economics major had we crossed paths when I was in college.
Sen moves beyond the traditional purview of economics when he talks and writes about India, where he was born in 1933. His essays in The Argumentative Indian make the case that dissent, heterodoxy, and respect for opposing viewpoints have been integral to Indian culture at least from the time of Arjuna's debate with Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and constitute a touchstone of India's present and its future. And that constitutes his rebuttal to the chauvinist, nationalist Hindutva movement in Indian politics, whose apparently organized campaign on Amazon has done so much to generate interest in Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus: An Alternative History.
"Oh, yes! They have attacked me!" Sen said as he signed my copy of The Argumentative Indian.
"Be proud of your one-star reviews!" I replied. If the line of autograph-seekers behind me had not stretched a fair way down a hallway, we'd have high-fived.
(My previous most personal contact with a Nobel winner came in 1986, when I sipped coffee with Dario Fo, the Italian actor/playwright, who ordered decaf because he needed sleep. He regarded his envelope of Sanka with suspicion before tearing, pouring, stirring, and sipping. Then he made a face, shook his head sadly, and said in the one language we could speak with something approaching mutual comprehension, "Détestable!"
(My third Nobel encounter was more memorable for the beautiful, philo-Semitic water polo fan in line behind me as we waited for Isaac Bashevis Singer to sign our books. "Tell him something in Yiddish!" she said. Alas, the moment did not mark the beginning of a torrid fling.)
© Peter Rozovsky 2014