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                      should be a central part of any professor’s professional commitments (the job, after all, is named after acts of professing), and philosophy has a lot to contribute to educational efforts at any stage of a person’s life. Questions about how we ought to live, individually and in collectives, are often pushed to the side when other challenges take over. But we are doing this at our own peril. Individual lives can take different courses and human living arrangements can take on any number of shapes. Too much is at stake here not to subject these different possibilities to careful scrutiny, and choosing between them inevitably involves value judgments. Enter philosophy. 


Sample Classes:

Harvard Kennedy School, The Responsibilities of Public Action (DPI 201)        


Teaching ethics at a professional school is rather different from teaching it in the college or in a PhD program. Professional life is full of ethical challenges, but the practitioner must face them from within a professional role and as part of a normative environment that puts constraints on what she is authorized to do. The Harvard Kennedy School takes seriously the importance of normative thinking in the lives of public officials as well as in the lives of those who work for the public good. A class in professional ethics is therefore required for the Master of Public Policy program. Students may enter this class thinking that ethical judgements is just a matter of subjective choice; but while choice does play a role at some level, clear-mindedness is needed to see through the complexities of normative issues, and such clear-mindedness can be learned and taught. Or students may see themselves as technocrats in their future lives as professionals who will mostly take orders from their superiors. But barely any professional role would be purely technocratic: there are always choices to be made that must be justified to those who are supposed to accept them. Moreover, even subordinate roles can be rather complex, for instance, if loyalty to a superior comes apart from loyalty to the institution. Students may also think that being a good person suffices to make them good practitioners. However, the complexities of professional life with its own demands and dilemmas belies this assumption. The Kennedy School’s require course on professional ethics (DPI-201) develops in students the capacity for exercising genuine moral agency in their professional lives. It teaches students how to engage in strategic ethics in the course of practicing public service and creating public value throughout their careers.

Harvard Kennedy School, Ethics and Global Governance (IGA 135)

Ethical questions are often at the core of policy disputes, both at the domestic level and at the global level. This course seeks to introduce students to the ethical aspects of some major problems in global governance. Topics include foundations of ethical theory, human rights, intervention, climate change, immigration and trade. Background readings come mostly from moral philosophy, political theory and political science.  A typical session pays special attention to a particular policy area in the international domain and thereby combines philosophical inquiry with applied questions. So as opposed to The Responsibilities of Public Action, this course is not so much about professional ethics (thus thinking through obligations that arise in specific roles in public life), but instead it’s a course about principled questions about global justice/global governance.



Harvard College, General Education program, The Meaning of Life (ER 38)


Teaching in a PhD program means to teach students who would like to become professor themselves at the next stage. Teaching at a professional school means teaching students who have already chosen a certain domain for their careers and come to get additional input to help them advance their careers. Liberal arts education, by way of contrast, does two things. It introduces students to serious intellectual inquiry by treating them as junior partners in a range of academic fields even though it is understood that they will not actually “join” most or any of these fields in any professional sense. Secondly, it offers intellectual input into their development as human beings and citizens, both citizens of their country and (more figuratively) citizens of the world. Harvard’s general education program is designed to pursue the second task, aiming to help students live wisely in the world. A course on the Meaning of Life is rather suitable along that dimension.


Many of us have good reasons for doing this or that, making this decision rather than that, choosing this path over another, etc. There is often a point to these choices that we can identify, and sometimes have thought hard about. But is there a point, is there significance to life as a whole? That is the question about the “meaning of life.” Though the question is notoriously hard to make precise, one way or another it has animated much literature and art, and also much philosophy. Some philosophers have provided disheartening answers: life is suffering, and then it ends; life is absurd, and never gains any meaning; life is all about creating hell for each other, and we cannot escape. But other philosophers have provided more uplifting answers to support the quest for personal significance. Both kinds of answers deserve scrutiny. Such scrutiny should be of interest to anybody who wishes  to reflect  on  her/his  life  as  a  whole  as  part  of her/his education. After reviewing several pessimistic and more optimistic approaches to the meaning of life we turn to the subject of death. We will all die eventually. We normally encounter death among family and friends before we must deal with our own. These themes too are the subject of philosophical reflection. The class finishes with a discussion of an important set of lectures on the topics of this course by a contemporary philosopher. This class is wide-ranging, and will integrate historical figures, references to art and literature as well as to science as appropriate. But its main focus is on contributions by recent thinkers in  the  Anglo-American  analytical tradition of philosophy. The methodology is philosophical. There is much exciting material to be encountered here that combines intellectual depth with valuable personal advice.

Harvard College, General Education program, Economic Justice (ER 41)

This another course offered through the general education curriculum. In the past Mathias Risse has also offered general education courses on A Philosophical Introduction to Human Rights and The Just World. The present course is about capitalism vs. socialism, and one can think of it as a course addressing the concerns of the “Occupy” movement.


Capitalism organizes society around individual pursuits of material gain. Capitalism seems to have won the great ideological struggle with other ways of organizing society. But there is much discontent: the Occupy Movement made clear that even Americans now care about excessive inequality, and many worry about the future in an increasingly economically divided society where access to technology richly rewards some to the exclusion of many others. Capitalism is also closely associated with what is arguably the biggest policy problem of the 21st century: climate change. So how can we justify capitalism? What are feasible alternative ways of organizing society? This class begins with an assessment of the current crisis and explores a range of influential arguments for capitalism. Then we turn to socialist/communist approaches focusing on some of the more influential writings of Karl Marx. Finally, we explore the liberal egalitarianism of John Rawls. The debate about capitalism and its alternatives (and about what capitalism might learn from those) addresses the central political and social concerns of our times, and therefore offers a highly suitable way of satisfying the general education requirement in ethical reasoning.  This class offers an in-depth encounter with the major positions in that debate and thereby prepares students to participate in that debate in an informed way.  While the first three lectures explore the current predicament and focus on social-scientific readings, the methodological outlook of the class is philosophical. Nonetheless, our concern is always with questions that shape political agendas now and in the foreseeable future.

Harvard College, Freshmen Seminar on Friedrich Nietzsche


The freshmen seminar program offers classes specifically to the incoming class in Harvard College. It is a great way of facilitating interaction between faculty members and the newest members of the university community, and it gives freshmen the opportunity a way “in” to their new environment by way of exploring a subject they have always meant to engage with or that simply strikes their fancy. Nietzsche has long been a popular philosopher among young people because of his willingness to think through big and difficult questions in a rather unorthodox and to this day very unsettling manner.


Nietzsche addresses some of the big questions of human existence in a profoundly searching but often disturbing manner that continues to resonate with many. Hardly any philosopher (except Karl Marx) has exercised such a far-reaching and penetrating impact on intellectual life in the last 150 years or so. He has influenced thinkers and activists across the political spectrum. Nietzsche has always been of special interest to young people who have often appreciated the irreverence and freshness of his thought, as well as the often very high literary quality of his writing. In this course, we explore Nietzsche's moral and political philosophy with emphasis on the themes he develops in his best-known and most accessible work, The Genealogy of Morality.  The best-known themes from this book inlcude the slave rebellion in morality, ressentiment, bad conscience, and ascetic ideals. However, we also read several other of Nietzsche’s works, and do so chronologically (except that we begin with his auto-biography, Ecce Homo, which Nietzsche wrote briefly before his mental collapse in 1889).  The others works include The Birth of Tragedy, The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, and The Antichrist. We do not read any secondary literature, though the instructor will recommend such literature as appropriate. The point is to become familiar with Nietzsche’s writings themselves and to engage with his thought.



Harvard Extension School, seminar on Human Rights and International Politics


The Harvard Extension School offers education opportunities specifically for students who have taken non-traditional educational trajectories in their lives and wish to add more course work or a degree to those trajectories. Many extension school students pursue their degrees while working full time, and quite a number of them regularly travel to Cambridge from other parts of the country to take these classes. This seminar on human rights has been offered for a number of years as part of the extension school curriculum.


The idea of human rights has driven revolutions and progress for two hundred years. Its history encompasses the abolition of slavery and the introduction of women’s rights as well as our failure to prevent the Rwandan Genocide. It played a significant role in the founding of the United Nations and has found a new relevance in the last two decades with terrorism, torture and the interventions from the Balkans to Afghanistan. At the same time, the universalistic aspirations behind the human rights movements have long been attacked as ethno-centric, philosophically incoherent, and unrealistic. This course explores the ways in which the rhetoric of human rights has evolved and how it can be defended, and contrasts these themes with the political reality of human-rights-related institutions and the difficulties facing actors charged with the realization of human rights. The course is designed to provide practitioners, scholars, and policy-makers with a firm grounding in the concepts and institutions of modern human rights, prepare them to answer skeptics and critics (including skeptics and critics “on the ground”) and provide a strong understanding of the practice of human rights, its failures and its many successes. Part I involves an interrogation of the idea of human rights; Part II deals with questions that arise about the realization of human rights.

Meaning of Life
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