Notes from the Founding Director


Dennis F. Thompson

In the beginning, there were no Fellows, only a peripatetic Director, who wandered about the university trying to find faculty to join him in what no doubt appeared to be a quixotic undertaking. The first page of the Center’s annual report in 1988 featured this cartoon:

It did feel then as if ethics was marginalized. Not moral philosophy, to be sure, but definitely practical ethics. There were few courses for undergraduates, no opportunities for graduate students to pursue the subject together, no permanent faculty specializing in ethics in most of the professional schools, and only modest and temporary funding extracted one year at time from the Deans. 


The Program in Ethics and the Professions, as it was then called, was the first major interfaculty initiative at a university that notoriously resisted all efforts to bring the faculties together (“every tub on its own bottom” seemed an article of faith). The early years therefore posed as much an institutional as intellectual challenge. (For the history of the institution-building, see the case study by Esther Scott.) A more general history of the Center can be found here.

Fortunately, some of Harvard’s most respected faculty agreed to enlist in the movement to bring practical ethics to Harvard and beyond. Martha Minow, Tim Scanlon and Michael Sandel joined the Center’s Faculty Committee and stayed the course for the next two decades. John Rawls, Amartya Sen, and Kenneth Ryan were among our most active senior fellows from the start. It helped that Rawls told colleagues and students that he thought some of the most interesting discussions in the university were taking place in the Program’s after-dinner seminars, which he attended regularly.

Soon we had our first class of Fellows, small in size though not in talent. Arthur Applbaum stayed on to create the splendidly successful graduate fellowship program, and at the same time developed a new required ethics course at the Kennedy School. Zeke Emanuel returned briefly to direct the graduate seminar, but then went on to establish the widely respected and influential bioethics program at the National Institutes of Health.

“Professional” in our Program’s name captured one of the important parts of our mission in the early years. A chief aim was to develop the capabilities of faculty to teach and write about ethics in the professional schools. The Program sought to overcome the barriers between abstract philosophy and concrete practice by bringing theoretically inclined scholars together with practically minded educators. In a year-long weekly seminar and many other activities, they learned from each other, and in many cases collaborated with each other on research and teaching. The Director and other faculty learned too, every year. The annual reports from those years give an indication of the content of the work, and sense of their experiences. 

The mission was always broader than the professions, however. From the beginning we recognized the need to encourage more and better understanding of the ethical issues in public life more generally. We looked for fellows who took this broader view. As a Faculty Fellow in 1996-97, Lawrence Lessig developed his ideas on internet law, and later, taking up another theme from the Center, returned to lead it in a campaign against institutional corruption. We believed that all students and, for that matter, all citizens could benefit from reflecting more carefully and discussing more civilly the moral quandaries of our time. We believed philosophical reflection in this broad sense could help. We also embraced the social sciences and historical studies, as well as some aspects of the natural sciences. In this expansion of our ambit, where some might have seen mission creep, we saw mission enrichment. 

As the mission grew, so did the influence. Former fellows began their own centers at Princeton, Duke, Toronto, among many other institutions. We helped establish a sister institution, the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Tel Aviv University. We took the lead in creating the first international association devoted to ethics in public life, the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. It now has more than 600 members, representing 84 ethics centers in the U.S. and 24 foreign countries. Many of our own fellows from the early years went on to make major contributions in public life. They included the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the Minister of Education in the Israeli government, and the Chief Medical Officer of CVS, who was instrumental in getting the drug store chain to stop selling tobacco products.

To support this growing effort, we could not rely indefinitely on the discretionary funds of Harvard’s deans, whose generosity is not unbounded. Happily though not effortlessly, we found several individuals and foundations who believed in our cause strongly enough to endow the Center. The most munificent gifts—from Lester Kissel and Lily Safra—together created one of the largest endowments enjoyed by any Harvard program or center. These gifts were all the more remarkable because they came with no stipulations except to use the funds for core purposes of the Center.

The founding generation watched with admiration as the Center grew in public influence in the public sphere under the enterprising leadership of Lawrence Lessig. And we continue to watch with admiration as the Center combines the best of the past with fresh ideas for the future in a new synthesis of theory and practice under the creative leadership of Danielle Allen.

The old cartoon would now have to be revised:



The need for ethics centers and their work has never been greater. The ethical problems we face are not only more complex, but the people we face them with are more diverse. As more and more people from different backgrounds influence the actions that our public institutions take, all of us must work together to formulate and interpret the ethical principles that govern how we act, individually and institutionally.

As a rising generation of teachers and scholars dedicate themselves to this goal, and as more public and private institutions commit themselves to its support, this founding Director confidently looks forward to significant advances in the quality and impact of teaching and research on ethical issues in public life.