From Wealth to Well-being | Notes and analysis of Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom

Adam Louis Sebastian Lehodey
9 min readJun 29, 2024


The following critical essay was originally written for a SciencesPo class entitled ‘Modern Capitalism and its Institutions.’ I have decided to publish a slightly amended version below to better understand how we ought to approach the question of development.

Our immense success in growing the world economy over the past three hundred years cannot not be overstated. The average man or woman has gone from living in a state of absolute precarity to one in which they have access to exponentially more opportunities and wealth than ever existed in preceding millennia. A life of reflection and learning, envisioned by Plato in The Republic to be the domain of minuscule minority[1], is now accessible to millions across the globe: in 70 years, life expectancy has increased by 50% (sitting at 72.8 years), infant mortality has decreased by 87%, and real average incomes have risen by 359%.[2] Our escape from the Malthusian trap has led to an unprecedented rise in the standard of living.

However, these gains are not shared by all. Millions of people continue to suffer from undernourishment, women are denied rights in substantive parts of the world, and illiteracy deprives individuals of learning, especially in India and Sub-Saharan Africa where the figure stands at 52%.[3] Humanity has made great leaps, but there is still work to do if we are to unlock the full capacity of individuals across the globe. This essay attempts to establish the aims of development so as to further propel human flourishing.

Re-conceptualising development as freedom

The answer, argues Amartya Sen in his seminal 1999 book, Development as Freedom, lies in looking at development not solely as an economic process, but rather as one of a progression in freedom.

Sen takes these incredible increases in the standard of living as a starting point and uses them to positively construct a vision for how we must approach development. Whilst Sen himself is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, he laments the way in which economists have focussed solely on the economic dimension of development. Wealth matters, but the real ‘usefulness of wealth lies in the things that it allows us to do — the substantive freedom it helps us to achieve.’[4] It should be valued in instrumental terms, he argues. ‘An adequate conception of development must go much beyond the accumulation of wealth and the growth of gross national product’ but rather focus on the ends that people truly value and that makes life worth living: education, democracy, health, social opportunities, and freedom to determine one’s own course in life.[5]

By redefining development as the extent to which this ‘basket of freedoms’ is present in a given country, we are left not only with a far more useful measure which, from a policy perspective, gives people lives worth living (he invokes the Aristotelian sense of ‘flourishing’) but also means for further development of these freedoms.[6] This becomes evident in later chapters when Sen outlines the causal links that exist between these various freedoms. For example, he devotes Chapter Six, The Importance of Democracy, to showing how political freedoms are both intrinsically valuable and instrumental in increasing freedom from hunger and poverty as democracy provides positive incentives for governments to act in times of crisis. He elaborates further in a later chapter, Famines and Other Crises, where he notes that the prevention of famine is principally a question of political will and not one of economic resources (though he acknowledges that positive economic freedoms certainly help).[7] Sen’s arguments are only strengthened by his extensive use of empirical data: while in the late 20th century the ‘dictatorial countries of Africa’ — notably Sudan and Ethiopia — ‘had major famines,’ the more democratic ones, Zimbabwe and Botswana, did not, despite an overall fall in food production of 38% in the latter democratic countries and a ‘modest 12% [fall] in Sudan and Ethiopia.’

Sen’s definition of development as freedom differs not only in expanding the metrics through which development should be measured but also in his use of a very broad meaning of freedom which goes much beyond the pure libertarian conception of freedom in a purely negative sense. We must examine both to better understand if this serves as a good model for approaching development.

Amartya Sen himself.

The proper ends of economic development

There are two types of people, asserts Isaiah Berlin in his famous 1953 essay: foxes, who know many things and appreciate the world in its full complexity, and hedgehogs, who know ‘one big thing’ and try to integrate everything through a single lens.[8] The latter approach would be to view development solely through an economic perspective, looking primarily at metrics like GDP, food production, and income per head. Sen is a fox; he sees this latter approach to development as overly simplistic and amply demonstrates how this obscures important facts about the lives that people have reason to value. For example, in Chapter 8, Women’s Agency and Social Change, he shows that while a society may be relatively prosperous, a denial of the right for women to vote and participate in the labour market can result in significant deprivation amongst this group, reflected in far higher rates of mortality for girls than in comparative countries with more equality.[9] Elsewhere, he shows that looking solely at the economic metric of food production tells us nothing about whether a famine will occur, given that most famines arise not from lack of food but from a lack of income amongst certain groups to procure food, leading to a drop in prices in that area and incentivising exports to more prosperous regions. This is exactly what occurred during the Irish Famine of 1845 and the Bengal Famine of 1943, which he lived through as a 9-year-old boy.

More importantly, it is necessary to look at development as freedom since these Freedoms, from poverty, sickness, illiteracy, and dictatorship, are the things that individuals value. These are the goods that we ultimately value for their own sake. Capital is only a means of achieving those freedoms. What made his argument most convincing to me and ultimately swayed my view away from a more libertarian perspective, is that Sen acknowledges the crucial role of markets and economic prosperity in achieving this broader ‘basket of freedoms.’ One initial critique I had was that all positive freedoms need to be provided for somehow — a refusal to acknowledge this equates to no less than a denial of reality. Rather than seeing individuals in underdeveloped countries as victims, he stresses the need for acknowledging their agency and giving people their own means to improve their positions. For instance, he outlines that when a crisis occurs leading to a large uptick in unemployment, Governments could step in rapidly to create work programs to avert famines, as has been the case in India.[10] Furthermore, he refutes Malthus’ pessimistic belief that coercive measures are needed to reduce overpopulation by showing how giving women agency to work and be educated results in a strong causal decline in fertility rates.[11]

Seeing development as freedom also undercuts authoritarian arguments including the Lee Thesis, named after former Singapore Premier, Lee Kuan Yew, who argued that democracy undermines economic growth and must thus be resisted.[12] This is important because individuals value freedom in and of itself (something Sen illustrates through his example of antebellum slaves who in some cases had higher economic conditions than free peoples, yet still preferred liberty to slavery and tried to escape). Looking past the purely economic definition of development and instead seeing development as freedom gives us a far more granular means of understanding how to achieve the things that people truly value, and it is for this reason that I believe it is a superior one.

The second big difference in Sen’s thesis is in the broad meaning that he assigns to the word freedom. Writing in the late-90s, Sen did not shy away from engaging with the arguments of other prominent thinkers of the time, notably Robert Nozick who put fourth a natural rights defence of liberty in a purely negative sense in Anarchy, State and Utopia.[13] ‘Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them,’ argues Nozick. Though I came from a position of very much agreeing with Nozick, I was ultimately convinced by Sen’s arguments for why we should look beyond rights as ends in and of themselves. His work complements that of Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty in showing that it makes little sense to focus on rights as ends in and of themselves and that we must instead look at the consequences of rights. A dogmatic insistence on upholding certain rights which derive from metaphysical causes despite evidence pointing to the fact that these have little value in our empirical world can cause a lot of damage. Whilst the rights identified by Nozick, in particular property rights, have in reality been shown to bring about very positive results when given legal recognition, they should be valued for their consequences and not the rights themselves. Otherwise, there is nothing to stop individuals from claiming other metaphysical rights such as a right to other individuals’ property.

What we legally recognise as rights must therefore depend on the consequences these rights bring about. Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty is useful in showing that we must take a long-view of rights and their consequences, considering the inherent limitations of knowledge that confront rational minds.[14] It is indeed the case that property rights, the right to transact freely, and the right to freedom of expression have been shown to be undeniably positive in bringing about Aristotelian flourishing, but it may also be the case that some positive rights have the same effect. For example, a right to education may conflict with a right to private property (in that it must be funded through compulsory taxation), but the legal creation of this right can provide significant positive externalities — something Milton Friedman has shown in his 1962 book, Capitalism as Freedom.[15] On a game theory matrix, the creation of rights creates incentives that shift individuals from a lose-lose situation to a win-win situation.

Capacity-based justice

Sen’s Capacity-Based approach to justice, which goes beyond libertarianism by taking ‘note of [its] involvement of processes of choice and freedom to act’ whilst also taking note of utilitarianism’s ‘interest in well-being’[16] therefore seems like a more appropriate way of delivering justice in a way that focusses on what truly matters to individuals, is a superior way to look at justice. Freedoms can encompass positive freedoms as well, but the overall result is a net gain for all individuals. My critique is that the biggest risk of this is that positive freedoms can be taken too far in a way that undermines the negative freedoms so vital to a functioning and progressive society — a risk that Hayek notes all too well in his Constitution of Liberty.[17] The capacity approach could, by some, be read as an expanded form of luck egalitarianism which, as Hayek notes in Chapter Six of that same book, would almost inevitably lead to an increase in freedoms for all, as well as being completely impossible to achieve.[18] My fears about this were assuaged by Sen’s heavy emphasis on human agency. When the capacity-based approach to justice is taken not as a form of luck egalitarianism but rather as means for development with the goal of creating a baseline for all (and still allowing for inequalities), this allows for the upholding of the rule of law which is so vital to freedom and progress.


In conclusion, Sen provides us, through Development as Freedom, with a very different lens through which to see and define development. By defining development not just through economic terms but in the ends through which capital helps us to achieve, we are left with a far richer picture of how to approach development. Not only does Sen provide a clear and concise analysis backing his work, he further evidences everything through the use of extensive empirical sources and shows how a positive extension to the definition of freedom is instrumental to flourishing. His success in doing so is only reflected in moves to using broader indicators since the book’s publication, notably the Human Development Index which accounts for many of the freedoms defined in Sen’s work. Viewing development through purely economic terms cannot suffice — our aim should be to focus on the totality of what makes life worth living.


[1] Plato. The Republic. Translated by H. D. P. Lee, Second edition, Penguin Books, 2007.

[2] ‘Your Life In Numbers’. HumanProgress,

[3] Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press, 2001. Page 101

[4] Ibid, Page 14

[5] Ibid, Page 24.

[6] Ibid, Page 4.

[7] Ibid, Chapter 7.

[8] Berlin, Isaiah, and Henry Hardy. The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History. Second Edition, Princeton University Press, 2013.

[9] Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press, 2001. Chapter 7.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, Page 208.

[12] Ibid, Page 146.

[13] Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nachdr., Blackwell, 2012.

[14] Hayek, Friedrich A. von, and Irwin M. Stelzer. The Constitution of Liberty. Reprint, Routledge, 2010.

[15] Friedman, Milton, et al. Capitalism and Freedom. The University of Chicago Press, 2020.

[16] Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press, 2001. Page 85.

[17] Hayek, Friedrich A. von, and Irwin M. Stelzer. The Constitution of Liberty. Reprint, Routledge, 2010. Chapter 1, page 17.

[18] Ibid, Chapter 6.



Adam Louis Sebastian Lehodey

I write about economics, literature, philosophy, sociology, urbanism, and anything that interests me at the time.