Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics

The Center

The Thompson Legacy: In the early Eighties, the study of practical ethics began to assume an important place in teaching and research at Harvard. The growth of serious scholarship in practical ethics in a wide range of fields provided the impetus for a university-wide approach to the subject. In 1986, Harvard took its first significant steps in meeting this challenge when President Derek Bok founded a program in ethics and the professions, the University's first interfaculty initiative. For more than two decades, under the leadership of Dennis F. Thompson, the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy, the Center flourished, drawing teachers, scholars, students and distinguished speakers to its rich offerings of fellowships, public lectures, and conferences.

The intellectual heart of the Center's activities was the Faculty Fellowships in Ethics program. Outstanding teachers and scholars from Harvard and other leading institutions of higher education throughout the world joined the Center to pursue a year of study designed to develop their competence to teach and write about ethical issues in public and professional life. In 1990, to ensure the future of the Center's work, a fellowship program for graduate students was established. Both of these programs proved essential in seeding and sustaining ethics activities at Harvard and beyond and, in essence, helped create a world-wide community of scholars committed to giving ethics a prominent place in the curriculum and on the agenda of research. (See the Center's 20th anniversary report Ethics at Harvard 1987-2007.)

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The Lessig Challenge: In 2009, Lawrence Lessig, a distinguished professor of law and a former Fellow in Ethics, succeeded Dennis Thompson as director of the Center. In response to a mandate to expand the scope of the Center's work, and strengthen and extend its role as the core of ethics at Harvard, Lessig immediately launched the Research Lab ("The Lab"), a major initiative designed to address fundamental problems of ethics in a way that is of practical benefit to institutions of government and society around the world. As its first undertaking, the Lab is tackling the problem of "Institutional Corruption" from both an empirical and normative perspective. Over a five year period, a wide range of important institutions will be studied, with the ultimate goal of producing a set of practical tools they might use both to understand the dynamic of "institutional corruption" and to respond to it. A new structure of fellowships support the project and draw scholars and researchers from a wide range of disciplines across academia, industry, and government. Collaborative research that integrates the work of different fields promises to be a strong component of the Lab's work.

Application procedures for joining the Lab may be found here.