is Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, His work primarily addresses questions of global justice ranging from human rights, inequality, taxation, trade and immigration to climate change, obligations to future generations and the future of technology. He has also worked on questions in ethics, decision theory and 19th century German philosophy, especially Nietzsche. In addition to the Harvard Kennedy School, he teaches in Harvard College and the Harvard Extension School, and he is affiliated with the Harvard philosophy department. He has also been involved with executive education both at Harvard and in collaboration with international organizations.
Risse serves as Co-Director of Graduate Studies at the Edmond J Safra Center for Ethics, as well as Director of the McCloy program, a distinguished fellowship program for German students. He is also affiliated with the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Risse has been the organizer of a number of major international conferences at Harvard and a co-organizer of several more such events in East and South East Asia (Singapore, Seoul and Shanghai), as a way of fostering collaboration among political philosophers and representatives of other fields across cultural divides. He has been a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore, New York University Abu Dhabi and Leuphana University in Germany. Risse grew up in a village in Westphalia, Germany. He studied in Bielefeld, Pittsburgh and Jerusalem, and received his PhD from Princeton in 2000. He taught in the Department of Philosophy at Yale before coming to Harvard in 2002. He lived in Harvard's Eliot House for six years, and now resides in Davis Square.
Education and Career
Risse was born in Paderborn, Germany, passing his Abitur at the Gymnasium Theodorianum in 1990, with specialization in German and English literature. That same year he started studying philosophy and mathematics at the University of Bielefeld (where he worked with Wolfgang Spohn, a philosopher of science and epistemologist, and Rüdiger Bittner, a moral philosopher and Kant specialist), eventually receiving a master’s degree in mathematics (Diplom) there in 1996 with a thesis in game theory supervised by Joachim Rosenmüller. He first came to the United States in 1993 as a visiting scholar in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, where he worked with moral philosophers Kurt Baier and David Gauthier, with philosophers of science John Earman and Wesley Salmon, as well as with future Nobel Laureate Alvin Roth in economics. The following year he spent at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, working with future Nobel Laureate Robert Aumann at the Center for Rationality and Interactive Decision Sciences on epistemic foundations of game theory. He entered the PhD program in philosophy at Princeton in 1995 and eventually wrote a thesis on collective rationality under supervision of decision theorist Richard Jeffrey and philosopher-of-mathematics Paul Benacerraf. Having received the PhD in 2000, Risse took a job as Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Yale that same year. He came to Harvard in 2002 and was promoted to associate professor in 2005 and to full professor in 2010. He became an American citizen in 2008 but kept his German citizenship.
Overall, Risse is interested in the “big questions” of political and moral philosophy. He approaches them as a philosopher trained in the analytical tradition but also with a keen interest in history, social sciences and public policy. In his research, Risse explores normative questions that arise in an era of increasing political and economic interconnectedness. His book On Global Justice makes a balanced proposal for how to think about justice at the global level (“grounds-of-justice” approach), and thinks through the implications for a range of topics, from immigration and climate change to human rights and future generations. The grounds-of-justice approach opens space “in between" the classical dichotomy according to which principles of justice either apply only within the state, or else apply globally, either because they apply to the global political and economic order, or else because they apply to all human beings in virtue of being human. Instead, On Global Justice develops a view called pluralist internationalism, according to which there are different grounds of justice that individuals may or may not share, such that those who share such a ground are people to whom the distribution of certain goods must be justifiable. Principles of justice then are those principles that fulfill that role, and they will vary with the specific grounds. While this is an unorthodox approach to thinking about justice, what is most distinctly novel about all this is that among these grounds of justice is shared ownership of the earth. His book Global Political Philosophy that appeared in the same year is an introduction to political philosophy from a global standpoint.
On Trade Justice: A Philosophical Plea for a New Global Deal, a joint project with Gabriel Wollner at the University of Bayreuth, offers a novel account of trade justice that makes ideas about exploitation central. The book gives pride of place to philosophical ideas about global justice but also contributing to moral disputes about practical questions. On Trade justice is a philosophical plea for a new global deal, in continuation of, but also at appropriate distance to, postwar efforts to design a fair global-governance system in the spirit of the American New Deal of the 1930s. Finally, On Justice: Philosophy, History, Foundations is a large-scale investigation of the concept of justice and of what it is that philosphers do when they articulate views about justice. Though in recent decades much attention has been paid to different principles of justice, little work has been done reflecting on what the larger concern behind the notion is. The perennial quest for justice, I propose, is about making sure each individual has an appropriate place in what our uniquely human capacities permit us to build, produce and maintain and is respected appropriately for her capacities to hold such a place to begin with. I first investigate the role of political philosophers and explore how to think about the global context where philosophical inquiry occurs. Secondly, I offer a quasi-historical narrative about how the notion of distributive justice identifies a genuinely human concern that arises independently of cultural context and has developed into the one we should take ourselves as having now. Thirdly, I offer an analytical investigation of the core terms of this view, such as stringency, moral value, ground and duties of justice.
Risse has published extensively in top academic journals (such as Ethics, Philosophy & Public Affairs, Journal of Political Philosophy, Nous, European Journal of Philosophy, etc.) on questions of political philosophy, but also on ethics, decision theory and social choice theory. Some of his earlier work was distinctive mathematical in nature, exploring different models of collective decision making and their philosophical implications. In addition, he has a long-standing research interest in German 19th century philosophy, especially the work of Friedrich Nietzsche (whom he considers a critical interlocutor on questions he writes on). While among philosophers co-authored work is much rarer than in the social sciences, Risse tries to do co-authored work wherever possible since much more can get done that way. His co-authors include Michael Blake, Matthias Hild, Richard Jeffrey, Malgorzata Kurjanska, Steven Livingston, Marco Meyer, John W. Meyer and Gabriel Wollner.
In recent times, Risse’s focus has been on ethical and human-rights-related challenges that come out of technological innovation, especially related to artificial intelligence. This is a line of work he pursued in particular in his his capacity as the Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
Risse greatly enjoys teaching and over the years has developed or contributed to the development of many different courses in political philosophy, ethics, and 19th century German philosophy. At the Kennedy School he regularly offers courses on professional ethics as well as political philosophy with a global orientation. Over the years he has also offered various courses in the general education curriculum of Harvard College, most recently on The Meaning of Life and on Economic Justice. He also teaches a freshman seminar on Nietzsche. In addition, he regularly offers courses on human rights and global governance in the Harvard Extension School. In recent times he also become more involved with executive education. In particular, he chairs an executive program for Members of the German Parliament (the Bundestag) that the Harvard Kennedy School conducts jointly with the Bosch Foundation.