Jul 022018
 July 2, 2018  Tagged with: ,

Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are far more prevalent than the average person realizes writes Dr. Ruth Grantsenior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics and Duke University professor of political science and philosophy, in a new Wall Street Journal op-ed piece. In addition to their abundance, she says, “NDAs, aren’t limited to allegations of sexual misconduct,” such as the recent and very public case of Stormy Daniels. “Often they involve public money. The agreements regularly undermine the accountability of the powerful and protection for the public.”

Among some promising recent measures are laws in several states prohibiting NDAs if they conceal “public hazards,” such as dangers to general health or safety. “Accountability requires transparency,” says Grant, “as more policymakers are realizing—and there is public harm in allowing defective products to stay on the market, masking sexual predators or restraining whistleblowers.”

Read her WSJ op-ed here: https://on.wsj.com/2lPjmcI

Jun 262018
 June 26, 2018

Disagreements among people have existed as long as humans have, but the inability of opposing sides to compromise with one another seems epidemic today. Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, a new book by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Chauncey Stillman Professor in Practical Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, reveals the benefits that sound, fair arguments grounded in mutual understanding can have.

Particularly on social media platforms such as Twitter, arguments seem to increasingly function as a means to both satisfy one’s allies and jab one’s opponents publicly. In contrast, “reasonable arguments” says Sinnott-Armstrong, “can create more mutual understanding and respect, and even if neither party is convinced by the other, compromise is still possible.”

His MOOC course of the same name, co-taught by Ram Neta, professor of philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill and offered through Coursera, has attracted more than 900,000 registered students from over 150 countries.

In Think Again, Sinnott-Armstrong also teaches the reader how to argue and how not to argue. “This book is not about winning arguments or beating opponents,” he says. “Instead it is about understanding each other and appreciating strong evidence. It teaches logic instead of rhetorical tricks.”

Think Again is now available in the UK from Penguin Random House and will be available in the United States on July 2nd from Oxford University Press. Duke community members may borrow a copy of the book at the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ Robert and Sara Pickus Library, 102 West Duke Building.

— Emily Bowles

Jun 222018
 June 22, 2018  Tagged with: , ,
Each year, the Kenan Institute for Ethics awards between 10 and 15 fellowships to outstanding graduate students at Duke University.

Students from any Duke graduate program may apply. What each cohort of Graduate Fellows will have in common is that their dissertation research engages in interesting ways with significant normative issues. Some students, for example – from disciplines such as philosophy, political theory, or theology – focus directly on fundamental ethical or political concepts and theories. Other fellows, from the sciences and social sciences, try to understand phenomena that are relevant to major, and often controversial, public policy debates. Still others attempt to resolve debates in their areas of research that seem to be sustained by long-standing disagreements over both empirical claims and ethical or ideological commitments.

The aim of the on-going discussions throughout the year, among the Fellows and KIE faculty members, is to enhance everyone’s ability to contribute to debates involving ethical issues, and to do so in ways that engage scholars and others within and outside of their own academic disciplines.

Ideal Graduate Fellow candidates will be in the third, fourth, or fifth year of their Ph.D. studies, finished all (or almost all) of their coursework requirements, but still developing new ideas and approaches for their dissertation research. Fellows each receive a stipend of $3,000 that supplements their current funding.

Graduate Fellows meet for a Monday seminar about a dozen times across the Fall and Spring semesters. These seminars usually feature visiting speakers and do not typically require preparation in advance. There are also two half-day workshops – one at the end of each term – in which Fellows showcase their own research.

Alumni in good standing of the Fellowship program will have access to conference- and research-travel funds during their final years in the Ph.D. program.

To apply: e-mail the application, along with a copy of your CV, to kie@duke.edu with the subject line “Graduate Fellowship.”

Deadline: 12 noon, Monday, July 16, 2018.

For further information, email kie@duke.edu with “Graduate Fellowship question” in the subject heading.

May 142018
 May 14, 2018  Tagged with: , ,

The Kenan Institute for Ethics will welcome two visiting professors in the 2018-19 academic year.

Margaret Hu‘s research interests include the intersection of immigration policy, national security, cybersurveillance, and civil rights. She earned her JD at Duke and is associate professor of law at Washington and Lee University School of Law.

“I am thrilled to visit with Kenan next year — honored to have this opportunity to engage in an interdisciplinary conversation on data ethics and cyber ethics.” says Hu.


Previously, Margaret Hu served as senior policy advisor for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and also as special policy counsel in the Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices (OSC), Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice, in Washington, D.C. Learn more about her work.


Thomas Nadelhoffer‘s main areas of research include free will, moral psychology, neuroethics, and punishment theory. He is particularly interested in research at the crossroads of philosophy and the sciences of the mind.


Dr. Nadelhoffer’s visiting professorship marks his return to the Kenan Institute for Ethics, as he spent the 2010-11 year working with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong while a post-doc with The MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project. “I am very excited to once again join the interdisciplinary team at the Kenan Institute, where I will have the opportunity to work with students and faculty from across the Duke community,” he says.


Thomas Nadelhoffer is associate professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston, as well as an affiliate member of both the psychology department and the neuroscience program there. He has been teaching and running an experimental philosophy lab since 2012. Learn more about his work on his website.
Sep 272017
 September 27, 2017

Two Kenan Institute for Ethics faculty will be sharing their expertise with new audiences in October.

Faculty member Walter Sinnott Armstrong in the middle of Terry Road in Orange County wearing a straight jacket. Armstrong was photographed for the Good Scholar/Ethical Duke series for the Kenan Center for Ethics on Monday evening September 13, 2010.

On Oct. 5, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, the Chauncey Stillman Professor in Practical Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, will lead a public discussion at Penn State University about the morality of artificial intelligence. During the conversation, Sinnott-Armstrong will explore building morality into computers and the ability of machines to make morally better decisions than humans. His talk is a part of the Moral Psychology Research Group Conference.


Luke Bretherton photographed in various locations around London, England for Kenan Ethics "Good Question" series.Just a few days later, Luke Bretherton, Senior Fellow at Kenan and an Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, will present as part of the McGee Endowed Lecture at Baylor University. Held in conjunction with 7th and James Baptist Church’s Leuschner Lecture Series and the Honors Residential College’s Formation Series Lecture, Bretherton will offer one of campus three lectures, with his focusing on the theme of “People, Populism, and the Church in the Era of Trump.”

Jul 102017
 July 10, 2017

The Moral Attitudes and Decision-Making (MADLAB) program at the Kenan Institute for Ethics has a part in three recently published studies analyzing aspects of empathy, conformity and mind control.

Led by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, the Chauncey Stillman Professor in Practical Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, research has been published in the journals Social Influence, Cognition and Nature Human Behavior. Sinnott-Armstrong is a co-author for all three studies.

“Morality is an extremely complex topic, so you can’t look at it from just one perspective,” Sinnott-Armstrong said. “The goal of MADLAB is to look at morality and ethics from a wide variety of disciplines and perspectives, which is illustrated by this recent collection of studies.”

In addition to providing new insight and research in areas of ethics, morality and science, the work of Sinnott-Armstrong and others will also help lead to philosophical papers about how these findings are relevant to broader ethical issues.

Shaping Moral Judgments Online

Included in Social Influence, Sinnott-Armstrong was part of a team to publish the study “Moral conformity in online interactions: rational justifications increase influence of peer opinions on moral judgments,” which shows how social media can shape moral judgments, noting that rational arguments can be more effective at eliciting conformity than emotional ones. Sinnott-Armstrong worked with Scott Huettel, Duke’s Jerry G. and Patricia Crawford Hubbard Professor, Duke associate in research Vlad Chituc, and Duke students Meagan Kelly and Lawrence Ngo.

The two-part study first analyzed the use of impersonal statistics such as anonymous “likes” on news stories, which showed that participants would conform to moral attitudes of others when presented with statistical information about how others respond. A second study used carefully phrased descriptions that positioned an action in a positive or negative light through emotional and rational arguments. Both cases showed how a person’s point of view might change through subtle manipulation of online interactions.

“Though it is reasonable to predict that the influence we have on each other’s opinions would be greatly diminished in this detached world,” the authors wrote, “it appears that the power of social influence is retained.”

Implicit Morality

Led by former MADLAB member Daryl Cameron, now director of the Empathy and Moral Psychology Laboratory and an assistant professor of psychology at Penn State University, “Implicit moral evaluations: A multinomial modeling approach” shares insight on how new tests and mathematical models can help capture and quantify implicit moral and empathetic judgments. Research was funded by an incubator award from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences and findings were published in Cognition.

Sinnott-Armstrong, who helped design studies and edit findings for publication, said greater understanding of human selfishness and lack of concern for others can assist in explaining how to better teach morality. As part of the study, a test was created in which two words were quickly shown in succession – a mixture of morally wrong terms, like “stealing,” and neutral, such as “whistling.” Researchers found a morally wrong phrase that precedes a neutral one can impact a person’s interpretation of the neutral word.

“It shows part of what limits people from being too selfish, harmful, and destructive,” Sinnott-Armstrong explained. “There might be some people who act selfishly because they lack empathy, and others who act selfishly because they lack morality. Understanding the sources of those behaviors can help us figure out how to prevent or treat extreme selfishness.”

Ethics of Mind Control

Sinnott-Armstrong is among an interdisciplinary group of researchers from Duke, the University of Pennsylvania and American University that are calling for new safeguards to guide treatments and protect patients during interventions for mental illnesses and neurological disorders.

In a perspective article published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, “Mind control as a guide for the mind” argues that these interventions should now be thought of as a form of “mind control.” As such, neuroscientists, clinicians and bioethicists should begin looking toward the engineering discipline of control theory as a way to better understand the relationship between brain physiology and mental states. The work began as discussions at Duke’s Summer Seminars in Neuroscience and Philosophy, co-directed by Sinnott-Armstrong and Felipe De Brigard, funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

“We need to think hard about the ensuing ethical issues regarding autonomy, privacy, equality, and enhancement,” Sinnott-Armstrong said.

Read more about the research in this story.

Jul 032017
 July 3, 2017

Jana Schaich Borg, co-director of the Moral Attitudes and Decision-Making Lab at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, is part of a team of researchers that recently released new findings on how the human brain handles decisions of altruism and empathy.

Published in the June 2017 issue of Brain and Behavior, Schaich Borg and others studied how rats would make decisions that could negatively impact them individually while preventing another rat from being harmed. In the research, rats could enter a brightly-lit chamber in order for another to not receive an electrical shock.

“The brain regions that encoded what the rat was choosing to do were the same ones we found in other studies to be involved in human empathy and moral decision making,” Schaich Borg told Duke Today. “It’s fascinating that rats are using the same brain regions that we seem to be using, and it suggests that rats provide a promising avenue for better understanding the way the human brain makes decisions to help others.”

Findings from the study have the potential to help better determine how the bran works by isolating regions one at a time, with impacts on understanding of psychopathy and addiction. In addition to her work with Kenan’s MADLAB, Schaich Borg also serves as an assistant research professor at Duke’s Social Science Research Institute and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience.

For more information about the study, which was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship, the Imitatio Foundation, an Information Initiative at Duke Research Incubator Award, the One Mind Institute (IMHRO) Rising Star Award, the National Institutes of Health (R01MH102638) and the NARSAD Distinguished Scientist Award, visit Duke Today.

Jun 242017
 June 24, 2017

Is it moral to respect the wishes of the dead, above the living? In an essay for Aeon, Barry Lam, a Humanities-Writ Large Fellow who has worked in coordination with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, explores the moral and ethical sides of lasting money and power.

As a visiting faculty fellow from Vassar College, Lam worked in the past academic year with Chauncey Stillman Professor in Practical Ethics Walter Sinnott-Armstrong on an audio documentary project, Hi-Phi Nation. The podcast series, produced at Kenan’s offices on Duke’s East Campus, uses philosophical examination of ideas to tell broader stories of human life.

In his essay, Lam builds off the first episode of Hi-Phi Nation which follows the story of the Hershey fortune to show how a 19th century industrialist constructed a business structure to ensure that his idiosyncratic wishes would be fulfilled hundreds of years after his death.

“I believe we honour the wishes of the dead out of a misplaced sense of moral duty, as we would feel if we made a deathbed promise to a loved one,” Lam writes.

Learn more about Lam’s Hi-Phi Nation and ethics of podcasting in this interview for Team Kenan’s Audible Ethics.

Jun 232017
 June 23, 2017

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, the Chauncey Stillman Professor in Practical Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, was recently featured in Duke Magazine as part of a highlight on a course in neuroethics.

The class, which can be taken toward earning an Ethics Certificate, focuses on emerging ethical controversies concurrent with advances in neuroscience, covering biological bases of morality, emotions and decision-making and more. Sinnott-Armstrong, who leads Kenan’s Moral Attitudes and Decision-Making Lab, co-teaches a class of 40 students with Scott Huettel, professor of psychology and neuroscience.

As part of the course, Sinnott-Armstrong and Huettel encourage collaborative work among students, and as part of a final project this spring, allowed students to co-write papers to encourage broader thinking and understanding of course topics.

“There’s only one thing worse than a neuroscientist who thinks they know philosophy, and that’s a philosopher who thinks they know neuroscience,” Sinnott-Armstrong told Duke Magazine. “You don’t want these students to leave thinking they’ve mastered all the topics.”

For more information about Sinnott-Armstrong’s involvement in the nueroethics course, see this story.

Jun 202017
 June 20, 2017

The Kenan Institute for Ethics has opened a new library space as a resource for the Duke community.

Found in 102 West Duke Building, the library features more than 900 works of fiction and non-fiction, including published selections from all faculty affiliated with Kenan, selections from staff Ethics Books Clubs from across campus, as well as other scholars and writers. The library is named in honor of Robert and Sara Pickus, the parents of Noah Pickus, who served as Kenan’s director from 2007 to 2017.

Students, faculty and staff are encouraged to come by the Institute and visit the library. Beginning in the fall semester, books can be checked out by Duke community members. A searchable list of books can be found on the library’s webpage.

Along with books written by faculty, the library also includes a collection of books published as the capstone project for Kenan’s Ethics Certificate Program. The most recent release, “Gross! Ethical Issues Surrounding Disgust,” included chapters written by nine students and co-edited by Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and recent graduate Sophie Katz. Previous Ethics Certificate publications explored drugs and addiction, crime and punishment, war and terrorism, and moral and political disagreement.

Have an ethics-focused non-fiction or fiction book you’d like to recommend for the library? Email kie@duke.edu.