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Remarks of President Lawrence H. Summers, Reception for Human Rights at Harvard

Cambridge, Massachusetts

This really is an overwhelming gathering. The number of people who are here, the range of topics represented, the extent of the range between those involved in immediate advocacy of issues of the day, and those involved in very fundamental philosophical thinking raised by human rights, is something that is very inspiring.

I would not claim to be an expert on your subject, but let me only share these three observations:

First, it seems to me this is a great example of what collaboration around the University is supposed to be like. We don’t have formal dictatorial structures; we have organic growth in which people come to things because they want to. And it turns out that there are a lot of things that they want to come to. We have regular faculty extensively involved, but much of the energy and creativity in what we do comes from those who are part of our community for only a year or less. We have programs that are anchored from within regular schools, but a great deal of energy comes from collaboration. It really is an example of the kinds of things that I wish the University were doing on more subjects of great social importance.

The second observation I would make is that I think the kind of work being done here will make a profound difference over time in the lives of millions and millions of people who, believe it or not, will never have heard of the Carr Center, or will never even have heard of Harvard University. Because ultimately, it actually is ideas that shape what happens in this world.

The longer I was in Washington, the more I came to recognize that while we all felt very important scrambling around, negotiating and planning and deciding and litigating and bargaining, the more we really were like wriggly snakes in a tunnel. And the position of that tunnel was set by a prevailing intellectual climate that was determined by what we all had studied when we were in college — and what those with whom we were speaking in other countries had studied and absorbed in their formative years. And it is the product of enterprises like this one that form the basis for the education of those who are young today, and the education that future generations will receive.

You know, I thought two years ago that it was basically a silly idea to speak of AIDS as a human rights issue. A public health issue, yes. An issue of profound moral concern, yes. But not an issue that went to basic questions of rights and entitlement. And I’ve learned that I was wrong.

I’ve learned that, just as Amartya Sen discovered years ago that thinking about shortages of food was exactly the wrong way to think about famines, thinking about the continuation and perpetuation and failure to act with respect to AIDS as a question of resource allocation was to miss something that was very fundamental in understanding the moral dimension of that problem.

I may have been, I’m sure I was, slow on the uptake. I know there are people in this room who’ve found me frustratingly slow on the uptake with respect to that principle. But I was not so slow as to be completely unrepresentative of a world policy community that is inactive on this problem. And that is just an illustration of why the kind of work, and writing, and thinking that’s done here is so important.

The salience of gender in discussions of development today, while utterly absent 20 years ago, is yet another example of the power of hard and rigorous and careful thinking to really make differences of life and death for large numbers of people.

The third thing, and last thing, I want to say is that what is particularly impressive to me about the work in this area that goes on at Harvard, and where it seems to me that the work in which many of you are engaged is an example to others who work on issues of enormous moral import, is that you are not satisfied to claim the moral high ground and the megaphone that an affiliation with Harvard provides, to clamor in the advocacy community for the outcomes that you prefer.

You recognize that it is the role of scholars in a university, yes, to be morally concerned, but that being morally concerned does not relieve you of the obligation — indeed, it imposes on you the greater obligation — to be logical, careful, rigorous, thoughtful, and balanced with respect to the analyses that you perform.

As part of some preparation for being here, I read Michael Ignatieff’s lectures on human rights published a couple of years ago, and was reminded of that very powerfully as Michael spoke of the lives that had been lost and the damage that had been done in the name of the enormously attractive principle of self-determination.

And in that intellectual honesty, I was reminded of how very important it is — and if universities don’t stand for this, no one else will — that it is precisely when problems and issues are most morally urgent that it is most important to think carefully and rigorously and systematically about them.

And that is why the work in which you are all engaged is so profoundly important, and so terrific as an example to all of us in the University community. Thank you.

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