Roger Rosenblatt in conversation. with Derek and Sissela Bok. Although moral philosophy has an important place in life, it is often overlooked. People ask legal questions and political questions, but they do not always ask moral questions, said Sissela Bok, author of Exploring Happiness, during Tuesday’s morning lecture series in the Amphitheater. “It’s so important for people to ask moral questions with respect to, for example, our president and what political candidates are doing,” she said. Sissela and Derek Bok were scheduled to give Thursday’s morning lecture but instead replaced Jules Feiffer, award-winning cartoonist and author, who was originally slated to appear Tuesday but whose flight had been canceled. The conversation between Roger Rosenblatt and the Boks focused on moral education, writing about happiness in times of mourning, and the government’s involvement in happiness. After a brief discussion about moral philosophy’s place in life, the Boks expressed their thoughts on the possibility of moral education. “One of the things that surprised me as an educator is how many faculty members shy away from the idea of moral education,” Derek said. Some believe that people either have ethics or do not by the time they go to college. Derek argues that college years are critical in forming moral values and that people continue to grow ethically during that time. Many people want to be good, Derek said, but it is difficult to understand moral issues when they arise. “You can teach people to think more clearly about ethical issues,” he said. “I don’t think you can teach them to act on their ethical answers to put their principles into practice.” Rosenblatt asked whether diversity counters moral education. Sissela said it teaches people what they should value regarding ethics. Values about violence, deception, lying and secrecy are diverse. Every society has developed basic fundamental values, she said. “The sad thing is that most societies and most religions have also not developed that same understanding with respect to others,” Sissela said. She said stories, literature and poetry also play a role in moral education. Shortly after Sept. 11, Michael Dirda of The Washington Post wrote a letter to Sissela and other writers asking for book recommendations that would comfort readers. But after such devastation, Sissela found she couldn’t go on writing chapters about happiness. She turned to Michel de Montaigne’s essays, which encouraged her to continue. Montaigne wrote about living through the plague sweeping Europe and religious wars between Protestants and Catholics. Despite such tragic events, he focused on the importance of happiness and the importance of concentrating on the small things that matter in life. Happiness also affects concepts besides writing and literature. Toward the end of the lecture, Rosenblatt asked Derek whether government should be involved in the “happiness business.” “I think that actually there are overpowering arguments why the government needs to pay attention to happiness and look for evidence of how to improve happiness in any way they can,” Derek said. First, happiness is the goal people want to achieve most. In a democracy, the goal of the majority commands respect. Second, empirical studies find that happy people are good for society, Derek said. They are better workers, vote more often, are more civically active and want to help others more. “The happier you are, the more you end up contributing,” Derek said. Evidence shows that of the 15 happiest countries in the world, almost all have been viable democracies for more than 80 years, Derek said. The condition, liberties and rule of law in democracies are all important ingredients of people’s happiness. But finding happiness is not limited to a democracy. “Even in societies that are autocratic, you do find people on a whole are more happy than not,” Derek said. “They find a way to achieve happiness under difficult conditions.”"
Derek Bok has been a lawyer and professor of law, dean of Harvard Law School and 25th president of Harvard
University. Currently, he is the 300th Anniversary University Research Professor in the John F. Kennedy School
of Government at Harvard, where his research focuses on the state of higher education and the adequacy of the
U.S. government in coping with the nation's domestic problems. His three books on this subject are The State
of the Nation, The Trouble with Government, and, most recently, The Politics of Happiness.
Bok has written six books on higher education: Beyond the Ivory Tower, Higher Learning, Universities and the
Future of America, The Shape of the River, Universities in the Marketplace, and Our Underachieving Colleges.
He serves as chair of the board of the Spencer Foundation and was formerly chair of Common Cause.
After receiving a bachelor's degree from Stanford University, Bok earned his law degree from Harvard Law School
and a master's degree in economics from George Washington University. Following law school, he was named a Fulbright
Scholar and studied at the University of Paris' Institute of Political Science.
Sissela Bok is senior visiting fellow at the Harvard Center for
Population and Development Studies, and a moral philosopher of
international renown. Her many books include the seminal Lying, Secrets, A Strategy for Peace, Mayhem, Common Values and, most recently, Exploring Happiness.
A former member of the Pulitzer Prize Board, Bok is a fellow of the
American Academy of Political and Social Science and sits on the
editorial boards of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Common Knowledge and Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. She has also taught at Brandeis University.
Bok is the daughter of two Nobel laureates: Gunnar Myrdal, awarded the
economics prize in 1974, and Alva Myrdal, awarded the peace prize in
1982. She was born in Sweden and educated in Switzerland and France
before coming to the United States. She received her bachelor's and
master's degrees in psychology at the George Washington University, and
her Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard University.
Roger Rosenblatt is a journalist, author, playwright, and teacher. William Safire of the New York Times wrote that his work represents "some of the most profound and stylish writing in America today." His television essays for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS have won a Peabody and an Emmy award. His essays for TIME magazine have won two George Polk Awards, awards from the American Bar Association, the Overseas Press Club, and others.
Rosenblatt's journalism career began in 1975 as literary editor of The New Republic. He has also been a columnist and editor-at-large for Life magazine, the editor of U.S. News & World Report, a columnist and editorial board member of The Washington Post and editor-at-large of TIME, Inc. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, Esquire and elsewhere.
He is the author of ten books, including a collection of his writings, The Man in the Water, Coming Apart: A Memoir of the Harvard Wars of 1969, and the national bestseller, Rules for Aging. His book Children of War (1983) won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His most recent book, Lapham Rising (2006), his first novel, was loosely based on the lecture he delivered on major trends of the 20th century at Chautauqua in 2004.
Rosenblatt is currently a professor in the English department at Stony Brook University, where he teaches in the writing program at Stony Brook Southampton. He was most recently the Edward R. Murrow Visiting Professor of the Practice of the Press and Public Policy at Harvard University and held the Parsons Family Chair at the Southampton graduate campus of Long Island University.