Rationality and Freedom

An Amartya Sen Work Comes to an Arabic Readership
08 October, 2017

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published an Arabic translation of Amartya Sen's 2002 book, Rationality and Freedom (896 p.p.) as part of its translation series. Translated by Shahrat Mahmoud Ameen Al Alim, the book explores the origins and ramifications of rationalism and freedom and the implications of these concepts for individuals and "Social Choice", the theory that attempts to understand "common interest" or "social welfare" by incorporating the personal choices of individuals who constitute part of a collective. Although these two concepts are employed widely in political and ethical philosophy, and in public policy, this book opens with a definition derived from modern economics, yet offers a rich contribution to dealing with multi-disciplinary issues of ethics. This does not compromise the author's adherence to the perspective from within the framework of the theory of "social choice". Rather, he explores the nature of alternative notions of freedom and rationality, their characteristics and content, although, according to the author, one aspect is not separated from the other.

Sen is almost unmatched among his contemporaries in his ability to negotiate these overlapping academic fields and disciplines. Although this book may seem at first glance to be somewhat haphazard, the author nonetheless succeeds in combining these approaches. This translation adds an important contribution in economics, political philosophy, and ethics to the Arab repository. The author is among the most famous economists and Nobel laureates, and is well known for his commitment to furthering social justice and challenging material deprivation, issues that resonate with the contemporary Arab world.

The Arabic translation begins with an introduction by Nadir Farjani, which is followed by 22 chapters divided into six sections. The first section introduces the fundamental concepts that form the backbone of the book, documenting their historical development, especially the notion of "social choice", and also of "rationality" in Western Civilization, from its French mathematical beginnings. The author reveals the extent to which the concepts of rationality and freedom have been linked throughout history.

The author proceeds to discuss the form and content of the notion of rationality, where one of Sen's firm proposals about Social Choice is manifested. He suggests that there is no real or substantial existence of choices in Social Choice, as, within the scope of this theory, a person cannot make a "choice" without relying on external factors. In other words, the author argues that these choices must be understood in the wider context of external factors. In the following section, the book compares different perspectives on the behavior of choice, addressing different types of voluntary behavior, including choices without agency, similar to those found in normative physics. The book also draws upon the factors from which "Collective Choice" is derived.

The importance of this book for an Arabic readership lies in its timing. The book touches, in one way or another, upon the issues that represent hot topics for discussion in Arab society. Sen's ability to employ classical reasoning to shed light on the direction of political and economic affairs has proved that he is still capable of predicting not only the future of social sciences, but the issues that will concern all societies. This is significant at a time when all Arabs are now looking for answers about freedom and its relationship with rationality.

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