An Interview with Arthur I. Applbaum, Director of the Edmond J. Safra Undergraduate Fellowship Program

By: Alexis Jimenez Maldonado

Smiling man in black and white with gray hair in a dark suit in front of a plain background

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 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.

An expansion has occurred from ethics in the professions to ethics in public and political life more generally and now to a more direct public policy focus. What hasn’t changed is the lingua franca of the Center. It has always been the language of the core normative disciplines: moral philosophy, political philosophy, political theory, legal theory, and constitutional law. These are disciplines that all have in common the asking of “ought questions.” What we’ve always had in the Center is an understanding of the very important interplay between the empirical social sciences, such as history and political science, and the normative disciplines. At the core of the Center there has always been this normative focus, and what we’ve done over the years is bring together people whose expertise is in the normative disciplines with people whose expertise is in more of the social scientific, explanatory, predictive disciplines and put them in conversation with each other.

The arc of the success of the Center has been getting that balance right over the years. To go back to the metaphor, the lingua franca of the Center is normative and the participants are either native speakers or they are eager visitors from the other intellectual disciplines that are coming to us because they want to learn this language. But, as with all intellectual exchanges, the learning is reciprocal.

Could you talk a bit more about your experience during those early years, when the Center was in its infancy?

It was very intense because we were very small and Dennis, our founding director, understood that he was creating something from scratch and that the cultural expectations that he put into place would actually shape the Center for years to come. Now it's really commonplace to have general ethics centers. At the time, when Dennis first came to Harvard, there were centers or programs for particular professions like medical ethics. The idea that there is something in common across the different professions wasn’t unheard of, but it didn't really have much of an institutional standing in the university until Dennis started out. He understood that he was doing something somewhat new, which was creating a place where different professions talk to each other. He was absolutely focused like a laser on this—he saw that success would come inside the university by appointing professors in the different professional schools, thereby creating faculty members who specialize in professional ethics.

The notion that you can actually focus and concentrate in ethics and that it is a discipline that requires careful, hard analytic training is something that Dennis argued for very successfully in all the professional schools. There’s a discipline here. There’s a profession of professional ethics. Dennis fought to place in all the different faculties academics who were trained in one of the normative disciplines—philosophy, political theory, or law—who could address and answer ethical questions with sophistication.

That was one mission: faculty development inside our university and at other universities. The other mission was the development of required courses in various professional schools and required courses in the college in what was then known as the core curriculum and now what's known as Gen Ed. Dennis succeeded marvelously. By the time that he stepped down from his directorship, we had just a wonderful community of faculty members inside the university and courses in practical and professional ethics throughout Harvard.

I must say one of the most rewarding things to see is Nien-hê [Nien-hê Hsieh] step up to be Acting Director. Dennis was the founding director and for a long time I was his sidekick. I’m appointed to the faculty of the Kennedy School and I teach the Kennedy School core curriculum in political ethics. Then Nien-hê comes a few years after. He starts as one of my early graduate fellows and then we bring him back as a Faculty Fellow, then he’s appointed at Harvard Business School, he joins the Faculty Committee and now he's Acting Director. So, in a sense, he is like the grandchild of the Center. It's just so heartwarming to see this happen because it's a very concrete instantiation of success, showing that Dennis’s idea has taken root. It’s just marvelous, I’m so tickled that Nien-hê is doing this.

Was there a particular moment that you knew you wanted to stick around and contribute to the growth of the Center or was it more of an organic progression over the years?

You're giving me a choice between did I know I wanted to stick around or was it organic, but the truth is a third possibility, which is that the Center chose and shaped me. I had studied quite a bit of philosophy as an undergraduate and I came to the Kennedy School for a Masters and then I stayed on for a PhD in public policy. Here is the great irony: if I actually had a plan and my plan was to teach political philosophy and ethics at the university level, then I would have been trained differently and though I hope I would have found a good position, I would almost certainly not be a tenured professor at Harvard. There’s a kind of completely serendipitous path dependence that follows from me making mistakes that ended up okay in the end. I was basically discovered by Dennis and realized that I had misspent my academic youth. I should have gotten a PhD in philosophy. Instead, I practice political philosophy without a license. I was chosen by Dennis, inspired by Dennis, and taught by Dennis. What happened in that first fellowship year is that I realized that I wanted to be a political philosopher. So, I started retraining as a political philosopher and started publishing papers as a political philosopher.

When you ask if I had a plan, the truth is Dennis created me. The thought of being a faculty member at Harvard without the Center, well I wouldn’t know what that would be. Because the Center was the intellectual source of everything I wanted to become.

Are there any particularly fond memories or experiences you’ve had over the years working within the Center? Could you give one of the highlights you’ve experienced under each Director?

I'm going to answer this somewhat light-heartedly. I have two Jean McVeigh stories. Jean was the administrator, I don’t recall her exact title but she was essentially running the place. I have two funny stories and Stephanie Dant was involved as well. Dennis wanted everything immediately, he wanted everything yesterday, so Jean and Stephanie made him a red “urgent” stamp and they said to Dennis, “when something really is urgent, stamp it urgent and then we'll know how to prioritize.” So Dennis said, “sure.” And what do you think he did? He stamped every piece of paper. That tells you something about Jean and about Dennis.

The other story I have is from one of my tours of duty as acting director. I'm not the most organized person and Jean saw that. She offered to help and here is what she said, “Arthur, why don't you forward to me all of the Center emails so I can help you,” and with great exasperation I said, “but Jean, all the emails are from you!”

Rather than pick out anecdotes about the directors I’ll pick out certain somewhat tongue-in-cheek contributions—something that they showed exemplary mastery over that I think instructed others. Dennis was the exemplary teacher of the introduction. To watch Dennis given an introduction—it was witty, pointed, instructive, and kind. He managed all those things whenever he would introduce a speaker and it was such a marvelous way to set the tone for the day.

Larry was the exemplary teacher of the slide presentation. To watch Larry do a presentation, it was a master class. It was a small example of how design follows from content. It wasn't just a brilliant choice of typeface. His slides were just completely uncluttered and memorable so that when you left a Larry Lessig presentation it’s not just that you had the words in your head, but you had the visuals in your mind’s eye. And he used the clicker so smoothly that it looked like the slides were progressing from his mind’s eye. You never saw him press the clicker or turn to the slide to see where it was, it was all committed to memory and it just advanced naturally and organically. To watch Larry Lessig do a presentation is to watch an art form.

Danielle is the exemplary teacher of the collaborative conversation. You sit in a meeting with Danielle and she doesn't impose her personality, she asks questions and she leads through cooperation and body language. It's really an astonishing skill that she has. And now to get a bit more serious, we saw this happening in the way that she and the Center stepped up in the pandemic. What Danielle did with the Center in stepping up to advise through the white papers and various policy memos about COVID, she showed where the Center needed to be. She showed how to mobilize a team of people, a team of equals. Not in any kind of authoritative way, but simply leading by example and putting people in the same room and by asking really good questions. Danielle showed us how it is that we could, together, do something important. I want to emphasize just how unusual this is in a non-hierarchical academic setting. We call ourselves a “center” but there are centers around the university where there's one big cheese who has a big pot of money and hires a bunch of people, assigns these people tasks and they all will work for the director and, of course, things get done. Because that's how organizations work. But the Safra Center is not that kind of organization, except in particular small pockets. The Safra Center is a consortium of faculty members who each have their own research agenda, and a collection of temporary fellows, each of whom has their own research agenda. Have you ever tried to herd cats? No, because you cannot herd cats. In a moment of international crisis, Danielle herded the cats. And that's not easy to do. How does she do it? It wasn't by having buckets of money to throw at people. We don't have buckets of money to throw at people. Most of this happened through the power of her magnetic personality. And that's just a marvelous lesson to learn.

What do you most enjoy about working with the Undergrad Fellows?

The first thing to say is that it's about them. You know that Harvard undergraduates are just terrific, they are excitedly bright, eager, open-minded, and hardworking. It's a community of students that is just a joy to teach.

What's so rewarding is to watch various light bulbs go off. They are all hand-picked, we only choose undergraduate fellows who we think have promise for this work. What I try to do with them is something that they don't typically get in most of their courses, even small courses. In most courses at Harvard they have a curriculum and then there's a term paper which is proof that they learned something. But they are not courses designed to write a paper. The mission of the undergraduate program is for fellows to write a senior thesis on some normative topic. Now, this is something that happens after they’ve left my hands. I take them as second-semester sophomores or juniors and they don't do their senior theses until they are seniors. That gets done in the workshop, which Danielle usually runs. What I see as my goal is to teach them how to eventually write a senior thesis and so, in addition to having a curriculum, I try to create patterns of collaboration because I want them to be a cohort that will go on to the workshop and work together. Though they come from different departments (we're not our own department, obviously) and they will get most of their disciplinary training in their departments, we want them to learn from students in other disciplines. For those who are more analytically oriented or those who are more descriptively oriented, we want them to see that they can learn from each other. They don't always get that kind of collaboration in the departments.

In addition to having a reading lesson every week, we work on the craft of constructing a normative paper. We do that collaboratively; we discuss their topics and we develop an analytic outline and we talk about it and present it. When we do the first draft, I pair them off so that they work together so by the time they submit their final paper they have actually spent a good amount of time in class and out of class talking to me and our superb teaching fellow, Priya Menon, and with each other about the paper. If they enjoy the seminar, it's because they've learned something about themselves by learning together.

Your research focuses on political and professional ethics and political philosophy. Could you talk a bit about your work and specifically how that work has been tied to the Center and its goals?

Well, in my first book, Ethics for Adversaries: The Morality of Roles in Public and Professional Life (Princeton University Press, 1999), the subtitle is important because it partly answers your questions. That book was inconceivable without the Center. Both the faculty seminar and the graduate seminar had a curriculum. It wasn't simply a work-in-progress seminar in those years. There was a reading list, we discussed topics, and, of course, people also presented their own work. The subject matter of that first book was rather straightforwardly a reflection of the mission of the Center in those early years. It was a book about professional ethics generally. The book asks whether professional roles create moral obligations that one wouldn't otherwise have and, more importantly and problematically, whether professional roles create moral permissions that one wouldn’t otherwise have. Role morality was a topic front and center in every single year of both the faculty seminar and the graduate seminar.

My recent book, Legitimacy: The Right to Rule in a Wanton World (Harvard University Press, 2019), also began at the Center.  Usually, in thinking about legitimate authority, one begins with political authority in the state as the core question, and then one might ask about what authority is and how it is justified in domains both smaller and larger than the state.  I started thinking about the legitimate authority of the professions over professional practitioners, and backed into the larger and more general question of legitimate political authority. So again, the influence of the Center is clear.

How many poems have you written for Center events? Does one stand out as the best?

[Laughing] I don't think that you should dignify my little ditties by calling them poems. Here is how this started: at the end-of-year ceremony we would give the Faculty Fellows these little mementos and they were usually little cheap pen stands or lucite clocks or things like that. I thought that was a little too impersonal, so I started buying carefully chosen books for each of my graduate fellows and I inscribed them with some kind of epigram and sometimes a limerick. It began with short inscriptions in books. When we hit the Covidian-era lockdowns, where we weren't gathering together, inscribing individual books became a little bit more difficult, so I figured I would compose these longer form poems in honor of the undergraduate fellows.

I have to give credit for this idea to where it started which is with Robert Gordon. Bob is a great legal historian and was a faculty fellow. One year in our closing ceremony he stood up and he declaimed what he called “the Thompsoniad,” channeling Homer in praise of Dennis. That's where the idea of a longer form silly poem came from. I can't take credit for it, I'm going to give the credit to Bob.

As a foundational member of the Center’s ecosystem, you’ve witnessed the development of the Center since its inception. How do you envision the future of the Center?

One way of thinking of the development of the Center is either as an arc or a pendulum. Dennis created a gem, a crown jewel of the university. And like gems, it was intense, brilliant, and small. Larry exploded the Center into an outward-facing mission-driven project focused intensely on institutional corruption, and he did a great job of that. What Danielle did when she became director was to swing the pendulum back partway towards Dennis’s brilliant gem. Danielle refocused our attention on intense university-based academic achievements without losing the energizing and important outward-facing public policy imperatives that Larry gave us.

You can call it an arc, or a pendulum that hasn’t swung all the way back, but I think we've reached a very, very good place because Danielle has shown that we can do both. We can both be an academic center of the highest intellectual quality and also face the world directly. It was always a part of Dennis’ mission and agenda to influence the world, but his model was to influence the world mainly through the teaching and scholarship of professors. What Larry and Danielle do, in addition to that, is they want to influence the world through direct policy engagement.

Do you have any hobbies?

I suppose you could call it a hobby. I write young adult political philosophy spy fiction. I justify it to myself and to any dean, if they dared to ask, by saying that if I'm really honest with myself there are perhaps a couple of hundred people who really know about my philosophical work and pay attention to it, but if I can get a young adult novel in the hands of precocious teenagers then I might have a reach of thousands instead of hundreds.

For quite some time I've been dabbling with a young adult novel that is a kind of a novel of ideas. To some extent, it's historical fiction as well. It emerged out of a freshman seminar that I teach. We’ve already talked about how much I love teaching our undergraduate fellows, and the only teaching that competes with that is my love of teaching freshmen. I don't claim that it's the best freshman seminar, but I can claim that it’s the one with the longest title: “What Happened in Montaigne’s Library on the Night of October 23, 1587, and Why Should Political Philosophers Care?” I won't bore you with all the details, but it begins with a little historical puzzle involving a possible conversation between Montaigne, Henry of Navarre, and Philippe du Plessis Mornay during the French Wars of Religion. Then, through creative anachronism, Hobbes, Locke and Kant join in the conversation. By the end, the students have taken a short course on legitimate authority under the social contract tradition.

Along the way, I started writing this novel that is set in two historical periods, post 9/11 America and sixteenth century France. There's a teenage girl who is the protagonist who has to deal with the War on Terror because her father (you write about what you know, right?) seems to be this mild-mannered political philosopher who is actually doing some kind of secret work for the CIA.  As a home-schooling assignment, the father asks her to write letters to Montaigne and, through some mechanism that I'm not going to reveal, Montaigne starts writing back. Is it magical realism? Is it something else? We don't know. Montaigne helps her rescue foreign friends who have been kidnapped by shadowy intelligence operatives and she helps Montaigne advise Henry of Navarre on how to end the war and unify France.  I've got a completed draft. It will be a major motion picture as soon as it becomes an international bestseller as soon as it finds a publisher.

What I can honestly say is that while I love having written philosophy, the act of writing philosophy can be very painful. I just love writing young adult fiction, I love the process of doing it. The working title of the book is a quote from a very famous letter of Machiavelli: “And They in Their Humanity Answer Me,” which refers to Machiavelli describing how, after a hard day in exile on the outskirts of Florence, he comes home and takes off his soiled clothing, puts on his courtly robes, asks questions of the ancients, and, through their books, they answer him.

I've been working on a sequel. It may be rather ambitious of me or rather imprudent of me to work on a sequel to an unpublished young adult novel. I'm sketching out a sequel which is set, not in the post 9/11 War on Terror, but in a dark, more recent Trump-inflected America. Again, it's fiction; Trump himself will not make an appearance. The historical counterparts will be two figures from England in the seventeenth century, the great legal theorist and constitutional scholar John Selden, someone no one has heard of except for Eric Nelson and Richard Tuck, but also someone we’ve all heard of, Thomas Hobbes.

Again, in ways that I'm not entirely sure of, our young contemporary protagonist will somehow win her way through the political crises of contemporary America while Selden and Hobbes deal with the run up to the English Civil War. I concede that I might be writing for a diminishingly small audience of impossibly precocious teenagers or, even worse, their doting fathers.

Do you have a podcast or show that you are currently listing to/watching?

I will tell you my guilty pleasure. My wife Sally and I have been binge-watching Grey's Anatomy. This has been our pandemic project and in the spirit of TMI, I'll tell you a family story. My dear departed mother’s best line ever was the following (in her Brooklyn accent): “Athah, you could’ve been a doctah, or at least [pause] a dentist,” thereby insulting me and all of dentistry. I believe at the time I was already a junior professor at Harvard, which makes this even more funny … or insulting. Her second best line was about my fellow fellow in that first formative year of the Center: “Athah, I saw your friend Zeke Emanuel on CSPAN last night. [pause.] How come I never see you on CSPAN?” 

As much as it pains me to concede that my mother was right about something, I spent years and years with some of the world's foremost medical ethicists around the Safra Center table, and I have developed a deep appreciation for the practice of medicine, so I'd like to think that I could have been a doctor, or at least a dentist, and have found it deeply rewarding. So yes, I binge-watch Grey's Anatomy and it reminds me of the deep love and respect I have for all of the medical ethicists I've had the privilege of coming across in my life through the Safra Center.

What does the coming school year look like for you and what are you excited about?

Great question. I was hoping to have a face-to-face year, but of course, at least right now, it's going to be a mask-to-mask year. I have a class of Undergraduate Fellows whom I know only over Zoom, when in a normal year we would have had our seminar over weekly lunches. I promised them that come fall we would gather over a meal. I'm going to keep that promise eventually, but I can't keep it right now. You might think that lunch delayed is lunch denied, but we will eventually have a face-to-face meeting over food, and that is what I am looking forward to.

Arthur, thank you so much for your time today.