Celebrating the Rothko anniversary

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen discusses human rights in Rothko Chapel 40th anniversary lecture

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen discusses human rights in Rothko Chapel 40th anniversary lecture

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Amartya Sen Photo by Ben Doyle/Runaway Productions LLC

A near-capacity crowd filled the Rothko Chapel Thursday night to hear world renowned economist Amartya Sen discuss human rights, their origin and relation to current issues such as health care and the Occupy Wall Street protests.

The 40th Anniversary Lecture was one of several programs the Rothko Chapel has offered this year to commemorate its founding in 1971.

Most of the lecture was gravely serious, which felt appropriate given the subject matter and surroundings. Rothko's 14 black-violet panels towered over the slight Sen as he discussed the relationship between human rights and legislation.

 The question-and-answer session after his talk was also one of the livelier segments, featuring exchanges between Sen and a variety of audience members—an attorney, a doctor, a student and even an Occupy Houston demonstrator.

 Sen defended the view of human rights as preceding and inspiring law, a view articulated by Thomas Paine in the late 1700's and realized in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

He also discussed the range of responses to the notion of human rights, from the skepticism of those who consider the concept “intellectually frail,” to the devotion of its champions who make the pursuit of justice their life’s work. Throughout his lecture Sen emphasized the importance of public debate about human rights.

While the hour-long talk was largely cerebral, there were moments of humor.

At one point Dr. Sen acknowledged his need to sporadically shake his right leg behind the lectern. In self-deprecation, he assured the audience that his agitation was due to a metal implant and not out of boredom with his own talk.

The question-and-answer session after his talk was also one of the livelier segments, featuring exchanges between Sen and a variety of audience members—an attorney, a doctor, a student and even an Occupy Houston demonstrator. In response to questions about health care reform, Libya and the Wall Street protests, Sen declined to offer political views, instead providing answers that expanded on his earlier comments on human rights.

An economist born in India in 1933, Sen is best known for his groundbreaking work on poverty and famine, issues marginalized by many of his contemporaries. Specifically, Sen’s development of the “capabilities approach” to understanding and measuring poverty has helped the United Nations and other groups more effectively gather information to improve the conditions of the world’s poorest individuals.

In 1998, Sen won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to addressing the causes of famine. He is currently a professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University and was included in Time Magazine’s “100 most influential people in the world” last year. Sen's books and papers have been translated into over 30 languages.

Sen will speak Friday at 6 p.m. at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy on “The Reach and Limits of Growth: Economic Recession, Development and Human Capability.”