An Interview with Acting Director Nien-hê Hsieh


Nien-hê Hsieh is the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration and Joseph L. Rice, III Faculty Fellow at Harvard Business School. He serves as Co-Director of Rapid Response Impact Initiatives at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and is a Faculty Associate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and is a Faculty Advisory Committee member for the EJSCE. Prof. Nien-hê will serve as Acting Director of the EJSCE for the coming academic year, beginning on July 1, 2021. Nien-hê is a representative of the EJSCE community members who join our community and stick around.

We could think of no better person to interview to launch our new "Community Profiles" interview series. On June 17th, Communications Assistant Alexis Jimenez Maldonado sat down with Nien-hê to learn more about his history with the Center. 

The transcript of the interview has been edited for clarity.

Alexis Jimenez Maldonado: You have been a part of the center’s ecosystem since 1997 when you were a graduate fellow, followed by a faculty fellowship in 2007 and then as a faculty committee member in 2017. There seems to be something drawing you back every decade. What keeps bringing you back to the center?

Nien-hê Hsieh: You’ve probably heard this by now, but there’s sort of a longstanding joke among those of us who are long-time affiliates that basically the center keeps bringing us back because we still haven’t gotten it right—we are not yet sufficiently ethical.

I’ve been very fortunate to be able to come back to the center and to be here now as acting director. I guess ten years marks national inflection points and one’s academic career, so I think in some ways it reflects that rhythm. But more importantly, I’d say it shows how special of a place the center is. There really aren’t other places like it to do interdisciplinary work focused on ethics, from theory to practice.

AJM: Could you share a bit about your history with the center starting with your time as a graduate fellow?

NH: I started as a graduate fellow in 1997 during the third year of my Ph.D. in economics. Before coming to Harvard, I studied political philosophy at Oxford as a graduate student. What the center provided for me was a community of like-minded graduate students, as well as faculty and faculty fellows who were really concerned about ethical issues. It really was an intellectual home and a way to meet people across the university who I might not otherwise meet or be able to work with. In that sense it was really supportive, I learned a lot, and it created that sense of community.

My approach to ethical issues, discerning what the problems are, and thinking about them within my scholarship was really informed by my graduate fellowship in 1997. I then had a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard Business School with Professor Lynn Paine who I met through the center. Then, I took a position as assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School in their legal studies department. I received tenure and was very fortunate to come to the center as a fellow in residence for my sabbatical year in 2007-2008. I went back to Wharton for another six years then moved to Harvard Business School in 2014. I joined the faculty committee in 2017.

AJM: Could you talk about your research, and more specifically your work and research within the center over the years?

NH: If we were to frame it most generally, I was concerned with normative ethical issues in the context of business and economics. My early work, which was pursued at the center, was around the role workers should play in the management and governance of the economic firms that they work in. I was interested in that question from the perspective of liberal egalitarian political philosophy, what can liberal egalitarian political philosophy have to say about how work should be organized or governed?

At the time a prevalent view was John Rawl’s Theory of Justice or other theories of liberal egalitarian philosophy which concerned themselves with political institutions, the state, and public institutions. However, what happens in the economy, the marketplace or the firm was subject to macro-level regulations. So, anything that went on inside the firm or between individuals was a matter of private contracts. Therefore, if you got the background institutions roughly just, then that was the extent that liberal egalitarian philosophy had anything to say about what went on in the economy. I made the case that liberal egalitarian philosophy actually did have much more to say about how workers should be organized, structured, and governed.

The center, during that time, was concerned with ethics in the professions and establishing ethics at professional schools. The task of scholarship and teaching was to help practitioners and students develop the skills, tools, and judgment needed to address ethical issues as they come up in the contexts of their lives and professional work. For me, that took the form of thinking at the level of corporations. What kinds of responsibilities corporations have and their managers have with regard to questions like human rights, supply chains, etc.? I thought about a framework we could develop for managers. That is the second strand of my work that comes directly out of the mission of the center in terms of ethics in the professions.

Most recently, I’ve become interested in democratic values and thinking about economic policies and ways we can organize and structure the economy. These are more general questions that have come up for me recently that tie into the mission of the center now.

AJM: What projects are on the horizon for you?

NH: To be concrete in ways that might be familiar to people in the center, I’ve always been intrigued by this distinction that Rawls made between what he called the welfare state capitalism and the property-owning democracy. The former didn’t satisfy the principles of justice, but the latter did in the context of systems that involve private ownership of capital. If we think about it in terms of widespread ownership of capital, and as a way to address inequalities in wealth, it seems like an idea that could be developed further. That is where a lot of my thinking will go.

AJM: You teach Leadership and Corporate Accountability to first-year students. How has working with students just starting out their program influenced your work and research?

NH: Teaching students, whether MBAs or undergraduates, has done three important things for my work and research. The first involves the kinds of questions that come up in class. These questions and discussions lead to exactly the kinds of research questions in business ethics that we should be exploring.

Secondly, [class discussion] is a way to test out answers to those questions and think about if we have answered them sufficiently well. Business ethics as a field should help students grapple with questions that come up in the context of their work. This is a nice way to test out those questions and answers.

Thirdly, it has pushed me to think more generally about what the path of business ethics scholarship should be and how we go about theorizing those answers. I think there’s an approach to a lot of applied practical ethics to do high theory. In high theory, you take a theory then you work out what is required for actors in various kinds of situations. Teaching has allowed me to engage in more mid-level theorizing, working from the ground up with certain principles or cases to engage in what Rawls called reflective equilibrium. Thereby developing principles that are much more directly applicable to the kinds of specific situations they will find themselves in.

AJM: On a more personal note, what do you like to do for fun, what are your hobbies? Do you have a current podcast, or show that you regularly watch or listen to?

NH: I don’t really have a hobby. I suppose if I had more time and better discipline I would spend more time playing the piano.

AJM: Do you have a current podcast, or show that you regularly watch or listen to?

You know… I don’t. Everyone keeps telling me I need to start listening to podcasts. Let’s put it this way, I would welcome any and all suggestions for podcasts that I should be listening to given my new role as acting director. My family has gotten back into watching the office, I guess the office is relevant for business ethics—what not to do, right?

AJM: In your new role as acting director, what are your goals for the center?

NH: It goes without saying that Danielle Allen has left big shoes to fill. She’s an incredibly dynamic, visionary, and tireless leader. She’s done a great deal and the first thing is to basically continue what she has started and to build on it.

In terms of specific things, if I think back to my time at the center, it was really focused on fellowships and creating opportunities for people to engage with one another while pursuing their research. At the same time, the center was working on building ethics in the professional schools. The center is now doing these strategic initiatives like the Democratic Knowledge Project, the Rapid Response Impact Initiatives, the work around COVID and school reopening, infection control, and thinking about reform of criminal justice and mass incarceration. Those areas are not just focused on policy and practice, but instead, they are being done by engaging with practitioners to identify the types of key problems. Responses to those problems are then developed with practitioners as well as with experts within the university and the broader network.

That’s something that is a new and exciting part of the centers work and I’ve had a chance to do that working with Danielle as a co-director for the Rapid Response Impact Initiative in terms of working in the COVID space. As that dies down, we are going to see questions of economic recovery. I would like us to focus on the question of how do we ensure that recovery is robust, but also equitable and resilient in a new way so that the next time something like this happens, we won’t have the kind of devastation we did. This kind of equitable and sustainable recovery and local government sits very nicely into the kind of Rapid Response Impact Initiative approach. I’m looking forward to carrying that work forward with the center.

The other area I am looking forward to carrying forward is the great work the center has done with ethics education. We have developed some very novel and effective approaches in the business school here at Harvard, I want to work with the education arm of the center to think about approaching those things further.

AJM: What are you most excited about in the coming year?

NH: This probably sounds cliché, but I’m looking forward to being back in person because for me the center is first and foremost about community, whether it’s the community of fellows, at the undergraduate level, at the graduate level, or the fellows-in-residence, the community of scholars around the university, the staff at the center, and the broader community around ethics. I’m also thinking about engaging with communities of practitioners. It is really about community. There’s a lot we’ve managed to do over Zoom, but I think there really is something special about being in person.

I’m most excited for us to be back in person and connecting with people in that way. Obviously, we’ve learned things we can do remotely, we have practices now that we may have not thought about before which can be as or more effective in some kinds of ways and we want to continue to build on those. But, I think there really is no such substitute for certain forms of in-person engagement and that is what excites me the most in the coming year. I am very much looking forward to doing what I can to enable those connections and grow the community that we have at the Safra center.

To learn more about Professor Hsieh's research, please click here to see his Harvard Business School faculty page