Harvard DPI201 The Responsibilities of Public Action

… one of the Reference Courses in Ethics, Rights, and Accountability

Click for syllabus

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Course description

The course examines two questions: (1) What should governments do? (2) What should public actors do? The first question requires us to consider public principles that guide good, just, and legitimate public policy. The second question requires us to consider the many and often competing obligations, commitments, and values that should guide public actors inside and outside government, particularly when there is disagreement about specifying and interpreting public principles, and disagreement about what is good, just, and legitimate public policy.


Arthur Applbaum (Section A, Fall 2015)


Those who seek to govern well are continually and inescapably confronted in their political, professional, and personal decisions with questions of value. This course is designed to provoke critical thinking about the moral challenges of public policymaking and the moral responsibilities of public actors in a democracy.

The conviction that guides both the course’s content and its pedagogy is that moral and political views can and should be grounded in reasons, and that reasoned changes of view are possible. Moreover, the course is premised on the view that although there are a number of ways in which questions of value might be explored, one of those ways—the methods of analytic philosophical thought—provides an important tool for the critical and reflective thinking that is necessary for successful governance. The course therefore provides regular practice in developing the skills of analytic moral reasoning, and invites reflection about one’s moral and political commitments through an ongoing engagement with classmates and authors (who may have different commitments).

DPI-201 is required for students in the Master of Public Policy program. Others may be admitted with permission of the instructor.

Requirements and evaluation

Class participation – You are expected to come to each session prepared to discuss the day’s assignment, readings and cases, and to make thoughtful contributions to the learning of your classmates. You are also expected to attend the Thursday tutorials conducted by Klemen Jaklic.

Study groups – You will be assigned to a study group of three or four students. Each study group will be in the same Thursday tutorial, and will have the same due date for the written arguments (see below). You are encouraged to meet regularly with your study group to prepare for class and to discuss your written assignments. Arthur will meet with each study group early in the semester. 

Moral reasoning quiz – For the second session, Friday, September 4, a written Moral Reasoning Quiz is due for all. This quiz is mandatory, and graded complete-incomplete. The quiz is to be posted to the course website by 12:00 pm.

Three daily questions – For each class meeting (except for the day the Moral Reasoning Quiz is due) you are required to briefly answer the Three Daily Questions in writing. Answers to the three questions are mandatory, and graded complete-incomplete. Your answers are to be posted to the course webpage by 12:00 pm. 

The first question always is “In what you read for today, what did you find most illuminating? Why?” The second question always is “In what you read for today, what did you find most puzzling? Why?” The third question is the daily topical assignment, which appears in the black box on the daily course assignment sheet. For example, the daily topical assignment for Wednesday, September 2 is:

“All things considered, is McGrail justified in voting for the death penalty? Why or why not? Is Johnson justified in voting against? Why or why not? Could one reconcile a “yes” answer to both questions? How?”

Your answers to the three daily questions should be no longer than a few sentences each. In a few sentences, you cannot possibly give a thorough, well-defended answer to the topical question, and a thorough, well-defended answer is not expected. You should, however, give the beginnings of a thoughtful answer.

You are encouraged to discuss the daily questions with your study group, but your answers must be your own work. In particular, you may not give an answer to the two “In what you read for today…” questions if you have not done the reading yourself. Instead, your answer should simply say, “I have not read enough for today to find something illuminating or puzzling.”

On the three days when you are submitting longer written arguments (see below), you do not need to submit answers to the Three Daily Questions. You may also skip four additional days without penalty (but the Moral Reasoning Quiz may not be skipped). In total, you are required to submit the Three Daily Questions 20 times.

Class participation and the timely completion of the Three Daily Questions and the Moral Reasoning Quiz account for one third of your course grade.

Written arguments – Three times during the semester, you are to prepare a 750-word written assignment in response to the daily topical assignment (the question in the black box on the daily course assignment sheet). This will be read first by Klemen, then by Arthur, and given a letter grade.You are encouraged to discuss your paper with members of your study group, but the writing of the paper must be entirely your own work. Members of your study group have the same due by dates, but you are not required to choose the same topic. Written arguments are due no later than 12:00 pm of the day in which its topic is considered. You may not submit a paper on a day later than the day for which it was assigned. Late assignments will not be accepted. You may submit papers somewhat earlier than the day for which its topic is assigned, subject to the constraint that your papers are distributed so that the first paper is on a topic discussed in class on or before Oct. 14, and the third paper is on a topic discussed in class on or after Nov.2. The written arguments count for one third of your course grade.

Final take-home examination – The final exercise will consist of essay questions that are to be answered in no more than 2,000 words in total. The examination will be available online on December 4 at 10:00 am and is due online on December 10 at 4:00 pm. Late examinations will be heavily penalized. The final exam counts for one third of your course grade.


Many of the conceptual readings ask you to stretch your mind in what might be an unaccustomed way. The challenge is worthwhile. Serious discussion about questions of value in public service requires at least some exposure to serious writings, both to build a conceptual vocabulary and to see examples of good moral reasoning. The readings have been selected not only for their importance, but also for their accessibility. Still, you will find some passages hard-going. Study questions are provided to guide you through the rough spots.

Readings for the course are available either on the course webpage at https://canvas.harvard.edu/courses/4532 or in books that have been ordered in paperback editions at the Harvard Coop.

We will read substantial portions of three books:

Arthur Isak Applbaum, Ethics for Adversaries: The Morality of Roles in Public and Professional Life (Princeton Univ. Press, 1999).

Dennis F. Thompson, Political Ethics and Public Office (Harvard Univ. Press, 1987).

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition (Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1999).


https://www.hks.harvard.edu/degrees/teaching-courses/course-listing/dpi-201-a, accessed 1 June 2015.

Link to syllabus uploaded to the Atlas


Topic-by-topic listing of topics and assigned readings

Topic 1:

Topic 2:

to come

Page created by: Ian Clark, last updated 2 June 2016.