Ethics in Practice

Every Tuesday afternoon at the Kennedy School of Government, over lunch, a group of 10 people debates ethical questions that, in one form or another, have fascinated, puzzled, and plagued humanity for millennia. One Tuesday in March, for example, the conversation bounced from the “Scooter” Libby verdict to a New York Times series on approaches to rehabilitating sex offenders, and then on to pornography, journalistic ethics, and the propriety (or impropriety) of maintaining a friendship with someone whose values don’t match one’s own.

The group’s membership changes each year, but typically includes doctors, lawyers, and political scientists (who bring a pragmatic perspective) and philosophers (who contribute a more open-ended theoretical approach). All are beneficiaries of a yearlong fellowship that allows them to interact, learn from one another, and integrate the practical and the theoretical—just one of many programs sponsored by the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this spring.

The fellows’ mission mirrors the center’s fundamental goal: providing a forum for articulating universal principles of ethics, and for creating a framework to apply them in specific professional contexts. Besides providing a training ground for ethics educators, the center supports curriculum development for ethics education in all the University’s schools and programs. It sponsors a lecture series. A grant program for undergraduate thesis research on ethics-related topics began this year. All this takes place in 1,100 square feet of leased space in the Taubman Center that holds little besides a conference room and offices for the fellows and the small staff. “People say, ‘Is this it?’” notes Jean McVeigh, who has been the center’s administrative director since its inception. In a way, she adds, the limited space is a blessing. “The hope is that the smallness”—and the intimacy it creates—“will allow the fellows to feel like they can just bring any idea, no matter how crazy, to the table.”

But the center’s reach spans far beyond its four walls. Over the years, more than 200 fellows—graduate students from within the University, and professors from elsewhere—have passed through. Those fellows return to their respective institutions and share what they’ve learned: the questions they’ve asked, and the conclusions they’ve reached. “It’s almost like spreading the gospel,” McVeigh says. There are former fellows in South Africa, Israel, Canada, England, Australia, and India. (One is now the Israeli minister of education.) The center has spawned ethics-education programs nationwide, including centers founded by alumni of Harvard’s program at Duke, Princeton, the University of Toronto, and the National Institutes of Health. The fellows keep in touch with one another and with center staff, and many will return for the anniversary festivities on May 18 and 19 (see “An Anniversary Celebration,” page 60). “Nobody ever goes away,” McVeigh says. “It’s like a family.”

The celebration is bittersweet: the center’s founding director, Whitehead professor of political philosophy and professor of public policy Dennis F. Thompson, retires this year. Then-University president Derek Bok appointed him to the post in 1986.

Photograph by Stu Rosner
Dennis F. Thompson

Bok had seen the need for a systematic focus on ethics as early as 1976, when he published an article in Change magazine decrying the topic’s absence from the curricula of most professional schools. One could study business or one could study philosophy, but essentially, the twain never met. Bok had a vision for bringing them together. “I didn’t know of any place in the U.S. that did that,” he says. “So we created it here.”

But bringing Thompson to Harvard took seven years and considerable persuasion on Bok’s part. Bok believed that Thompson embodied a rare combination: an eminent scholar in an established discipline who also had a strong interest in ethics education, a topic that many in the academic world still regarded with skepticism and suspicion. At the time, however, Thompson chaired the politics department at Princeton and was developing a political ethics course that applied political theory to public-policy problems. (His books include Just Elections; Restoring Responsibility: Ethics in Government, Business, and Healthcare; Political Ethics and Public Office; and Ethics in Congress.) Nothing against Harvard, but “I was quite happy at Princeton,” Thompson remembers. Bok persisted, and finally Thompson relented.


The center’s mission statement asserts: “Widespread ethical lapses of leaders in government, business, and other professions prompt demands for more and better moral education.” Limiting ethics considerations to a simple code of behavior for one’s particular profession, it says, reinforces “parochial and technical conceptions of professional life,” and fails to recognize that professionals must weigh ethical considerations every day as new situations arise. The center supports programs that exercise professionals’ ethical muscles, that train them to navigate situations where it isn’t clear how the Hippocratic Oath or a lawyers’ code of conduct might apply, or where a professional code and a more general moral sensibility seem to point in opposite directions. The center also urges broadening the definition of ethical behavior beyond decisions made by individuals, so people learn to apply ethical principles to actions that institutions take and to the cultures that institutions create.

Thompson is exceedingly modest, but he will allow that the center was the first major interdisciplinary ethics program at any university, and the first such program to integrate so deeply into all the professional disciplines. (It was also the University’s first interfaculty initiative.) “When I arrived here, I was alone,” Thompson says. “I was sitting in a makeshift office with a staff of two people. Basically, it was a barren landscape, ethically speaking.” His biggest challenge was gaining the trust of leaders in the programs where he hoped ethics education would take hold. In the center’s first annual report, Thompson wrote that his job “called more for the skills of an anthropologist (as I tried to understand the exotic cultures of the various schools into which I ventured) and for the temperament of a politician (as I tried to mobilize support and implement policies).”

Much has changed since. The Medical School, Law School, Kennedy School, and Business School all have full-fledged ethics programs, and the center has assisted in the creation of dozens of ethics-themed courses at the College through the years. Nearly every degree-granting program now has some ethics requirement. At Harvard and beyond, Thompson likens the spread of ethics education and applied ethics to a virus—one with only salutary effects, of course. The discipline has gained such currency that Thompson says he has trouble keeping track of everything that’s happening, even within Harvard. “It’s really quite exciting,” he says.

The center “created academic legitimacy for those of us interested in ethics,” professor of medical ethics Robert D. Truog wrote in a letter to Thompson after learning of Thompson’s decision to retire. When Truog spent a year at the center on a fellowship in 1990-91, he wrote, “The opportunity to associate myself with some of the most respected scholars at Harvard made it impossible for my physician colleagues to ignore the validity of my interests.” Truog now serves on the faculty committee that selects the center’s fellows each year.

As to whether professionals behave more virtuously than they did before the center existed, Bok says he can’t attest to that. But, he says, “At least we can be sure that many more people are aware of ethical issues that arise, and are able to think about them more clearly and more carefully.”

Two decades after Bok chose the center’s first director, he is heading the committee to choose the second, expected to be announced soon. Bok says he has sought someone with dedication and diplomatic skills on a par with Thompson’s, noting, “He’s gotten more faculty involved and interested in the program than I would have thought possible.”

Thompson will continue to teach in the government department and at the Kennedy School. His own hopes for his successor are simple: Someone who will focus on the center’s core objective of “training and educating the best teachers and scholars in this field for the future.”

Many of the center’s significant accomplishments have come recently. It was only this year that the medical school began requiring first-year students to take an ethics course; the business school imposed a similar requirement only in 2004 (see “An Education in Ethics,” September-October 2006, page 42). This year also saw the first class of undergraduate research-grant recipients. The winners will investigate the organ-selling market in India; healthcare reform in the context of HIV in South Africa; the influence of luck on people’s ethical decisions; the ethical implications of intervening without consent to provide drug treatment and medical care to people with substance addictions and mental illness; contrasting Eastern and Western perspectives on justice and individual rights; and the role of religious arguments in American politics and public policy.

Even the Safra name is new. Until 2004, the program was known as the Center for Ethics and the Professions. Then major gifts from the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation (given by Lily Safra, widow of the Lebanese-born, Brazilian-naturalized banker) and the estate of Lester Kissel, J.D. ’31 (an alumnus who took an active interest in the center), enabled the creation of a $25-million endowment to fund the center’s annual operating budget of approximately $1 million. (Though housed at the Kennedy School, the center is technically independent; its director reports to the provost. It had previously cobbled together funding from the president’s office and four of the professional schools.)

Such changes notwithstanding, Thompson says there will always be a role for the center. Witness the unforeseen ethical dilemmas presented by genetic testing, stem-cell research, and the Internet. Besides, he adds, “You always need renewal for the younger faculty” in ethics. Their passion can literally be a solitary pursuit—some professional schools have only one faculty member specializing in ethics. Says Thompson, “They need to come back to the mothership to refuel.”

~Elizabeth Gudrais

An Anniversary Celebration

The Safra Foundation Center for Ethics celebrates its twentieth anniversary on May 18 and 19, beginning with the keynote address by Lamont University Professor and 1998 Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen, who was a founding senior faculty fellow. Sen has published work on diverse topics including social choice and voting systems, gender inequality, globalization, and famine and food distribution. He will speak about “the role of theoretical reflection in addressing practical problems in public life.”

The weekend’s lecture program, which is open to the public, includes other noted alumni of the ethics center:

—Samantha Power, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem from Hell, a book on cases of genocide in the twentieth century and America’s response to them. She is Lindh professor of practice of global leadership and public policy and the founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School.

—Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an oncologist who heads the clinical bioethics department at the National Institutes of Health and is a leading opponent of assisted suicide. He is associate professor of medicine, social medicine, and clinical epidemiology at Harvard Medical School.

—Lawrence Lessig, founder of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. Lessig, who previously taught at Harvard Law School, is known for his support for free software and his opposition to copyright-term extensions.

—Amy Gutmann, who, as president of the University of Pennsylvania, has launched the Penn Compact, an effort “to propel [the university] from excellence to eminence in all our core endeavors of teaching, research, and service” through mechanisms that include integrating knowledge across disciplines and engaging in the local and global communities. Gutmann, who previously taught political theory at Princeton University and served as provost there, has been a vocal advocate for need-based financial aid and is coauthor, with Thompson, of Why Deliberative Democracy? and Democracy and Disagreement.

For the complete schedule, see




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