Arete Medical Ethics Summer Seminar tackles big questions

 2019 Arete Medical Ethics Seminar Participants

Last week, the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ Arete Initiative held its second-annual Summer Seminar in Medical Ethics. Led by Farr Curlin of Duke University and Christopher Tollefsen of the University of South Carolina, the seminar asked participants to examine the central ethical questions that arise in the everyday practice of medicine and to interpret these questions through a moral framework – drawing from both “natural law” and the more traditional focus on the patient’s health. The purpose of the seminar is to equip participants with intellectual tools that can help physicians discern how to practice medicine well in the face of medicine’s clinical challenges and moral complexities

A basic question, “What is health?”, was the starting point for conversation. The seminar leaders compared and contrasted their preferred model of medicine, which they called “The Way of Medicine,” with the “Patient Provider Model” or PPM. Common clinical ethical case studies were used to examine perennial ethical concerns that arise in the practice of medicine, including: the nature of the clinician-patient relationship; the limits of medicine, the meaning of autonomy, the place of conscience in the physician’s work, the difference between an intended effect and a side effect, proportionality, human dignity, sexuality and reproduction, the beginning of life, disability, end-of-life care, and death. In each of these case studies, the approaches, and often different answers given by the two models, were discussed, analyzed, and scrutinized.  “In this seminar,”  says Arete Director Farr Curlin, “students consider not just what is legal, and what is wanted, but what practices characterize a good physician, and what uses of medicine display wisdom.”

An extremely diverse cohort attended this year’s summer seminar. Several countries and states within the US were represented, while the participants were in various phases of their medical training and careers — from pre-med students to clinicians with over a decade in practice. In addition to many doctors (in training), the group included a physician’s assistant, a nurse, and an attorney. Some of the students even chose to attend the seminar during essentially their only week off between years of medical school. A participant summed up the week by saying, “It was a great experience. Profound talks and discussions that I know will change my personal and professional life.”

Throughout the seminar, students demonstrated their eagerness to examine on a deeper level the ethical and spiritual issues they face or anticipate in medical practice. One student participant shared:

The Arete Medical ethics summer seminar is the essential part of Medicine that medical school never taught me about. It’s revitalizing to deepen our vocation as physicians-in-training and fully realize what way of Medicine we want to practice, cultivate, and contribute to. The seminar was comprehensive with a very practical, clinical focus, something I had really hoped for. I would recommend the seminar to any medical student interested in a better understanding of his or her vocation as a physician.


The Arete Initiative sponsors scholarship and learning opportunities that are focused on recovering and sustaining the virtues in contemporary life, especially in the workplace, the university, and the public square. “Arete” is a Greek word that connotes moral virtue or, more broadly, human excellence.