Prime Minister Manmohan Singh honours long-time friend Amartya Sen

December 19th, 2008 - 10:39 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan SinghNew Delhi, Dec 19 (IANS) Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Friday honoured long-time friend and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen on his 75th birthday at the “International Conference on Development, Freedom and Welfare” in the capital. The prime minister also released a book “Arguments for a Better World: Essays in Honour of Professor Amartya Sen” edited by Ravi Kanbur, professor at Cornell University, and Professor Kaushik Basu, chairman of the department of economics, also at Cornell University.

The conference is being organised jointly by the Institute of Human Development and Cornell University at Vigyan Bhavan in the capital.

Addressing the conference, Manmohan Singh recalled his association with Sen. “I am delighted to join the gathering to celebrate the intellectual achievements of my good friend and one-time fellow student, Professor Amartya Sen. I have known Amartya since the days when we were students together in Cambridge more than 50 years ago.

“Our paths diverged thereafter, but I have watched with admiration as he went on to climb the dizzying heights of economic theory, followed by forays into esoteric fields of moral philosophy, ethics and logic with occasional illuminating excursions into history,” the Prime Minister said.

Sen, on his part, thanked those who contributed to the volume of essays and the prime minister. “I am overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of my old friend and now our prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, who is launching this book,” the economist said.

“Samuel Johnson remarked, more than 200 years ago, in one of his unsolicited advices that he was willing to provide: If a man does not make new acquaintances as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man must keep his friendship in constant repair. Johnson was too pessimistic in this. I am delighted that my friendships have remained quite intact without any need for great effort in repairing anything,” he said, in an indirect reference to his friendship with the prime minister.

About the two editors of the book, Kaushik Basu and Ravi Kanbur, Sen said they were also his students. “I also take this opportunity of saying how fortunate I have been in having such wonderful students. I have to share with you a secret. The quickest way of answering difficult questions that require hard work and great imagination is to get very bright students interested - indeed if possible excited - about the challenge of that question, and then these great minds produce remarkable research work to resolve all the issues,” he said.

He cited a letter to Paul Englemen, written in 1917, by Wittgenstein to make a point. “I work quite diligently and wish that I were better and smarter. And these both are one and the same,” Wittgenstein wrote.

But was it the same thing - being a smart human being and a better person, Sen asked.

“I am, of course, aware that modern trans-Atlantic usage has drowned the distinction between ‘being good’ as a moral quality and ‘being well’ as a comment on a person’s health (no aches and pains, fine blood pressure and such), and I have long ceased worrying about the apparent immodesty of those of my American friends who, when asked about how they are, reply with manifest self-praise, ‘I am very good’,” he said.

So what was this pronouncement about, he wondered aloud. Underlying the point may be the recognition, in some form, that many acts of nastiness are committed by people who are deluded, in one way or another, on the subject.

“Lack of smartness can certainly be one source of moral or political failing in good behavior. Reflecting on what would really be a smart thing to do can sometimes help one act better even towards the others. Among the prudential reasons for good behaviour may well be one’s own gain from such behaviour,” he said.

The conference, attended by three Nobel laureates for economics - Amartya Sen, Columbia University professor Joseph Stigliz, and Edmund Phelps, also professor of Columbia University, will see several policy panel discussions on global development issues.

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