Amartya Sen talks about the importance of ethics in academe

From The Harvard Gazette:

Sen In 1976, in the education journal Change, President Derek Bok famously asked, “Can ethics be taught?” At the time, few universities and even fewer faculty specialized in ethics; philosophers rarely applied their moral insights to real-world problems; and doctors, lawyers, businesspersons, and policymakers usually had little or no ethics training, even as the world was becoming increasingly complicated in matters of often long-ranging moral import.

By 1986, though, Bok was starting an initiative that would ultimately help to change all that. He brought Dennis Thompson to Harvard as the founding director of the University Center for Ethics and the Professions, an institution that last week celebrated its 20th anniversary as the now-endowed Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics. A yearlong series of special events culminated over the weekend (May 19-20) with a conference that featured Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, Lamont University Professor and professor of economics and philosophy, giving the keynote address, and with the panel discussions “Justice: True in Theory but Not in Practice?” and “University Ethics” featuring pre-eminent scholars from the fields of law, medicine, government, politics, and philosophy.

Sen discussed a wide range of topics regarding ethics, a subject on which he said — paraphrasing Edmund Burke — “It is difficult to speak, and impossible to be silent.” He parsed how theory gives rise to practice, noting that “agreement on theory is not, in general, a prerequisite of agreement on policy” while at the same time, “a theory need not be so rigidly structured that it always guarantees an invariably definitive conclusion about the rightness of actions.” Recalling the French Revolution and America’s current war in Iraq, he noted that “the need for removing moral disagreement in theory may not, in fact, be compelling,” adding, “Indeed, the guillotine is not the only way of moving from theory to practice.”

More here.