Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics

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The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics is a center at Harvard University. It seeks "to advance teaching and research on ethical issues in public life." [1] It is named for Edmond J. Safra.

Founded as the Program in Ethics and the Professions in 1986, the Center has supported the work of more than 500 fellows and visiting scholars, most whom have spent a year or more at the Center.[2] They include professors, graduate students, and undergraduates, journalists, physicians, lawyers, psychologists from many educational institutions and governments in the US and throughout the world.

The Center does not promote a particular theory or conception of ethics or morality but rather encourages rigorous study of difficult ethical issues, informed by empirical research and philosophical analysis. Although the range of topics studied by fellows range widely, major themes have included professional ethics, institutional corruption, and most recently “Diversity, Justice and Democracy.”

Former fellows have gone on to start centers at Princeton (The Center for Human Values), Duke (Kenan Institute for Ethics),Toronto (Centre for Ethics), among many other institutions. The Harvard Center helped establish a sister institution, the Safra Center at Tel Aviv University. The Harvard Center took the lead in creating the first international association devoted to ethics in public life, the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics.


The current director of the Center is Danielle Allen, who was appointed in 2015. She succeeded Lawrence Lessig, who served from 2009-2105. Dennis Thompson, appointed by President Derek Bok in 1986, is the founding director.

Harvard faculty who were key contributors to the Center include John Rawls, Kenneth Ryan, Amartya Sen, Thomas Scanlon, Martha Minow and Michael Sandel. More than 50 Havard faculty from all the schools at the university have been active in the Center.


Harvard President Derek Bok argued that there was a pressing need for “problem-oriented courses in ethics” that would prepare students for the moral dilemmas and ethical decisions they would face throughout their careers.[3] By his own account, he could not make much progress on meeting this need until he recruited Dennis Thompson, then a professor at Princeton, to come to Harvard to start a new program.[4][5]

With its decentralized structure, Harvard was not friendly to interfaculty initiatives, but with the support of key faculty and several deans, Thompson created what was then called the Program in Ethics and the Professions. It was Harvard’s first major interfaculty initiative. In 1990, a graduate fellows program was established, led by Arthur Applbaum, a fellow in the first class and now a professor of ethics at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Thompson worked with Bok, and subsequent Harvard Presidents Neil Rudenstine, and Lawrence Summers to raise funds to support the growing activities of the ethics effort. The Program grew into a Center, and now has an endowment worth more than $55 million. The major benefactors are the Edmond J. Safra Foundation {format with hyperlink} and the estate of Lester Kissel. Others include: Eugene P. Beard, and the American Express Foundation.

Commenting on the Center after 20 years, Bok observed, “One of the best new developments in professional education is the wide and growing interest in resolving problems of ethics. Harvard’s Center was instrumental in this effort, and it has exceeded even my own optimistic expectations.”[6]

When Thompson stepped down after 20 years as director, Lawrence Lessig, a prominent scholar of Internet law at Stanford, was appointed to lead the Center.[7] He had been a fellow in the Center in 1996-97 where he developed his ideas on Internet law. As director, Lessig led the Center in a campaign against institutional corruption (also a theme in the early work of the Center). He took the campaign to the public, and ran for President of the U.S. in 2015. In 2011, the Center announced a partnership with InnoCentive "seeking innovative systems to monitor institutions for potential signs of corrupting forces." [8]

After Lessig resigned in 2015, President Drew Faust launched another national search, which resulted in the appointed of Danielle Allen, a distinguished political theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.[9] Her vision “melds the program from the Thompson era and that of the Lessig era” into a larger endeavor to “create a body of work targeted at real world problems that will be worthy of broad dissemination and will support innovation in practical efforts to solve problems of public and professional ethics.”

Notable Fellows and Alumni[edit]

Solomon Benatar, founding director, University of Cape Town Bioethics Centre, and formerly Head, Department of Medicine, UCT and Groote Schuur Hospital

Rajeev Bhargava, former Director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi

Troy Brennan, Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, CVS Health

Ezekiel Emanuel, founding chair of Department of Bioethics, National Institutes of Health, now Chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Heather Gerken, legal adviser to Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012, and Professor of Law, Yale University

Amy Gutmann, founder of Princeton University Center for Human Values, now President of University of Pennsylvania

Chris Hayes, political commentator and TV show host on MSNBC [10]

Elizabeth Kiss, founder of Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University, and now President of Agnes Scott College

Lisa Lehman, Executive Director, National Center for Ethics in Health Care, US Department of Veterans Affairs

Sanford Levinson, well known constitutional commentator, Professor of Law, University of Texas

Robert Massie, Episcopal priest, politician, author, and environmental activist, and one time candidate for Lt Governor in Massachusetts

Jerry Menikoff, Director, Office for Human Research Protections, Department of Health and Human Services

Michael Morisy, founder of Muckrock.com, a service that allows people file, track, and share FOIA requests

Richard Pildes, NBC and ABC commentator on elections, and professor of law, New York University

Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

Jedediah Purdy, best selling author and professor of Law, Duke University

Angela Smith, founding Director of the Roger Mudd Center for Ethics, Washington and Lee University.

Yael Tamir, former Minister of Education in Israeli government

Melissa Williams, founder of Centre for Ethics, University of Toronto


  1. ^ "Mission". Ethics.harvard.edu. Retrieved 2013-09-16. 
  2. ^ Gudrais, Elizabeth (May 2007). "Ethics in Practice". Harvard Magazine. 
  3. ^ Bok, Derek (October 1976). "Can Ethics Be Taught?". Choice Magazine 8 (9): 26–30. 
  4. ^ "Director of New Interfaculty Program on Ethics Appointed". Harvard University Gazette. April 11, 1986. 
  5. ^ Winkler, Karen (July 20, 1988). "Harvard Program for Study of Professional Ethics Aims to Advance Scholarly Research in the Field". Chronicle of Higher Education. 
  6. ^ "History". 
  7. ^ "Lawrence Lessig receives two Harvard appointments". Harvard University Gazette. December 18, 2008. 
  8. ^ "Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics Partners with InnoCentive to Identify Systems to Monitor Institutional Corruption". Innocentive.com. Retrieved 2013-09-16. 
  9. ^ "Danielle Allen named to Harvard posts". Harvard University Gazette. December 18, 2014. 
  10. ^ "Chris Hayes Moves To MSNBC Weeknights". Deadline.com. Retrieved 2013-09-16. 

External links[edit]