The History of Ethics at Harvard

In 1986, when President Derek Bok persuaded Dennis F. Thompson to come to Harvard, the serious study of practical ethics at colleges and universities was rare. In his much cited 1976 article "Can Ethics be Taught?," Bok argued that there was a pressing need for "problem-oriented courses in ethics" that would prepare students for the moral dilemmas and ethical decisions they would face throughout their careers. Bok asked Thompson to create a program at Harvard that would address the need for teachers and scholars who could develop those courses and become leaders in the study of practical and professional ethics.

The Program for Ethics and the Professions

It was a significant challenge. At that time, Harvard, like many other institutions, had few courses and even fewer faculty specializing in the subject. Moral philosophers rarely had experience applying ethical insights to real-world problems, while experts in fields such as medicine, law, government, and business lacked the training in ethics necessary for rigorous and systematic analysis of moral problems. There were, for example, no tenured ethics faculty members at the Business School, and only one Medical School professor who specialized in ethics.

The early challenges were as much political as intellectual. With its decentralized structure, Harvard was not friendly to interfaculty initiatives, but Thompson was fortunate to be able to enlist some of the most respected of Harvard faculty: Michael Sandel, Thomas Scanlon, Martha Minow, Lynn Peterson and Thomas Piper. The senior fellows included Alfred Chandler, Leon Eisenberg, Kenneth Ryan, Andrew Kaufman, John Matthews, Don Price, Judith Shklar, John Rawls, Amartya Sen, and Lloyd Weinreb.

By the end of its second year, the initiative had achieved consensus on its purpose, attained recognition as Harvard's first major interfaculty initiative, secured a substantial grant for curriculum development, and selected its first class of Faculty Fellows. The inaugural fellows were Arthur I. Applbaum, Ezekiel J. Emanuel, Robert Kinlock Massie, Jr., and Robert Eli Rosen. 

With continuing support from Bok, Neil Rudenstine, and Lawrence Summers, the Program grew into a Center, now permanently endowed as a result of gifts from the Edmond J. Safra Foundation and the estate of Lester Kissel. Over the years, the Center has created an intellectual community within Harvard where ethics scholars and students from throughout the world gather to exchange ideas and develop new courses, pursue research, and go on to establish similar programs elsewhere. Reflecting on the Center's second decade, Bok observed, "One of the best new developments in professional education is the wide and growing interest in resolving problems of ethics. Harvard's Center was instrumental in this effort, and it has exceeded even my own optimistic expectations."

For further reflection on the Center's first few decades, see "Notes from the Founding Director," Dennis F. Thompson.

Achievements in Ethics

The Center's accomplishments have multiplied exponentially, but so have the complexities of modern life. As the need for leaders who can make sound moral judgments in public and professional life increases, the wisdom of establishing a Center with the mission of promoting ethics teaching and research is more apparent today than ever.

The Fellowships: Building Bridges

At the heart of the Center's activities, the Faculty Fellowships in Ethics help outstanding teachers and scholars develop their ability to address questions of moral choice in areas such as business, design, education, law, medicine, and public policy. Fellows chosen from leading universities in the U.S. and abroad participate the Center's many activities, as well as other programs offered by the professional schools and the College. Fellows have come from more than a hundred universities in the U.S. and many other countries.

Faculty Fellows have constructed fascinating and often unexpected conceptual bridges. The first crop of Fellows in 1987-88 included an ordained Episcopal priest-business scholar who pursued research on the effects of shareholder activism and later ran for Lt. Governor of Massachusetts; a student of negotiation who looked at the interplay of moral, inductive, and strategic reasoning; a physician with a PhD in government, who explored how medical dilemmas might be informed by political philosophy; and a professor of law who analyzed the relationship between the concepts of fiduciary trust and paternalism.

Reflecting on the Center's early years, former Medical School Dean Daniel Tosteson recalled discussions about the difficulty of "finding a way to mentor scholars who could effectively address the issue of how people in all walks of life can accept responsibility for ethical behavior." Fellows often point to the mentoring value of the Center's weekly seminars. As philosophers and other theorists engage in lively discussions with those who teach in professional schools, the theorists gain knowledge of current practice while the practitioners deepen their understanding of systematic moral reasoning. Seminar topics range widely; in the course of one month, participants considered the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, hospital policy on physician-assisted suicide, and accountability in modern corporate governance.

In 1990, the Center established its Graduate Fellowships in Ethics, which participants often describe as pivotal in focusing their research and career aspirations. Led by Kennedy School professor Arthur I. Applbaum (himself a former Faculty Fellow), the Graduate Fellows participate in their own weekly seminars and take part in the wider intellectual life of the Center by interacting with Faculty Fellows and Senior Scholars, and attending lectures, workshops and other events. To date, more than ninety Harvard-enrolled graduate and professional students have completed the program in pursuit of careers where an understanding of practical ethics will play a central role.

Leaders at Harvard

The Fellowships have proven essential in achieving a core aspect of the Center's mission - seeding and sustaining ethics-related course development and research throughout Harvard. As former Business School Dean John McArthur, an early ally of Bok and Thompson in establishing the Center, noted: "It was clear from the start that although this was a centralized program, its success would depend on finding and training individual faculty who not only were committed to ethics, but also had credibility among their professional school colleagues." In surveying the progress of ethics initiatives at the professional schools and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, there is ample evidence that in the courses they develop and teach, the programs they lead, and the students and colleagues they inspire, the Center's associates are bringing both commitment and credibility to their work across the University. At the time of the Center's inception, few faculties at Harvard offered any courses in ethics. Today, ethics study is a requirement for nearly all students in the University's core degree programs.

At the Business School, for example, "Leadership and Corporate Accountability," introduced in 2004 as the first full-length, required MBA course in ethics, has been led by former Center Fellows Lynn Sharp Paine and Joe Badaracco. The Law School's Program on the Legal Profession, a catalyst for a broad range of ethics activities at the school, was revitalized in 1992 by director David Wilkins, one of several influential Law School faculty who spent time in the Center. At the Medical School, the Division of Medical Ethics, which administers an extensive range of courses and activities, has been led by a succession of Ethics Center associates, beginning with its first director, Lynn Peterson, in 1989.

In 2003, Norman Daniels and Dan Wikler, both former fellows of the Ethics Center, successfully persuaded their colleagues to broaden the School of Public Health's ethics requirement to include additional specialized courses.

With its emphasis on interdisciplinary scholarship, the Center has helped to inspire numerous curricular and programmatic activities across academic lines. A 1987 American Express Foundation grant administered by the Center gave rise to over fifty ethics-related courses or course revisions in twenty disciplines at Harvard College. The University Program in Ethics & Health, established in 2003 under the auspices of the Center, draws on Medical School, School of Public Health, FAS, and Kennedy School faculty to further teaching and research on ethical issues in global and population health. The Center has sponsored numerous workshops and seminars that bring together faculty and students from throughout the University to discuss ethics issues and collaborate on research.

Reaching the Wider Community

Dean Tosteson has emphasized that "a program in practical ethics has to have an impact on practice. That's why you can't overstate the importance of having someone such as Ezekiel Emanuel attain a position of national influence." Emanuel, a distinguished Harvard Medical School professor who served on President Clinton's Health Care Task Force and who created and currently heads a thriving bioethics department at the National Institutes of Health, is one of many former Ethics Center Fellows who have helped to extend the initiative's reach far beyond Harvard's classrooms and lecture halls. In 2009, Emanuel was appointed to a position with the Obama Administration. Others who have made an impact include Amy Gutmann (who went on to start Princeton's ethics center and is now president of the University of Pennsylvania), Elizabeth Kiss (who created the ethics center at Duke University and is now president of Agnes Scott College), Steve Macedo (the current director of Princeton's Center), Yuli Tamir (Israel's Minister of Education), and Melissa Williams (founding director of the ethics center at the University of Toronto). By taking on leadership positions in academic institutions, government, NGOs, hospitals, law firms, and industry, the Center's associates are having a direct impact on ethics related decisions and policy development all over the world.

As a resource for information about teaching and research in ethics, the Center has helped faculty and administrators at more than two dozen colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad, offering advice on syllabi, case studies, faculty recruitment, and fundraising. In 1991, Dennis Thompson helped found the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, the field's most important professional international organization, which now has more than 600 members, representing 84 ethics centers in the U.S. and 24 foreign countries.

The Center's public events and programs enable those within Harvard to exchange perspectives with ethics scholars and practitioners from other institutions, as well as members of the broader community. The Center has sponsored or cosponsored dozens of major gatherings, ranging from a four-day colloquium on "Moral Leadership in Higher Education," which attracted more than twenty university presidents from around the country, to a three-day "Equality and the New Global Order" conference, attended by distinguished scholars from several countries and disciplines. The Center's popular public lecture series promotes philosophical reflection on some of the most challenging ethical issues in public life. The lectures attract Harvard faculty and students as well as members of the wider Boston community, who engage directly with leading scholars and practitioners on topics that have included "Morality and Mental Illness," "Why Physicians Participate in Lethal Injection of Prisoners," and "The Ethics of Torture."

Remarkable Scholarly Range

The published works of Fellows and Faculty Associates are among the Center's most important contributions and a powerful source of influence in the world. Former Ethics Fellow Samantha Power's A Problem from Hell, which chronicles the American government's reactions to cases of genocide in the 20th century, won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize, 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Council on Foreign Relations' prize for the best book in U.S. foreign policy. Founding Senior Fellow Amartya Sen won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics not only for his work in welfare economics, but also his ethically motivated studies of the "welfare of the poorest," notably his Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. The range of the Center's scholarship is remarkable. In medicine, Dan Brock, Daniel Wikler and Norman Daniels have written a pioneering study of ethical implications of the genetic revolution: Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice. Arthur I. Applbaum's Ethics for Adversaries is a major critique of role morality challenging the arguments that professionals in business, government, law, and medicine often use to justify harmful actions they believe are required by their jobs. Dennis Thompson'sRestoring Responsibility: Ethics in Government, Business and Healthcare is a collection of essays, many of which were written under the influence of his work with the fellows in the Center. One of the most influential contributions to the ethics of military obedience is Mark Osiel's ObeyingOrders: Military Discipline, Combat Atrocity, and the Law of War. John Kleinig, a former Fellow who took on the challenge of teaching ethics to New York City police officers for many years, wrote the bible on the subject: The Ethics of Policing.

A Promising Legacy

Along with its legacy of programs developed, courses taught, papers written, and lectures delivered, the Center's most enduring impact may be its success in building a community of scholars. The fellows themselves, in their traditional year-end reports, often eloquently express the spirit of that community. One scholar noted the value of the Center's ability to "inspire thought, discussion, and argument over questions of the deepest ethical and political concern not only in lecture halls, but also over dinners, in hallways, doorways, gardens, and throughout mornings, evenings, and nights." Another attributed the Center's success to providing "all fellows with the feeling that their views and insights are important and valuable. One can take more seriously one's own work and thoughts when one gets the sense that others take them seriously."

The Center's lasting influence has been appreciated by many over the years: "So helpful has the company of my colleagues here been that we have plans to continue meeting after the fellowship year officially ends. Having fostered a spirit of collegiality and mutual respect among us, the Center should be proud to know that we do not intend to let these relations fade. Through our discussions, the work of the weekly seminars will carry on, and the Center will continue to influence our intellectual and ethical lives. For this promising prospect for the future, as well as for the work already done, I would like to offer my thanks to the Center and to all those who support it."