Dennis Frank Thompson
Dennis Frank Thompson (born 12 May 1940 in Hamilton, Ohio) is a political scientist and professor at Harvard University, where he founded the university-wide Center for Ethics and the Professions (now the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics). Thompson is known for his pioneering work in the field of political ethics and democratic theory.
Thompson is a leading proponent of the institutional approach to political ethics, which gives less attention to individual vices (such as greed and sexual misconduct) and more to institutional ones (such as abuse of power and neglect of accountability). The approach has stimulated new work on institutional corruption. His proposal to establish an independent body to regulate congressional ethics has been widely endorsed, though not by many members of the United States Congress. However, in March 2008 the U.S. House created a pared down version of such a body--the Office of Congressional Ethics. His work on democratic theory (some of it co-authored with Amy Gutmann) has been influential in promoting the idea of deliberative democracy, which calls for more reasoned discourse in public life.
Thompson has served as a consultant to the Joint Ethics Committee of the South African Parliament, the American Medical Association, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Department of Health and Human Services. In 1990-91, he worked closely with Robert S. Bennett, then the Special Counsel for the Senate Ethics Committee in the investigation of the so-called “Keating Five.” In 1990 he helped found the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, from which he received a lifetime achievement award in 2010. In 1994 he was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Starting in 1994, Thompson served for ten years as a member of the Board of Trustees of Smith College, the last five as vice-chair. He is a founding member of the editorial boards of Philosophy and Public Affairs and Political Theory. He was a member of the Institute of Medicine's national committee that published the influential report on "Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education, and Practice" in 2009.
In 2007, Thompson stepped down as director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics. His successor is Lawrence Lessig, a prominent law professor who had been a Fellow in the Center ten years earlier.
Thompson graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1962 and won a Fulbright Fellowship to Oxford University, where he took a “first” in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard in 1968. He taught for 18 years at Princeton University before returning to Harvard as the Alfred North Whitehead Professor in 1986. At Harvard, he served as Associate Provost (1996–2001) and the Senior Adviser to Lawrence Summers, the President of the University (from 2001–04).
In 1986, with the support of then President Derek Bok, Thompson created the Ethics Center to encourage more and better teaching and research in ethical issues in the professions and public life. More than 200 Fellows, faculty and graduate students selected from universities throughout the nation and several foreign countries, have completed a year in the Center. Although the Center has helped many other universities establish similar programs, the ethics movement has not been without its critics, some of whom argue that in college and professional school it is too late to teach people to be ethical.
Thompson’s first book on democratic theory, The Democratic Citizen: Social Science and Democratic Theory in the 20th Century, published in 1970, was one of the first to relate contemporary social science to theories of democracy. His major book on deliberative democracy, Democracy and Disagreement, co-authored with Amy Gutmann, still provokes controversy, including an entire book of critics and defenders (Deliberative Politics, edited by Stephen Macedo). Some critics object that deliberative democracy is biased in favor of political elites. Defenders argue that more and better political deliberation can help all citizens.
Thompson has worked to apply the ideas of deliberative democracy to such institutions as the U.S. electoral process, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, and the healthcare bodies in the United Kingdom.
- The Democratic Citizen: Social Science and Democratic Theory in the 20th Century (1970)
- John Stuart Mill and Representative Government (1976)
- Political Ethics and Public Office (1987)
- Ethics in Congress: From Individual to Institutional Corruption (1995)
- Democracy and Disagreement [with Amy Gutmann] (1996)
- Redeeming American Political Thought: Collected Essays of Judith Shklar [with Stanley Hoffman] (1997)
- Truth versus Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions [with Robert Rotberg] (2000)
- Just Elections: Creating a Fair Electoral Process in the U.S. (2002)
- Why Deliberative Democracy? [with Amy Gutmann] (2004)
- Restoring Responsibility: Ethics in Government, Business and Healthcare (2004)
- Ethics and Politics: Cases and Comments [with Amy Gutmann] (fourth edition, 2005).
- The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It [with Amy Gutmann] (2012)
- Government Department, Harvard University
- Kennedy School, Harvard University
- Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics, Harvard University