The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics seeks to strengthen teaching and research about pressing ethical issues; to foster sound norms of ethical reasoning and civic discussion; and to share the work of our community in the public interest.
Our new “Community Profiles” interview series highlights the longstanding members of our community at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.
An interview with Arthur I. Applbaum
Arthur Isak Applbaum is Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at Harvard Kennedy School. He directed the graduate fellowship program from 1990 to 2009 and was acting director of the Center in 2004-2005 and 2007-2009. In 2013 he took up directorship of the undergraduate fellowship program. He developed and teaches the Kennedy School's core course in political ethics. He has been a member of Harvard's Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility and chairs the ethics advisory board of a stem cell research foundation.
This conversation between Arthur and Alexis Jimenez Maldonado happened on August 31, 2021. The transcript of the interview has been edited for clarity.
Alexis Jimenez Maldonado: You have been with the Center since 1987 as a part of the Center’s very first cohort of faculty fellows. You then directed the graduate fellowship program from 1990 to 2009 and took on the role of acting director twice during your tenure. Since then you’ve occupied the role of director of the undergraduate fellowship program while also serving on the faculty committee. Given your unique history with the Center could you share a bit about the evolution you’ve witnessed firsthand over the decades? What has changed the most and is there anything that hasn’t changed?
Arthur Applbaum: The most important and obvious change is the growth of the fellowship programs. We began in that first year with four faculty fellows, but for some of us, it was more of a postdoc or even a dissertation completion fellowship. It evolved into a real faculty fellowship after that first year. It was very small and very intense. Then we started adding fellowship programs—first, the graduate fellowship program and then the undergraduate fellowship program. During Larry’s [Lawrence Lessig] years there was a proliferation of various kinds of residential and non-residential lab fellows. The reach of the Center with respect to who came through exploded over the decades.
Another important change was a broadening of focus. When it began it was called the Program in Ethics in the Professions, though it was never as narrow as just the professions—there was always a public policy and government aspect to it. Dennis [Founding Director, Dennis F. Thompson] very clearly wanted to focus on professional ethics. The kind of route of influence that he saw was to establish cohorts, both inside of Harvard and across other universities, of people who either began as professors in the professional schools and then became through our instruction more sophisticated about normative analysis, or began as political philosophers and political theorists and then we hooked them on more practical institutional questions. So, there is a sense in which the goal of the original center was faculty development—both internal to Harvard and across other universities. That expanded to a more outward-looking mission under Larry. He told us very specifically what he was going to do, and he did exactly what he promised. He came in with the corruption project and it was very much public-facing and public policy facing. We’ve continued under Danielle [Danielle Allen] to have an outward-looking focus, both in civic education and most recently in the marvelous collaboration that she’s overseen on pandemic ethics and policy.
Fellowship applications for our Graduate and Undergraduate Fellowship programs are due November 1st! Please visit t.co/MIVoOm29Go for more information and how to apply. t.co/to0CaI5RfM
We are so excited to welcome back our dear @myishacherry to talk about her new book The Case for Rage (getting all the media attention it deserves!!). Join us this Friday at NOON with @HarvardBooks t.co/ijAaQDxryo t.co/5doj5wjSlj