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TITLEWhy freedom matters: Adding spirituality to Amartya Sen's interpretation on freedom
AUTHOR 1Sathia Varqa
ABSTRACTThe aim of this paper is to argue why freedom matters to individual being. This is done with reference to the work of Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel Prize recipient for economics.
TAGS- Philosophy; Amartya Sen; Economics; Freedom and liberty


The aim of this paper is explore the importance of freedom. This is done with specific reference to Amartya Sen's interpretation on freedom. Sen is the 1998 Nobel Prize recipient for economics. Sen's path-breaking research in the field of development and welfare economics offers an all encompassing perspective on the importance of freedom to the development of human potential in an economy. Sen's work focuses on the ‘well-being' and ‘agency' aspect of human development for the realization of the inner human potential. The realization or functioning of this potential requires freedom to be and to do. This paper argues that if freedom really matters then we have to look at individuals not just by using the concept of ‘well-being' and ‘agency' but most importantly as ‘spiritual-being' with intrinsic virtues waiting to be converted to full potential. However this does not mean one is more important than the other. Each of the three (well-being, agent and spiritual-being) is equally important to development of individuals who make up the economy. The discussion in this paper shows that it is this broader concept of freedom which is required for each of us to understand in order to bring a deeper and profound solution.


The aim of this paper is to argue why freedom matters to individual being. The importance of freedom is not purely restricted to political and economic domain of countries, important though it is. Freedom pertains to individuals who make up families, it matters to families which make up communities and villages and it matters to societies and local and national institutions all over the world. Freedom has traditionally been understood as the power to act, speak and think without restraints. Viewed in this sense, freedom is a priceless commodity because of the unconstrained nature of its function. The term freedom is used interchangeable with liberty, rights and democracy. Liberty said Hobbes ‘is freedom from chains and prisons'[1] or more accurately ‘the absence of external impediments to motion'. Hence liberty is associated more with politics. Freedom on the other hand has more general meaning, like opposition to slavery, absence of personal encumbrances and expression of identity, hence freedom is metaphysical[2]. Amartya Sen's basic proposition is that freedom is central to the process of development. There are two distinct reasons for this. They are (i) the evaluative reason: the assessment of progress has to be done in terms of whether the freedoms that people have are enhanced; (ii) the effectiveness reason: achievement of development is thoroughly dependent on the free agency of the people[3]. Sen's argument on freedom is by expanding the concept but by narrowing it down to individuality.

Exploring the concept of freedom

The concept of freedom has developed to play a significant role in realizing the human potential of ‘carrying forward an ever advancing civilization'[4]. The concept of freedom has evolved to the extent of reducing the distinction between ‘freedom from' and ‘freedom to' (i.e. freedom as absence of constraint and freedom as possibility of choosing). In exploring the concept of freedom, distinction between ‘freedom from' and ‘freedom to' i.e. freedom as absence of constraint and freedom as possibility of choosing has been reduced[5]. Freedom refers implicitly to a triadic relation between an agent who is free from constraints to do and to be certain things[6].

The concept of freedom has been explored and interpreted to demonstrate its relevance to progress, particularly economic progress. Most interpretation on freedom has focussed on its relationship to economic progress but little on particularising human freedom that motivates human actions in an economy. Research had tended to generalises the positive relationships between economic freedom and economic growth rates across countries[7]. This paper pays little attention to the general direction on the causality but emphasis on particular cases of freedom enhancing actions.

Sen demonstrated convincingly on the essentials of the human freedom as a constitutive to economic development among other things in his research works. Sen's work focuses on the richness of human beings that make up the economy rather than the richness of the economy for the sake of material prosperity. This paper draws on Sen's broad interpretation on freedom and identifies some of its relevance to the Baha'i view on freedom. This broader interpretation of freedom is not only necessary but imperative for Baha'is to recognize if deeper and profound solutions are to be effective. Many of Sen's view emanate from his re-interpretation of Adam Smiths' classical works on politics and economics. In re-interpreting Smiths' work, Sen offers convincing arguments on the compatibility of freedom and development. Sen dissects the two to demonstrate that the two are actually inseparable and should indeed be treated as one variable. In order to show this, freedom and development has to be considered in a broader context and not just in terms of increase in per-capita income.

Most of Sen's arguments are attractive but it falls short in recognising the role of religion as ‘freedom enabling' to do that which is most valuable to the individual and society. Sen excludes himself from any theological discussions when referring to freedom, but he does make ample of references to historical anecdotes and to some Hindu and Buddhist scriptures in making a point. The broader concept of freedom is in fact very effective when its implications are recognised from the Baha'i point of view. This paper attempts to offer an insight to the effectiveness of freedom to individuals by building on Sen's concept of well-being and agency.

Sen's interpretation on freedom

Sen's analysis on the concept of freedom tend to emphasize more on freedom as enabling rather than as constraining factor. In emphasizing the positive nature of freedom, Sen argues that development should be seen as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy[8]. In this way, the expansion of freedom is the (i) primary end and (ii) the principal means of development. They are referred to as the ‘constitutive role' and the ‘instrumental role' of freedom respectively[9].

The constitutive role of freedom refers to the enrichment of human life through elementary capabilities. This includes ability to avoid starvation, premature mortality, being literate and numerate and the ability to enjoy political participation at the local and higher levels. These are not merely rights one should enjoy but rather an intrinsic importance of human freedom to evaluating the value of freedom. The purpose of constitutive role of freedom is to determine the make-up of one's social and economic environment.

The instrumental role of freedom refers to different kinds of rights, opportunities and entitlements that contribute to the expansion of freedom in general. Sen emphasizes five distinct types of instrumental freedoms[10]. They are: (i) political freedom, (ii) economic facilities, (iii) social opportunities, (iv) transparency guarantees and (v) protective security. Each of these distinct types of rights and opportunities are essential and closely interrelated in advancing the capability of a person. To appreciate the inter-connections between these freedoms, an empirical linkage that tie the distinct types of freedom are central to our understanding of the instrumental role of freedom. The approach of considering each of these freedoms to development is termed ‘capability approach'.

Capability approach focuses on the ability to transform one's raw capacity in order to execute an activity. Consider the example of where great many of us are born with the raw capacity to see colours. But developing the capability to distinguish red from blue is something that has to be developed from experience and education. Likewise most human beings are born with the raw capacity to participate and decide about the conditions of individual and the collective life. But this raw capacity had to be developed to be able to reason as individuals and community about solutions to our collective problems. The exercise of the power of reasoning to find solutions to collective problems is best when undertaken through the process of unimpeded consultation and learning by doing.

Capability approach considers people as one by one and not lump individuals and families into an aggregate analysis and ignoring the inequality of the distributions. The capability approach is an alternative approach to inter-personal comparisons that traditionally focuses on utilitarianism and inter-country comparisons that focuses on indicators like Gross National Product (GNP) per capita. The capability approach

does not see individuals as patients receiving handouts but rather views them as active agents who have control over their own lives.

Martha Nussbaum classifies capabilities into three types[11]. They are: (i) basic capabilities, this refers to the innate raw capacity as a basis for building more advanced capabilities. Most infants have this basic capacity, though without development and education they cannot use them; (ii) internal capabilities, this refers to the sufficient conditions required for the exercise of functions. The internal capabilities are built on formal and informal education and training. The internal capability includes literacy, numeracy, speech, etc and; (iii) combined capabilities, this includes internal capabilities plus the external conditions (the surrounding social, economic and political environment) that makes the exercise of functions an effective option.

Nussbaum takes Sen's capability approach further by listing ten specific areas of activities that are characteristically performed by human beings that they constitute definitive of the life that is truly human[12]. Nussbaum aims to construct a universal minimum threshold for everyone based on central human capabilities.

Capability in the writings of Sen and Nussbaum can be likened to human rights, but capability is a far more powerful concept than the idea of human rights. The capability approach is about universalizing human opportunities for the full human functioning, although Sen prefers the capability approach to be an open ended frame-work and not a fully fleshed out theory. The capability approach viewed from the Baha'i perspective points recognises humans essentially as spiritual-being with spiritual qualities inherent in them. This recognition would be effective for the sake of increasing the freedom to develop the inherent qualities.

The capability approach in Sens's argument enables one to evaluate the bundle of options (or commodities) available in relation to its alternatives. Therefore the amount of freedom one has depends on his/her preference with respect to particular alternatives. The capability is a real and genuine opportunity to do what a person wants to do or be. These capabilities are obviously difficult to measure. However what we can observe are those capabilities that a person has chosen to act upon, or the capabilities that one has chosen to realize. This realized capabilities are called ‘achieved functioning's' (i.e. the being and doings that a person chosen to realize). This realized functioning includes such things as: being adequately nourished, being in good health, avoiding premature mortality, being happy, having self-respect, taking part in the life of the community and so on[13]. These realizations are compatible to the Baha'i faith's perspective on human living. Living in the Baha'i faith is viewed as a process of developing the intrinsic potential within each of us. This is best articulated by Abdul Baha by drawing the distinction between the material and spiritual potential of development.

‘Man has two powers; and his development, two aspects. One power is connected with the material world, and by it he is capable of material advancement. The other power is spiritual, and through its development his inner, potential nature is awakened. These powers are like two wings. Both must be developed, for flight is impossible with one wing. Praise be to God! Material advancement has been evident in the world, but there is need of spiritual advancement in like proportion. We must strive unceasingly and without rest to accomplish the development of the spiritual nature in man, and endeavor with tireless energy to advance humanity toward the nobility of its true and intended station. For the body of man is accidental; it is of no importance. The time of its disintegration will inevitably come. But the spirit of man is essential and, therefore, eternal. It is a divine bounty. It is the effulgence of the Sun of Reality and, therefore, of greater importance than the physical body.'[14]

The development of qualities (essentially spiritual) within each of us is a necessity to the realization of the capability set as described by Sen. The capability set in the Baha'i faith refers not just to the well-being of humans but it transcends this and focuses explicitly on the development of the spirit. This is because the spirit is the essential and eternal part of the human.

‘God has created all earthly things under a law of progression in material degrees, but He has created man and endowed him with powers of advancement toward spiritual and transcendental kingdoms. He has not created material phenomena after His own image and likeness, but He has created man after that image and with potential power to attain that likeness.'[15]

The opportunity to realize some of the things from his/her capabilities set depends essentially on the ‘spiritual-being', supported by the ‘well-being' and ‘agency freedom' of the individual. A persons' well-being depends on the functioning actually achieved from the capability set. In the next section, I explore (i) how well-being and agency freedom enhances ones spiritual-being and (ii) how this triadic relation enhances the value of freedom.

Well-being and Agency based freedom

A person's well-being is the freedom to achieve his/her well-being. A person' agency freedom is the freedom to achieve his/her overall ‘agency goals'. Well-being is a much explored concept in economics, particularly in welfare economics. The role of well-being in welfarism has mostly been interpreted based on the metric of happiness or desire-fulfilment. Its limitations had been widely criticised by Sen[16]. Well-being in Sen's interpretation covers a person's achievement in the context of his/her personal advantage. These personal advantages are drawn from the capability set. The capabilities are rights and opportunities one is entitled to. This includes the ability to

avoid such deprivations as starvation, under-nourishment, escapable morbidity and premature mortality as well as being literate and numerate

Agency freedom is a concept of freedom that is broader and unconstrained than that involved in the concept of ‘well-being freedom'. Agency freedom is distinct though not independent of well-being freedom. Agency freedom goes further and examines achievements and opportunities in terms of both objectives and values, possibly going beyond the pursuit of one's own well-being. Both this freedoms are important for different reasons. The agency aspect is important in assessing and diagnosing the nature of ‘deal' that a person has in terms of personal advantage. The agency aspect takes a broader view of what he or she would like to see happen, and the ability to form objectives and to have them realized[17].

The agency aspect is more closely related to the person as a doer, while the well-being aspect is closely related to the person as being. The being and doing are a set of interrelated functions for a human living. How do these interrelated functions enhance ones spiritual-being from the Baha'i perspective?

The Baha'i perspective is that, every human is essentially a spiritual-being with intrinsic qualities inherent in them. These qualities are ready for development. There is no need for an external agency or institution to bestow these qualities on individuals, though institutions are required to create social and economic opportunities for humanity to develop some of these qualities.

The purpose in recognising that each one of us are bestowed with spiritual qualities is that: (i) it gives us a greater control on our being and doing without any outside interference and; (ii) it will help us develop our inherent qualities that we have reason to value. In the Baha'i scriptures, the individual spiritual qualities can be developed to its full potential through the reliance on the Word of God, education and culture. This concept is expounded by Abdul'Baha, by drawing on the analogy of a seed of a tree.

‘We must strive with energies of heart, soul and mind to develop and manifest the perfections and virtues latent within the realities of the phenomenal world, for the human reality may be compared to a seed. If we sow the seed, a mighty tree appears from it. The virtues of the seed are revealed in the tree; it puts forth branches, leaves, blossoms, and produces fruits. All these virtues were hidden and potential in the seed. Through the blessing and bounty of cultivation these virtues became apparent. Similarly, the merciful God, our Creator, has deposited within human realities certain latent and potential virtues. Through education and culture these virtues deposited by the loving God will become apparent in the human reality, even as the unfoldment of the tree from within the germinating seed.'[18]

In developing these qualities, we as individuals are perfecting our relationship with God. This is purely a dyadic relationship, free from interference. In struggling to realize the latent virtues within each of us, we are gaining a greater control on our lives. The greater the control one has over his/her life, the greater the freedom he/she has in realizing their inner potential. The realized potential from the capability set through the reliance on the Word of God is a continuous process of discovering the spiritual-being. Therefore the reliance on the Word of God, offers greater freedom not just to well-being (the being) but to the human spirit. The human spirit is immortal but the human body is mortal. Sen's interpretation of individual freedom focuses on well-being (able to live a life of a human being) and agency (able to live the kind of life one chooses or does not choose to live).

The agency aspect of our individuality deals with our relationship to the social and economic environment. It's an important recognition if each of us is to influence the social and economic transformation that we are in. The spiritual-being, well-being and agency role of our lives reinforces the importance of leading a live that we value the most. The importance of recognising that each of us is a spiritual-being allows us to develop the latent virtues independently supported by the well-being and agency aspect of freedom.


This paper has shown the triadic importance of spiritual-being, well-being and agency as a constitutive part of development. The spiritual-being focuses on recognising each individual as a spiritual creation of God. This recognition emphasizes on the human spirit, which is the immortal aspect of our life. The spiritual-being aspect stresses on the importance of the process of development of our inner virtues and its consequences on our soul. The process of development and its consequences are bind together by the Word of God. The well-being aspect calls our attention to the biological and sociological aspect of humans. This includes the ability to avoid such deprivations as starvation, under-nourishment, escapable morbidity and premature mortality as well as being literate and numerate. This aspect focuses on the ability of individuals to lead a normal life without any restriction or impediment to their being as humans. The agency aspect essentially concentrates on the ability of individuals to choose a life one has reason to value. The ability to value and lead the life makes one to influence the surrounding environment which governs them. The realization of each of this of course requires individual freedom to do and to be. The recognition of the triadic relation also allows us to appreciate that each of us as responsible individuals with the potential to exercise our power of reasoning (agency aspect). This recognition is important if we are to appreciate the role of freedom in enhancing our individual intrinsic qualities latent within us.

[1] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Oakeshott Edition, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1946), 138.

[2] Nigel Warburton, Freedom: An Introduction with Readings (London: Routledge, 2001) 1 -4.

[3] Amartya K. Sen ,Development as Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) 4.

[4] Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh (trans. Shoghi Effendi, Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1988) 215.

[5] See Gerald MacCallum, ‘Negative and Positive Freedom', Philosophical Review, 76, (1967) 312-324.

[6] Ian Carter, ‘A concept of freedom in the work of Amartya Sen: An Alternative Analysis Consistent with Freedom's Independent Value', Notizie di Politeia, No. 43/44, (1996) 2.

[7] John Dawson, ‘Institutions, investment, and growth: new cross-country and panel data evidence', Economic Inquiry 36 (1998), 36, no.4 (1998) 603–619.

Eliezer Ayal and Georgios Karras, ‘Components of economic freedom and growth: an empirical study', Journal of Developing Areas 32, no. 3 (1998) 327–338.

James D. Gwartney, Robert. A Lawson, Randall G. Holcombe, ‘Economic freedom and the environment for economic growth', Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, 155, no. 4 (1999) 643–663.

Jan-Egbert Sturm, Jakob De Haan, ‘On the relationship between economic freedom and economic growth', European Journal of Political Economy, 16, no. 2 (2000) 215–241.

[8] Sen, Development as Freedom 36

[9] Sen, Development as Freedom 36 - 37

[10] See Sen, Development as Freedom 38 for detail description of each of the types of freedom

[11] Martha C. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) 44.

[12] See Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice 41-42 for details of each of this. According to Nussbaum, this list is subject to revision and updating,.

[13] Amartya K. Sen Inequality Re-examined (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, Oxford: Claredon Press, 1992) 39.

[14] Abdul Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace (notes by. Joseph Hannen, Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1988) 60.

[15] Abdul Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace (from Stenographic Notes, Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1988) 302.

[16] Amartya K. Sen, On Ethics and Economics, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987) 45-47.

[17] Sen On Ethics and Economics 59.

[18] Abdul Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace (notes from Marzieh Moss, Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1988) 87 – 91.

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