France honours Prof Amartya Sen, 15 February 2013 [fr]

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Bestowal of the Insignia of Commander of the Legion of Honour on Prof Amartya Sen

Dear Professor,

It is a privilege to bestow this distinction on in the name of the French Republic to you. To you who have received so very many distinguished ones, particularly the Nobel Prize.

You are an economist. No.
You are a sociologist. No.
You are a philosopher. No, no more than the others.

You are a great thinker, a humanist who has made a synthesis of all sciences to reach the moral conclusion that helps the economy to do better, the sociologist to understand the societies that it pretends to describe better, and philosophy to find, at a point of time, subjects that could be a vehicle for public decision.

Professor, you’re an Indian. Indian by birth, Indian at heart, Indian in conviction.

You were born in Shantiniketan, the cradle of Bengali culture, the town of the poet Tagore. And you have followed in the footsteps of this great soul as you have both been honoured with the Nobel prize, he for Literature, you for Economics.

You are India, even if you live on all the continents, you have succeeded in combining yoru attachment to your country with your vocation to think global.

You are also a great friend of France, you have taught at Sciences Po, Ecole Polytechnique, and you also have – or so I am told – some affection for the Bordelais, the French region that produces some of the finest wines of the world.

You have taught us by revisiting the legacy of Adam Smith that Economics could not be reduced to market logic but was a “moral science”.

You have attempted to determine how to proceed to promote justice. That’s good – that is also what we have set out to do. You have invested all the time necessary to do so as you started from A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, who was once your master, to yourself define what the path to justice could be.

Justice cannot be limited to an institution, no matter how perfect, or to a set of rules, no matter how optimal they may be. According to you, justice must take real situations as the starting point so as to better eliminate ‘reparable injustice’, the very ones that are right in front of us.

You have brought out all the difficulties in attaining it and you have concluded that for achieving justice, there must first be a goal for every society.

There is your famous flute metaphor. A flute that three children squabble over. The first because he claims to be the only one to be able to play it; the second because he is poor and has no other toy, and must therefore have the flute. And the third who also wants it because he crafted the flute. So, who should the flute go to? This is a dilemma that exists in all societies. What is fair when there are such claims? The claims of all three are justified: he who knows how to play it, he who has nothing and he who has crafted it. What is the right path? It is not pre-decided. Hence, it is up to democracy not to define an absolute justice but choose what is most useful to society.

This is your work. Starting from reality, using public debate to inform the options for establishing an accepted hierarchy. What you term as a “government by discussion”.

You thus open objectives to act on for policy makers, no matter where they may be. The aim, as you see it, is to enable each person to reach positive liberty. What is positive liberty? It is the possibility of choosing one’s own life, developing what you have coined as “capabilities”, which go well beyond skills, beyond competences. It refers to all that can enable an individual to perfect themselves, to soar, to realise their life-possibilities.

Thank you for this lesson. It serves us well in developed countries, too. It enables all these “capabilities” to be marshalled for making our societies more harmonious and our economies stronger.

You also say that there are two ways of regarding humanity: either as an inert population contented with producing and consuming to satisfy its needs, or as a collective of individuals endowed with a capacity for reasoning, the freedom of action, and values. And it is the second conception that unites us. Because it enables us to measure progress not merely through the aggregates of growth and production, but by new indicators for human development, which take into account well-being, health and education, the fight against inequalities. And it is here, Professor, that your work has re-inspired all international institutions, particularly for determining the Millennium Development Goals.

Therefore, thank you, Professor, for having helped improve public policy actions through indicators to attain the best goals.

Lastly, you have shown that liberty is far from being the privilege of the West, that liberty is vaster than universal suffrage, that liberty is the plurality of inspirations, of cultures; that democracy cannot be judged merely on its institutions but also the possibilities that are given to citizens to make their voices heard, their ability to choose, and always their liberty to choose their existence.

You are an academic, a teacher, and therefore you are aware that the youth are the force of nations, that education, knowledge, learning, will help raise the capabilities of future generations and here again, the priority that you lay – that of education – is also our priority.

For all these reasons; dear Professor, Nobel Laureate, dear economist, dear sociologist, dear philosopher, the greatest humanist that we could ever meet, it is with deep feeling for your commitment to an economic science oriented towards human development;

For the invitation to the synthesis of knowledge, as well as the synthesis of continents;

For all your work for liberty, for justice;

For the friendship between France and India to which you contribute;

For all these reasons, Professor Amartya Sen, in the name of the French Republic, we name you Commander of the Legion of Honour.

- Prof Amartya Sen’s acceptance speech

- For photos, please visit the photogallery.


- Note : Free translation based on speech delivered by the President of the French Republic.

Last modified on 08/08/2014

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