Campus & Community

Amartya Sen talks about the importance of ethics in academe

5 min read

In 1976, in the education journal Change, President Derek Bok famously asked, “Can ethics be taught?” At the time, few universities and even fewer faculty specialized in ethics; philosophers rarely applied their moral insights to real-world problems; and doctors, lawyers, businesspersons, and policymakers usually had little or no ethics training, even as the world was becoming increasingly complicated in matters of often long-ranging moral import.

By 1986, though, Bok was starting an initiative that would ultimately help to change all that. He brought Dennis Thompson to Harvard as the founding director of the University Center for Ethics and the Professions, an institution that last week celebrated its 20th anniversary as the now-endowed Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics. A yearlong series of special events culminated over the weekend (May 19-20) with a conference that featured Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, Lamont University Professor and professor of economics and philosophy, giving the keynote address, and with the panel discussions “Justice: True in Theory but Not in Practice?” and “University Ethics” featuring pre-eminent scholars from the fields of law, medicine, government, politics, and philosophy.

Sen discussed a wide range of topics regarding ethics, a subject on which he said — paraphrasing Edmund Burke — “It is difficult to speak, and impossible to be silent.” He parsed how theory gives rise to practice, noting that “agreement on theory is not, in general, a prerequisite of agreement on policy” while at the same time, “a theory need not be so rigidly structured that it always guarantees an invariably definitive conclusion about the rightness of actions.” Recalling the French Revolution and America’s current war in Iraq, he noted that “the need for removing moral disagreement in theory may not, in fact, be compelling,” adding, “Indeed, the guillotine is not the only way of moving from theory to practice.”

He argued for a more commonsense approach to political philosophy, and recalled his late colleague John Rawls, the widely influential philosopher and Harvard professor whose 1958 paper “Justice as Fairness” came, said Sen, “as a shaft of light” that offered Sen a “sense of bliss [that] has not dimmed over the years.” Rawls contended, Sen noted, that “the issue of fairness comes first, and our principles of justice have to be derived from what could be justified as fair.”

Sen addressed three main questions: What do we want from a theory of justice? How can we make room for lasting disagreements in ethical matters? and, How is fairness linked to justice? This last, he pointed out, requires that we not be moved by vested interest or by local parochialism when determining questions of global justice as well as of “local or national justice in a global world.” He compared the transcendental and comparative approaches to justice, saying, “You cannot get anything like the richness of a comparative approach from identifying a transcendental possibility: You may conclude that Leonardo da Vinci is the best painter whose works you have seen, but it won’t tell you how to rank Picasso against Braque. … Indeed, the concentration on the transcendental approach has had, I would argue, a seriously negative effect on practical issues of justice in general and global justice in particular.”

Finally, he addressed the important roles for the initiative taken by activist individuals, through whom “global democracy is, in a very limited form, already being pursued, without waiting for the emergence of a gigantic global state.” Debate and discussion, he added, “may not lead to agreements on all the issues that worry people, but there is a domain of agreement, with the possibility of further cultivation of agreed arrangements. The future of the world would greatly depend on that cultivation, and an appropriately formulated theory of justice that makes room for plurality and incompleteness, that concentrates on the comparative rather than the transcendental, and that insists on open rather than closed impartiality can make something of a contribution to the foundation of our practical pursuits. There is indeed something to work for there. It is not, I would argue, a hopeless enterprise.”

Far from hopeless, in fact, if the influence of the Safra Center is any indication. In its two decades the center has hosted more than 100 outstanding scholars and teachers as faculty fellows and an equal number of younger academics in graduate fellowships. The fellows, chosen from Harvard and other leading universities around the nation and abroad, spend a year taking courses, attending colloquia, writing cases, and doing clinical work in an effort to seed and sustain ethics-related course development and research throughout the University and beyond. Many have gone on to positions of influence not only in the United States but worldwide, including, for example, Israeli Minister of Education Yuli Tamir and Ezekiel Emanuel, an HMS professor who served under President Clinton and later established a bioethics department at the National Institutes of Health. Others — among them, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, who started Princeton University’s ethics center; Melissa Williams, founding director of the new Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto; and Elizabeth Kiss, who created Duke University’s ethics center — have taken on prominent academic roles.

“Looking back on my years of presiding over Harvard,” said Bok, “it really is, quite honestly, hard for me to think of anything I am prouder of than the work that Dennis and many of the rest of you in this room have done to take an idea and turn it into a living and significant reality.”