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MIT holds ethics discourses

This article incorrectly stats that the Dalai Lama has visited the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT three times. He has only visited twice. This article also incorrectly says that Ethics Initiative talks involve approximately 15 students — it is actually closer to 25–30. In addition, these talks are made available on MIT World, not MIT OpenCourseware.

“MIT requires a swim test to graduate but no formal course in ethics,” notes Manish Bhardwaj, a Fellow at The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT.

Founded in April 2009, the Center, a “collaborative think tank”, aims to promote dialogue between students and faculty about ethics and researches the ethical implications of policies worldwide. Honoring the vision of the 14th Dalai Lama, the Center also investigates how his ideas regarding secular ethics can be incorporated in education.

Although the Center — housed in the MIT Office of Religious Life (W1) building — is small, Founding Director Tenzin Priyadarshi says that its impact has been large. “People often come into my office and they say with two computers, three phone sets, you run the world from here,” Priyadarshi said.

The Center has big-name support — six Nobel Peace Laureates, including the Dalai Lama, serve as Honorary members who guide the Center’s overall work and mission. The Dalai Lama himself has visited three times.

Nineteen MIT faculty members from across the Institute comprise the Center’s steering committee. Course 1 professor Edward DeLong believes he provides an “interface between the activities of the Center and student life on campus.” These faculty members organize and participate in activities to promote ethical discussions with students.


Take the the Ethics Initiative talks. Often held in Simmons Hall, these roundtable discussions involve approximately 15 students and two or three high profile speakers.

Past participants have included former MIT Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75, who discussed fiscal responsibility, and best-selling author Rebecca Skloot, who focused on the ethics of research on human biological materials. Some talks are videotaped and made available on MIT OpenCourseware.

DeLong feels these talks make people aware of the technical aspects of the ethical issues. As a past participant in talks about climate change policy and geoengineering, DeLong is interested in the responsibility humans have in environmental “stewardship.”

The Ethics Initiative open sessions involve back and forth conversations between students and professors. These talks can end in policy proposals, but students also periodically pick up an idea for a project, paper, or competition like the MIT 100K. “It’s about people coming together and collaborating on these projects,” said Bhardwaj.

The Center also holds conferences in an effort to reach a larger audience. The Dalai Lama delivered a talk at Kresge Auditorium in April 2009 on Ethics and Enlightened Leadership with over 7,000 attendees. An October 2011 Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges at Wong Auditorium had speakers from healthcare, education, and other disciplines.

According to Bhardwaj, the absence of ethical education can be troubling. Universities can “produce people who get into the habit of reductionist thinking,” said Bhardwaj. Himself a PhD in Course 6 from MIT, he observes that many academicians are ill-prepared for ethical problems and try to reduce them to some sort of number or metric.

Bhardwaj hopes that he and the other Dalai Lama Fellows can share their experiences and help make ethics a less abstract concept. “How do you decide to prioritize who gets your services first? What criteria do you pick to move a patient to the front of the line?”

The Center says it is developing programs to train students to think originally and critically about such questions.

The Center ran a three-day long “Transformative Leadership Workshops” for forty Sloan MBA students in October 2009 and January and March 2010. According to Priyadarshi, the workshop encouraged participants to focus on their originality, asking them “[Why do] we try to imitate? What is unique that I can bring forth?” An identical program was also offered at the Yale School of Management.

The Center also supports activities abroad through satellite centers in New Delhi, India; Mexico City, and Rome. An ethics center has been established in Mexico and is working with several leading universities there. Additionally, the Center has also been assisting with a leadership development program in Varanasi, India.

MIT Sloan MBA students are working with 98 Indian students of traditional medicine to design a program to provide education in the slums. Priyadarshi said that the Indian students have the “passion and vision and value” and the MIT MBA students have the “know how.”

Last year, 200,000 people gathered outside Central Park to listen to the Dalai Lama. “They’re not all Buddhists. The goal is to instill a basic set of human values,” Priyadarshi said. “If you think of an ethical framework … [you] enhance your productivity and sense of direction.”