March 2, 2016

Since we began this academic year, our chosen theme, Diversity, Justice, and Democracy, has grown only more urgent. From the refugee crisis in Europe to our own presidential campaign; from debates over social equality, free speech, and “political correctness” on college campuses to parallel debates about security, terrorism, and “political correctness” in Southern California; from conflicts over LGBT rights in Africa to honor-killings of young women in places around the world, we are routinely asked to think through challenging ethical and political problems that have become ever more complex because of social diversity.

In an effort to share our conversations about these and related subjects more broadly, we have launched a new series, co-sponsored with the Harvard Book Store, Ethics in Your World. Our next speaker will be Fellow-in-Residence Liav Orgad, discussing his new book, The Cultural Defense of Nations, on April 1, 2016.

Our traditional venues for deepening collective reflection on urgent matters of individual, institutional, and public ethics continue to be our Thursday evening public lectures and our Tuesday lunchtime Faculty Seminars. During the fall’s public lecture series, philosopher Ruth Chang walked us through frameworks for decision-making when one faces two choices that are “on par,” not better or worse than one another. Bioethicist Julian Savulescu explored the stakes of designating disabilities as differences or of resisting such designations. Jiwei Ci, a philosopher from the University of Hong Kong, offered a critique of modern democracy as being agnostic on whether people are equal by nature and as, consequently, permitting social structures with great inequalities. In our lunchtime seminars, Edmond J. Safra Center Faculty Associates Tommie Shelby, Meira Levinson, and Nir Eyal worked through, respectively, issues of a right to self-segregate, ethical dilemmas in urban classrooms, and health disparities. Fellows-in-Residence have presented material on the limited efficacy of interventions designed to reduce implicit bias (Calvin Lai); the invisibility of links between our treatment of inmates and health crises in minority communities, particularly around HIV (Laurie Shrage); global justice (Caleb Yong); the right to bear arms and cultures of violence and domination (Jackie Bass); and the possibility that the right to education, when tethered to the goal of preparing citizens, as it is in many U.S. state constitutions, might provide a higher standard for educational justice than is currently available on the policy landscape (Michael Rebell).

Our theme working group on “Diversity, Justice, and Democracy” has found that it shares four basic premises that can provide a foundation for seeking philosophical, social scientific and policy frameworks that might support the achievement of “difference without domination.” Those four premises are:

(1) Social difference is a good thing all-in-all; none of us wishes to see a socio-political universe that is pursuing homogenization or that rigidly fixes our identities; (2) Social difference easily becomes articulated with hierarchies that are institutional, economic, political, cultural, and psychological (even at the unconscious level); (3) these hierarchies are also often sources of social fragmentation, rather than cohesion; (4) justice (on any number of accounts) requires unlinking social difference and hierarchy.

On all of these, and many other fronts, the work of research, writing, and conversing continues apace.

Meanwhile, we have also been privileged at the Edmond J. Safra Center to pull together colleagues from all across Harvard’s campus to discuss approaches to ethics curricula and pedagogy. Interest in how to teach ethical reasoning is high.

In our conversations, we have been struck by the need to balance exposure of students to the rules, regulations, and principles of academic and professional responsibility with an equally pressing need to engage them in big picture questions about how our moral frameworks define our individual lives and our conceptions of justice, our collective lives. At the undergraduate level there is also a new kind of challenge to meet. Once upon a time, a collegiate program could expect that professional education would complete its students’ preparation for the exercise of judgment and that professional protocols of responsibility would tightly govern their lives. Now we have to expect that many college graduates will often live “off the grid” of the traditional professions. Their preparation for success at the work of ethical reasoning must be accomplished during the four years of their undergraduate education.

Ethics educators face challenging questions about how to awaken their students into authentic moral reflection, ethical reasoning, and decision-making. How do students get started? How are matters de-familiarized for them? Do they need to be “cracked open” as decision-makers? Do they need to start by learning how to spot the dilemmas? Or have they progressed to such a point in their own experience that hard decisions are obvious and right in front of them all the time? Do they need case studies, do they need simulations, do they need improvisational theater, do they need clinics? Great creativity can be brought to bear on finding effective ways of making questions of ethics real for students, something to be lived, not merely studied, an area where we are as likely to make mistakes as to succeed.

Our own focus at the Edmond J. Safra Center, in helping to frame a conversation about how to teach ethics, is on the question of how to integrate the resources of pre-existing ethical theories and traditions with a judgment-oriented pedagogy that also draws on the resources of psychology and positive social science. Preparation for ethical reasoning requires not only the twin pillars of philosophy and a policy or decision-making context. It also demands a third pillar: socio-theoretic understanding. Our own graduate and undergraduate fellowship seminars have followed a path of spirited inquiry across these three domains. The graduate fellows are spending time on Rae Langton’s Locke Lectures, “Accommodating Injustice,” about how silence can empower subordination, as well as even more time on the research of individual fellows than last semester. As part of our Kissel Lecture in Ethics event, the undergraduate fellows joined Stephen Macedo for a feisty set of conversations about same-sex couples, monogamy, and the future of marriage.

The Edmond J. Safra Center is uniquely positioned at Harvard to cultivate University-wide conversations about the hard questions involved in determining how we should live, singly and collectively. We look forward to welcoming you in person to our public events, and online to the many fora in which we will broadly share our conversations.

Follow us @HarvardEthics. Friend us on Facebook. Share with us your formulations of the questions we should all be asking.

Danielle Allen
Director, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics
Professor, Department of Government, Graduate School of Education
Harvard University