The 2011 Berlin Lecture, by Amartya Sen

Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen delivers 2011 Berlin Lecture on ‘Reasoning and Disagreement’

On Tuesday 2nd June the College was honoured to welcome as speaker of the 2011 Annual Isaiah Berlin Lecture the Nobel Prize winning economist and philosopher Professor Amartya Sen. An audience of over 400 people filled the lecture hall to listen to Sen discuss his debt to Isaiah Berlin, and outline his theory of Reasoning and Disagreement.

Sen, who last year was listed as one of Time magazine’s ‘100 most influential persons in the world’, was introduced by the President of Wolfson College Professor Hermione Lee as one of the few intellectuals who had had a major effect on politics. Professor Lee paid tribute to the timeliness of the lecture, delivered a few days before the 102nd Anniversary of Isaiah Berlin’s birth on 6th June, and to the fusion and cross-fertilisation of ideas evident in both Berlin and Sen’s work, characteristics on which Wolfson College prides itself.

Sen took up this theme by describing how he first met Berlin in Wolfson College, having as a young researcher sent him a critique of one of Berlin’s arguments about fatalism. Outlining the special features of Berlin’s leadership, Sen described how Berlin saw his own role as one of interlocutor who persuades others to re-examine their own position, to encourage scrutiny and interpretation, even if along very different lines to his own thought. 

Turning to the subject of his lecture, Sen examined the question of why we should bother reasoning with each other if not for securing agreement. He argued that there is no necessity to resolve every disagreement, which may be an important feature of our relations with each other, and that, moreover, to insist on agreement is close to a demand for tyranny. Sen advanced his argument by positing that, if we accept the possibility of the reasonable survival of a plurality of views after extensive public argument, we need to examine the implications of this for consensual public policy, observing that when people establish a joint policy, they rarely share the same reasons for supporting it, and that this need not be problematic.

Citing the legal philosopher Cass Sunstein’s theory of ’incompletely theorised agreement’, in which policy agreement may exist because the theories backing that policy had not been fully theorised and brought into conflict, Sen explored a different possibility, that agreement in policy does not demand agreement on the justificatory reasoning for that policy choice. Even without unanimity, there could be partial agreement on core policies, which can be undertaken on a consensual basis. In this way, he argued, considerable heterogeneity of perspectives can be accommodated internally within a theory that can nevertheless lead to clear policy decisions from the core.

Sen proceeded to illustrate the implications of allowing reasoned disagreement by considering the theory of justice as outlined by John Rawls. Sen concluded that there is no necessity to look for a guarantee of definitive conclusions, and that a complete theory of justice may yield an incomplete ranking of alternative courses of decision. This position, he observed, has far-reaching implications that are central to political and moral philosophy.

In the spirit of Sen’s self-acknowledged involvement throughout his career in altercation and debate, and as a departure from precedent, a substantial period of time was devoted to allow a question and answer session that would enable the large audience a chance challenge his ideas.

To conclude the evening, Professor Lee paid tribute to the generosity of spirit with which Professor Sen engaged with the audience’s questions, and the strong sense of inspiration and encouragement that the lecture provided.

The Annual Isaiah Berlin Lecture was launched in 1990 to celebrate the 80th birthday of the College's Founding President, Sir Isaiah Berlin, in his own field of study, the history of ideas. Recent speakers have been Professor Roy Foster, Professor Timothy Garton Ash, and Michael Ignatieff.

A podcast of the 2011 lecture is available for download, along with other selected annual lectures from the Wolfson podcast page.


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