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October 4-11, 2006

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Amartya Sen

Losing my religion: Harvard Professor Amartya Sen sees contemporary rhetoric about the 'clash of civilizations' as a major obstacle to generating world peace.

Sen and Sensibility

Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen, who will speak at UCSC Saturday, argues against essentialist views of religion and national identity

By Bill Forman


Amartya Sen was 11 years old and out playing in the garden when a poor day laborer showed up at his parents' house, dying from knife wounds inflicted during Hindu-Muslim rioting in the streets of Dhaka. Sen's father rushed the man to the hospital, but to no avail. The victim, who ignored his wife's pleas not to go out that day even though the family had run out of food, almost certainly came from the same class background as his killers, but it was his identity as a Muslim that singled him out for death.

The event had a profound impact on the future Nobel-winning economist, whose nuanced work on cultural identity is a timely antidote to the "clash of civilizations" rhetoric fueling current debates in intellectual, political and public spheres. Sen, who will speak Saturday, Oct. 7, at UCSC, argues that religion is just one of numerous identities, none of which are inherently fixed.

"Despite our diverse diversities, the world is suddenly seen not as a collection of people, but as a federation of religions and civilizations," writes Sen in his latest book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, which criticizes his Harvard colleague, Samuel Huntington, for his role in popularizing this notion.

"The same person," writes Sen, "can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theater lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician, and someone who is deeply committed to the view that there are intelligent beings in outer space with whom it is extremely urgent to talk (preferably in English)."

Nor does Sen suffer lightly the notion that ideals such as democracy and religious tolerance are inherently Western, which he effectively disputes through numerous historical examples, as well as simple geographical truths. How, he asks, can the "descendants of Goths and Visigoths" be seen as "the proper inheritors of the Greek tradition" when the ancient Greeks themselves showed more interest "in talking to ancient Iranians, or Indians, or Egyptians (rather than in chatting up the ancient Ostrogoths)."

In the following interview, Sen offers insights into a wide range of subjects, ranging from the current "war on terror" to his colleagues' tolerance of his own "amiable eccentricities."

METRO SANTA CRUZ: After you speak Saturday, there's a screening of a Satyajit Ray film. So I wanted to read you a quote from 10 years ago in the New Republic, where you say: 'In our heterogeneity and in our openness lies our pride, not our disgrace. Satyajit Ray taught us this and the lesson is profoundly important for India, for Asia and for the world.' Are you surprised that, 10 years later, you still find yourself having to argue against this fixed, essential nature based on religion and national identity?

AMARTYA SEN: Yes, isn't it sad? I think 10 years ago there was a fair amount of confusion on the subject, which there still is. But with the enhanced stature of identity politics--whether in the form of Western parochialism or Islamic extremism--we have an additional problem to deal with. And I think the situation is certainly no better than it was when I gave that lecture, which was more than 10 years ago. I'm afraid I have not been very successful. [Laughs.]

In the book you did for the Henry Louis Gates series ['Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny'], you talk about how unproductive it is to classify people strictly according to religious differences. I'm wondering who--other than your Harvard colleague Samuel Huntington--is it out there promoting this tendency to see and judge people that way? Is it political leaders, the media or the people themselves?

Unfortunately, a wide spectrum of people are doing it. First of all, there are a number of intellectuals of distinction who, like professor Huntington, himself a very distinguished intellectual, think [along] these lines, directly or indirectly. Then there are political leaders who classify people according to religion within the countries. For example, increasingly the form that multiculturalism has taken in Britain classifies the British population into religious boxes, like British Muslims, British Sikhs, British Hindus, in addition to the "old Brits." In addition to these mistaken national policies, at the global level too, there are many initiatives that want to generate more understanding between people, but begin by reducing people into one-dimension, namely their religion. So, what could be an open, public dialogue between people living in different parts of the world, ends up being seen as a "dialogue of civilizations" or "dialogue of religions." And that really invites people to address the problem speaking as Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs or Buddhists or whatever, rather than addressing them bringing in their political vision, their culture, their literary and linguistic interest, their shared understanding of world culture, their involvement in particular preoccupations like working-class movements, business commitments or professional obligations as doctors or lawyers or musicians. So, it immediately has the effect of making the dialogue centered on differences in religions, which is the divisive thing in the discussion, rather than seeing the fact that people belonging to different religions could still be sharing a political commitment, a social understanding, an economic involvement or a cultural priority. And I think this is not a good way of generating world peace.

Have you ever talked about your own religious views?

I have, but this is rather boring because I don't have any!

Would that make you agnostic or atheist?

I think it's an atheist position, but atheism can be seen as involving a bit of arrogance, so in my modest moments I wouldn't object to being called an agnostic.

Wise choice!

On the other hand, do I base my moral thought or ethical deliberations on any kind of religious beliefs? The answer is no, I don't. But I also say there's an ambiguity there, because Gautama Buddha famously argued that not only is it the case that we would never be able to resolve the issue of whether there is an omnipotent god or not--and on that he remained an agnostic all his life--but he also argued in addition that our moral judgments and ethical scrutiny need not be based on the assumption of God. And indeed Buddhism is perhaps the only world religion in which God is not invoked at all in making any ethical demand. These are mostly of course invitations to first-person demands on oneself that Buddha wanted to inspire people to consider and support.

Which is why I always say 'Thank God for Buddhists.' But now, a 'true believer,' someone like George W. Bush, or his equivalent in some other country, would argue that the reason you don't see religion as this essentialist quality is because you're not a religious man yourself. How would you respond to that?

I'll say two things: First of all, Buddha was a religious man, but he didn't happen to believe in God, his religion took a different form. There was a moral commitment and there was an ethical commitment, but in his case there was also a religious background to it in which God was not involved but in which consequences of good and bad deeds did make a difference. That of course required a theory of causation, which he addressed in ways that some people find more satisfying than others. But in his case, the moral and ethical judgments did have a religious basis, but it did not involve God. That is the first point to make.

The second point to make is that there have been people who indeed did have belief in an almighty God, who nevertheless taught that to rely on this would be a mistake. As a matter of fact, I was just quoting someone to that effect in an article that I'm writing for an Indian journal, and I have it here. The example I have in mind is the great Mogul emperor in India, Akbar, in late 16th early 17th century, who argued that you should do the right deed because you recognize it as right deed, without bringing in either its effects on you, like going to Heaven or not, nor that it is demanded by an Almighty.

People have a view of economics as a kind of objective science. We don't focus on the fact that Alan Greenspan, for instance, was an Ayn Rand disciple.

Was he?

Yes, he was in her inner circle.

I absolutely did not know that. I learn a new thing every day! That may explain a few things!

It explains more than a few things, but no one ever talks about that. So I'm wondering, were you ever questioned by your peers or critics for bringing conscientious or humanist values into the realm of economics?

I think my colleagues have been very agreeably tolerant of me, sometimes regarding my views as amiable eccentricities, which is a better kind of eccentricity, I guess. But also I have to say I am a great believer in the notion of the truth and falsity. I'm not one of those who thinks truth resides in our minds and you can never overcome your subjectivity. I think there are clearly true statements and clearly false statements. The fact that there are ambiguous statements does not eliminate the importance of searching for truth as a social scientist. I also believe that once you are trying to answer the really relevant questions, then you have to seek objectively not only for the truth, but amongst the alternative true statements you can make, which would be the most efficacious understanding that the questions demand. Where ethics comes into my reading a lot is in selecting the questions that I want to ask and the relevance that these questions have. So I would tend to think that the nature of the exercise is very much determined by ethics, but once you have identified the question that you do want to ask, the demands of truth and objectivity remain extraordinarily powerful. Now, there would still be cases where--in giving answers when its not at all clear that there is an appropriate answer that is beyond doubt--you may end up being influenced by normative or ethical considerations, but by and large I would say that is not a good way of thinking about how to go about answering the ethics-inspired questions which demand objective answers.

You've just stated your belief in an objective truth, but is it really possible to find it?

Yes, I think so. We know that your Santa Cruz isn't in Massachusetts. We know, to take a different sort of thing, that in every famine, some part of the population die, and among the rest, most of them lead perfectly comfortable lives throughout the famine period, although that's a generalization. I also know, for example, that the extent of economic inequality in the world is associated quite strongly with social inequalities. So I think in all kinds of ways there are connections which we can explore and scrutinize, involving assessments of alternative answers, and still arrive at some conclusions which have very strong claims to objectivity. So I'm not an anti-objectivist at all.

You talk about how religion is one of many identities that people have, but it does seem that historically and in recent times religion is perhaps the thing that people are most willing to go to war over. Is that true, or do you think religion becomes an excuse that political leaders use to cover up more selfish motivations?

Well, there have not been many wars fought on religious grounds yet, despite appearances and rhetoric to the contrary. The First World War was fought on differences of nationality, citizenship and patriotism, when the Germans the French and the British tried to blast each other out. The Second World War had a mixture of that, with the Japanese and Chinese thrown in, in addition to this nationalist combat. Along with that were battles centered around political ideas like Nazism and Fascism. None of these were concerned with religion. People of the same Judeo-Christian community were on different sides, like the British, French and Germans. People with similar religious backgrounds, like Buddhism and Confucianism, were on different sides, like China and Japan. Even the wars we can think of between Iraq and Iran were not really inspired by religious difference. Iraq too is a Shiite majority country even though [it was] ruled by a Sunni, namely Saddam Hussein. But the fight at that time between Iraq and Iran was not along the lines of a Shiite-Sunni divide. Similarly, the U.S. occupation of Iraq is not a religious war. The U.S. was at least claiming to deal with the harborers of weapons of mass destruction and, at a later time, it appeared it was meant to be for the prospering of democracy in Iraq.

Excuse me for interrupting, but through that whole time God was talking to our president directly, according to him.

Well, I think God might have been talking. Since I don't chat with him a lot, I don't know how that conversation proceeded. [Laughs.] If you're meaning that Bush's religious belief did play a part in that, that is an analysis that one could make, but that wasn't among the reasons given for war. So I'm really trying to look at the surface. You're doing a deeper analysis, and I'm not saying that I reject it, I'm just saying that would require more examination.

That's the first time I've been accused of depth.

Well, no, no, I think you're right. But I think that involves psychology as well as metaphysics!

I want to talk about another thing regarding your pal, Samuel Huntington. He did a book a couple years ago about the threat of modern-day immigration. I haven't explored your views on that, and I'm wondering how you feel about the issues he raises.

Well, I don't know that book well. I've skimmed through it only once. It didn't grab me and I didn't want to study it, which perhaps I should have done because it received a lot of attention and is not unrelated to my interests in identity. But, it seemed to me that it really tended to discount the constructive contribution that immigration produces for any country. I mean, for one thing, having the disciple of learning several languages is itself a good training for analytical reasoning. This is not to deny that I believe that any immigrant, whether from a Spanish-speaking or a Chinese-speaking part of the world, should learn English, because that is the primary language of communication in America; I think that is a certainly understandable demand. But not to see the enrichment that comes from a multiplicity of languages, a multiplicity of cultural sources within a country, I think is a mistake. It also overlooks the fact that quite often the immigrants that come in move at a level of dynamism and initiative, which is often quite rare among the population. Immigrants have famously played that role in different parts of the world, whether you look at the Chinese or the Indians in Malaysia, the Chinese in Indonesia and Thailand, or the Indians in East Africa. There is a long history of people doing things, which have a constructive contribution.

Now, America of course has itself been a great beneficiary from immigration. I think the systems of academia, the sciences and the arts have profited very greatly from immigration connected with Nazi Germany during the 1930s. And indeed, American culture, in the form of music, dancing, as well as other social preoccupations, has benefited from the involvement of the African-American movement, where the immigrant component had been quite strong. I think it's a question of seeing both sides of the story, and then, while it is understandable that people worry about unlimited immigration obviously, but to see immigration just as a problem, rather than an opportunity as well as a problem, that has to be viewed with a certain sense of balance. I didn't see that balance in the book, maybe I was mistaken, because I didn't read the book very closely.

He may have had to leave that part out because of space.

[Laughs.] I think that may be a mischievous suggestion.

I read an article you wrote about globalization that appeared in your daughter's magazine?

The Little Magazine? How did you see that?

It was online.

Really? I didn't know it was online.

Some of it's online. Some you have to pay for. I read the free one. And in it, you talk about protesters of globalization. And rather than describing them as anti-globalization, which would pretty much be turning back the clock in an impossible way, you describe how people want to globalize the concepts of justice, responsibility and social reform--which I think is very perceptive but not something people think about necessarily. You include a line that I think would be good for Alan Greenspan to think about, which is that 'the market mechanism is as good as the company it keeps.' Can you elaborate on that?

Yes, I am basically a great believer in global contact and interaction, so to the extent that the anti-globalization rhetoric seems to be taking one to a seclusionist direction, I find that to be a debatable and even dislikable move. And yet, if you look at the, not so much the terminology of the anti-globalization movement but the nature of the movement, you will see that it is perhaps the most globalized intellectual movement in the world today. People who protest in Seattle or Genoa are not local boys and girls, they come from everywhere in the world, for a reason. For a global commitment to make the world a better one. And so it is a globalized commitment they are looking for. And that is really the very beginning of an ethics of globalization. And so there is an initiative here to think about issues of global justice in a way for which the word anti-globalization is not a good description. The anti-globalization movement is also right to point out that global economic and social relations as they exist today are often very unequal and sometimes exacerbate the inequality that exists in the world. The more important point isn't whether or not they exacerbate it, but they certainly don't redeem it. And that's indeed the case.

But in order to have a more equal sharing of the enormous benefits of global contacts in the world, what you need is not to banish global contacts altogether, but rather to support and even strengthen global contacts, and at the same time bring about the institutional changes and the political commitments that make that better sharing possible. That ranges from concrete things like reform of patent rights in medicine, so people don't have to continue to die of illnesses for which cures are known and for which medicine can be very cheaply produced ... [to] very general issues about understanding the need for a fair trade arrangement, whereby not only should the poorer countries have to re-examine how they might benefit from trade, but also the richer countries like the United States and the European countries would have to examine the extent of the harm they do to the world as well as to the populations within their home by such policies as agricultural protections and other essentially counterintuitive policies in the world. There are also big issues to deal with about transfer of technology as well as investment between rich and poor countries.

All these require a clear thinking, if I may come back to the old issue, in an objective way, once the questions have been appropriately posed. I think if the focus is on the freedom that human beings can enjoy--which is severely constrained by their economic fortunes, their social opportunities and even by the countries in which they are born--if we take that into account and look for a more egalitarian global ethics, then we can proceed to a system whereby we don't really have to subvert the market economy. We can make it keep better company in terms of political and social actions that enhance the users of the market economy, both for expanding general prosperity as well as having a more equal and just sharing of the benefits of that prosperity.


Amartya Sen will deliver the seventh annual Sidhartha Maitra Memorial Lecture at UC-Santa Cruz on Saturday, Oct. 7, at the Music Center Recital Hall. The lecture will begin at 5:30pm, followed by a screening of renowned Indian director Satyajit Ray's film 'The Home and the World' at 7:30pm. Admission is free and open to the public. For more information, call 831.459.4012.


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