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Nobel Prize winner lectures on justice, social change

Amy Klopfenstein | Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Harvard professor and 1998 Nobel Prize winner in Economics Amartya Sen delivered the 18th annual Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh Lecture in Ethics and Public Policy Tuesday night. Sen is also this year’s recipient of the Notre Dame Award for International Human Development and Solidarity. His lecture stressed the importance of positive social change in the world.

University President Father John Jenkins welcomed Sen and praised his work in justice and development.

“[Sen’s work] touches the heart of what we are about at Notre Dame,” Jenkins said.

Sen opened his lecture with a quote from Nietzsche about

humanity’s tendency to focus on the negative aspects of life. Rather than contradicting Nietzsche, however, Sen said the world is full of hardships. “The world in which we live, I fear, is, in fact, ugly and bad,” said Sen.

However, Sen’s said his seemingly pessimistic view is in the context of the many injustices in the world. He said by failing to address and acknowledge the many instances of poverty, injustice, and violence, humans also lose the opportunity for positive social change.

“The common tendency to ignore how nasty the world is helps many injustices to remain unexamined and remedied,” Sen said.

Sen said people should not focus on instituting justice, but rather removing sources of injustice. What needs to be eliminated from the world can be agreed upon, Sen said, but disagreement about what will make the world “perfect” will exist. In such circumstances, eliminating the injustice should take priority over attempting to achieve an ideal society, he said.

Sen also stressed the importance of freedom in establishing justice.

“Freedom is not only among the most valued ideas in the world, it is among the most feared human conditions,” Sen said.

Sen said many oppressed people adopt a cheerful mentality to cope with their situation. Meanwhile, the oppressors are those who fear the consequences of liberation.

“Those who are afraid of freedom tend to be afraid of the freedom of others,” said Sen.

Sen finished his lecture by restating the Nietzsche quote.

However, he did not end with on a note of defeat, but a call to engage and rectify injustices.

“We can rise to the challenge with reasoning and a better understanding of the problems we need to address,” Sen said.

Contact Amy Klopfenstein at aklopfen@nd.edu