About the Center for Ethics

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. 

Widespread ethical lapses of leaders in government, business and other professions prompt demands for more and better moral education. More fundamentally, the increasing complexity of public life - the scale and range of problems and the variety of knowledge required to deal with them - make ethical issues more difficult, even for men and women of good moral character. Not only are the ethical issues we face more complex, but the people we face them with are more diverse, increasing the frequency and intensity of our ethical disagreements.

Given these changes in the United States and in societies around the globe, the Center seeks to help meet the growing need for teachers, scholars, and leaders who address questions of moral choice across many of the professions and in public life more generally, and promotes a perspective on ethics informed by both theory and practice. We explore the connection between the problems that professionals confront and the social and political structures in which they act. More generally, we address the ethical issues that all citizens face as they make the choices that profoundly affect the present and future of their societies in our increasingly interdependent world.

Practical Ethics in the Professions

30 years ago, we began with a conviction and a problem. The conviction was that reflection on the moral assumptions and foundations of practical affairs is both intellectually worthwhile and socially valuable. Philosophy in this broad sense, we thought, could contribute to identifying and understanding the ethical issues in public life, including those in the professions. The problem was that few philosophers knew enough about professional life, and few professionals enough about philosophy, to teach and write effectively on ethical issues in professional and public life more generally. For more than two decades, under the leadership of Dennis F. Thompson, the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy, the Center made significant strides in breaking down these barriers through its rich offers of fellowships, public lectures, workshops and conferences.

Institutional Corruption Lab

In 2009, with a mandate to expand the scope of the Center's mission and work, Lawrence Lessig launched the Edmond J. Safra Research Lab, a major initiative designed to address fundamental problems of ethics in way that is of practical benefit to institutions of government and society around the world. In pursuit of this goal, and to strengthen and expand the mission generally, the Center welcomed scholars and researchers from a wide range of disciplines across academia, industry, and government.

Over a five year period, the Lab studied a wide range of important institutions with the ultimate goal of producing a set of practical tools that could be used both to understand the dynamic of institutional corruption and to respond to it. A structure of fellowships supported the project and drew scholars and researchers from a wide range of disciplines across academia, industry, and government. A strong component of the Lab's work was collaborative research that integrated the work of different fields. 

2014-15 was the final year of the five-year project, which culminated in a two-day Ending Institutional Corruption conference on May 1 and 2, 2015. In advance of the conference, the Center ran a hackathon on March 28 and 29, 2015.

During this time, the Lab Fellows produced an incredible volume of work related to Institutional Corruption, which can be found in the IC Lab Archive

Strategic Impact Initiatives: A Structure for Integrated Policy

In 2015, Danielle Allen took the helm as Director of the Center with a focus on advancing conversations on the most important and most challenging ethical issues of our time—whether those issues pertain to personal or public ethics; to professional or civic ethics; to habits and norms or policy-frameworks. Under her leadership, the Center has cultivated  conversations about the hard questions involved in determining how we should live, singly and collectively. 

A critical wing of the Center is our Strategic Initiatives, which draw together strong interdisciplinary teams of scholars who tackle a particular question or issue, resulting in high-impact integrated policy. These initiatives can be long-term, like The Democratic Knowledge Project, a multi-year project delivering civic education curricular resources to public schools in Massachusetts, or short-term Rapid Response Impact Initiatives, like the 4-month COVID-19 Response Initiative that helped push testing, contact tracing, and isolation policies across the United States. 

The Center stands at the core of what is now a well-established movement at Harvard and throughout the world that is giving ethics a prominent place in the curriculum and on the agenda of research. The Center encourages the activities of the professional schools, and provides a forum for university-wide communication and collaboration. Each of the faculties has begun its own courses and centers, and has developed its own group of scholars specializing in ethics. More than twenty fellows of the Center have gone on to hold teaching appointments at Harvard.

It is integral to the Center’s core mission that we not only produce ground-breaking research but also endeavor to spread it, engage in public discourse, and translate our academic outputs to various constituents on campus and beyond. To do this, we have opened opportunities for our faculty affiliates and fellows to use the Center as a launch pad for projects of their own devising. We support our affiliates' one-day workshops, multi-stage workshops, and conferences from across the university that connect conversations about ethics to new contexts.

The Center has also been actively involved in the growing ethics movement beyond Harvard, providing information and advice to many other centers at colleges and universities throughout the United States and in other countries. We supported the founding of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, the first national organization to provide teachers and scholars of ethics in many different fields with a medium for discussing their common problems and for collaborating on curricular and research projects. Fellows from the Center have gone on to teach ethics at more than 80 colleges and universities in the United States and in many foreign countries, including Australia, Austria, Canada, England, Germany, Greece, India, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Scotland, South Africa, and Switzerland. These successes would not have been possible without the financial support of many individuals and institutions.