Kenan Faculty discusses “Plato on Wall Street”

Wayne Norman sings Gyges Last week, Kenan Faculty Wayne Norman (Mike and Ruth Mackowski Professor of Ethics) presented at the Annual Conference of the Society for Business Ethics.  Along with co-presenter Eric Orts (Professor of Business Ethics and Corporate Governance at the Wharton School of Business), the pair traced their project’s beginning to “one of the familiar Agoras of our time, a pub in the vicinity of the Wharton School.”

During that conversation, Norman and Orts  discovered they each had been using the same parts of Plato’s Republic in their business ethics courses. Just as relevant today, they agreed, the questions revealed in Plato’s dialogue can be applied to modern-day and highly-sought businesses — from Wall Street to Silicon Valley.

  • Why be moral?
  • Is it rational to do the right thing when you are sure you will be able to get away with doing some very profitable bad thing?
  • Where do moral principles come from, anyway?
  • And what authority do they have over us?
  • Is it possible that the very idea of ethics is just “made up,” or as we might now say, a mere social construction?

In the context of the lives of these future business leaders leaving Duke and Wharton, Norman and Orts have devised a methodology to bring to their business ethics classes these questions and the overriding: Why be ethical if you can get away with being unethical? 

Now, while philosophy undergrads live for this stuff, these are not exactly the kinds of questions that lead smart young adults into business schools. But Plato brings it all to life with a conceit that has become the staple of almost every superhero and supervillain backstory in the various comic book universes (or multiverses): what if you had a magic power that enabled you to get away with the most outrageous crimes?  Would you use that power? Would you be crazy not to use that power? – Wayne Norman

Wayne Norman sings Gyges 2

Citing numerous examples of today’s schemes, scams and strategies in modern business practices, from questionable mortgage products  and tax loopholes to the use of customer data and technological advantages, Norman and Orts liken this superpower to Plato’s legend of a poor shepherd from Gyges who discovered and capitalized on a ring that could make him invisible. Putting this ethical challenge to song, Norman donned his guitar and performed the following:

Ballad of Gyges’ Ring

© Wayne Norman (Ear Muffs of Ignorance Music, BMI)

Yeah, you charmed Thrasymachus like a snake
But you didn’t prove morality is good for its own sake –
like pleasure, and love, and philosophizing
and not just as a means to an end, like money, sex, or exercising.
All folks seem to want is a just reputation
Cuz that’s good for business and eternal salvation.
They say if you bling out the temples, then the Oracle’s your pal
And in the Hades VIP room you’ll be sipping Cristal.

Verse 1
Don’t get us wrong we think this is wack
But Socrates you gotta help us push back.
Might don’t make right, and truth ain’t relative,
as the Sophists argue, if just for the helluvit.
Yeah Socrates, you’ve musta heard
Folks sayin’ justice is just a word
And it wouldn’t mean anything
if you had Gyges’ magic ring.

Verse 2
They’re saying Justice is a human invention.
It’s got nothing to do with the gods’ intentions.
Everyone likes to cheat and steal, that’s a fact
But they hate gettin’ ripped off even more than that.
And since no-one had the power to always come out on top,
they all agreed to some rules and cops.
Well, that’s how Justice became a thing,
but it wouldn’t really matter if you had Gyges’ ring!

Verse 3
If you could vanish at will using Gyges’ ring
You’d be just like that shepherd, and kill the king,
sleep with queen, and never have to pay.
Sinner or saint would act exactly the same way.
They say what goes around don’t always come around.
Sometimes crime pays, that’s what I’ve found.
“With great power come great responsibilities,”
Say those who never had a finger in the Ring of Gyges.

Verse 4
What if you could talk the talk without walkin’ the walk?
Enjoy a fine reputation ‘cuz you never get caught.
While a just man sits like Ruben in a 10-foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell.
Well if justice is really good for its own sake,
you’d rather rot in jail than be that charming rake.
Folks wouldn’t believe you if they heard you sing
That your morals wouldn’t change if you had Gyges’ ring.

Verse 5
If you could vanish at will using Gyges’ ring,
Would you be just like that shepherd, and kill the king?
Would you sleep with the queen, and never ever pay?
Would sinner or saint act exactly the same way?
What goes around don’t always come around.
Sometimes crime pays, that’s what we’ve found.
Remember: “With great power come great responsibilities,”
If you ever have your finger in the Ring of Gyges

Wayne Norman is the Mike and Ruth Mackowski Professor of Ethics in the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Department of Philosophy at Duke University. He specializes in business ethics and political philosophy: his work in business ethics includes critical evaluations of stakeholder theory, corporate citizenship, corporate social responsibility, the so-called “triple bottom line”, and conflicts of interest; and his work in political philosophy includes nationalism, citizenship, constitutionalism, federalism, secession, and multiculturalism. 

Project Change Kicks off with Scavenger Hunt in Downtown Durham

Project Change 2019 Participants doin gthe Explore Durham Challenge“To change one’s life: Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly. No exceptions.”  -William James

Monday morning, West Duke Building was abuzz with excitement and nerves as first-years and parents began arriving on east campus.  These enthusiastic students are participating in the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ Project Change, an intensive eight-day introduction to ethical leadership and social change through the lens of Durham. P-Change promises to expose participants to the city in its entirety while living and working in Durham – experiencing not only the culture, food and art, but also engaging them in dialogue about the ethics of engagement while working with community partners to make Durham more “just, healthy and equitable.”

Following the requisite informational meetings, students donned their bright-blue P-Change tees, handed over their phones, were divided into three teams and sent off on the  “Explore Durham Challenge.”  This scavenger hunt was the first step in the program’s commitment to build community within the group while also exemplifying what it means to live in a broader community and how to enact social change.

Project Change is assisted by student alumni of the program and is a great introduction to Kenan’s expansive community of students, faculty, and staff who think deeply about the same issues focused on during the P-Change experience.  These ideas will help shape the way Duke students interact with others and make decisions – on campus, in the Durham community, and beyond.

Project Change is a deep dive into students’ new hometown. In a week, they’ll learn about the city’s history and work with organizations trying to ensure that everyone is included in the city’s recent revitalization. When they come back to campus for Orientation Week, they’ll both have an expansive sense of this city and a bond with their community of pChangers.
Christian Ferney, Program Director, Kenan Institute for Ethics


Project Change 2019 Participants doin gthe Explore Durham Challenge Project Change 2019 Participants doin gthe Explore Durham Challenge
Project Change 2019 Participants doin gthe Explore Durham Challenge Project Change 2019 Participants doin gthe Explore Durham Challenge


Watch for more stories to come about the 2019 Project Change experience.

Kenan Faculty trail-blazes intersection of neuroscience and philosophy through summer seminar

seminar graphic showing intersection of neuroscience and philosophyThis week,  Kenan Faculty Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics) and Felipe De Brigard  (Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Duke University and core faculty at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences) are heading the Summer Seminars in Neuroscience and Philosophy. In this multi-year program sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation and Duke University, neuroscientists and philosophers come together each summer to collaborate in interdisciplinary teams, design experiments and conduct original research.  “Our goal is to advance knowledge at the intersection of our fields. Together we can apply cutting-edge scientific research to the big questions on free will, morality, human nature, perception, memory, knowledge, consciousness, and more… Philosophers will learn new developments in neuroscience, while neuroscientists will study contemporary philosophy. The most promising projects will receive funding for the next year.”

This summer, the seminar is centered around working sessions to review chapters of a resulting collaborative book and brings together experts from around the world.  Each chapter is co-authored by at least one philosopher and at least one scientist (psychologist or neuroscientist). The final version will be completed in December, along with an extensive introduction by Sinnott-Armstrong and De Brigard. Among the contributors are visiting Kenan Faculty Thomas Nadelhoffer and MAD lab members and alum Laura Niemi, Gus Skorburg, Sam Murray, and Rita Svetlova.

The book that we are writing together is a model of interdisciplinary collaboration. In the process, philosophers learn to talk and work with neuroscientists and vice-versa. Each chapter will provide an introductory overview along with cutting edge research on its topic. The product should become a basic resource for students as well as professors who want to learn about this growing field. Felipe and I are extremely pleased with the way it is all coming together. We could not have done any of this without the generous support of the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Duke Institute for Brain Science as well as the John Templeton Foundation. We are grateful to all of these funders. – Sinnott-Armstrong

The seminar concludes with a conference: Friday August 16, 3PM-4:30PM and Saturday, August 17, 9:30AM-5:30PM at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. These distinguished lectures in the fields of neuroscience and philosophy are open to the public.  (more information)

Summer Seminars in Neuroscience and Philosophy website: www.ssnap.net


2018 Kenan Summer Fellow Featured in Duke Today: Saving Hummingbirds

andrea kolarovaAndrea Kolarova, 2018 KIE Summer Fellow, spent her three-month fellowship in the Western Andes Cloud Forest of Colombia studying the country’s amazing diversity of hummingbirds working to determine the variables putting certain species at risk of extinction. Kolarova worked throughout the summer with her Duke faculty mentor, Stuart Pimm. Their research received national attention coverage when as a result of a New York Times reporter who accompanied Andrea into the field. “Even though my research is narrow in scope” reflected Andrea, “I take great pride knowing that my efforts will lead to assisting animals at risk. Like Dr. Pimm, I am passionate to dedicate my life to improving the planet for the next generation.”  Read Kolarova’s Kenan Summer Fellowship blog.

Kolarova’s continued work is featured in Duke Today with a story and video. (see the full story)

Kenan Summer Fellows spend a summer exploring—in a variety of ways—the answers to the question: What does it mean to live an ethical life? A Summer Fellow might design a project at home or abroad, implement a community-based intervention, compose a musical, volunteer with an NGO, write a play, or curate an art exhibition. Summer experiences can and do provide a thoughtful, novel perspective of how to live an ethical life.

High School Summer Seminar in Ethics a success

Earlier this month, Duke faculty members John Rose (Kenan Institute for Ethics), Thomas Pfau (Professor of English), Jed Atkins (Professor of Classics), and Warren Smith (Professor of Theology) engaged high school students in a week-long conversation about the ideas of natural law, the relationship between philosophy and theology, and the relationship between science and religion — all within the context of assigned literature, works of theology, and some readings from modern analytic philosophers.

The Arete High School Summer Seminar in Ethics, Philosophy, and Religion was again held at Duke with its aim to prepare high school students with a “tool kit” and roadmap for approaching these subjects in college.  The seminar built upon the works of Plato, Aristotle, and other great minds to examine the meaning of virtue, the substance of human nature, the question of human flourishing, the metaphysics of reality, and the nature of “truth.”  Students shared some very profound lessons learned about themselves and interpreting classic thinkers:

The Arete program taught me to engage with difficult texts or pieces from either the masters before me or modern thinkers that I completely disagree with. Additionally, the program helped me to better understand what I believe and how to defend it in the postmodern world. Finally, I appreciated how we focused on a variety of topics such as the relationship between faith and reason, or faith and science, as well as more light-hearted subjects such as the meaning of happiness and where it lies.

I got exactly what I wanted out of this experience and more.  I loved this week so much. I especially loved the people I was around. Both the RAs and the students. They really felt like my type of people, and that’s something I never really felt completely before.  Thank you for an amazing week.


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.


arete hs summer group

arete hs summer kville

arete hs summer books

Scholarship and Freedom

In his latest book, Scholarship and Freedom, Kenan Senior Fellow Geoffrey Harpham questions the notion that scholarship is a niche endeavor and has lost some footing in terms of relevance, prestige and respect in the modern world.  In his introduction, Harpham writes:

The question that hovers over every page of this book is whether scholarship can be sustained in a world very unlike the one in which it emerged and first flourished.  Scholarship may not seem like the most important or admirable thing in the world today; it may not seem to exhibit freedom in the vernacular sense at all.  But the premises and assumptions that support scholarship, and which it in turn supports, are, I will argue, fundamental to the freedoms associated with the modern world.  The larger question, and not just for scholars, is whether a world in which the role of scholarship is diminished, devalued, or compromised is a world we would choose to live in. 

Harpham argues scholarship and freedom are naturally connected.  He states, “The integrity of scholarship depends on its independence from power, habit, prejudice, desire, or any force external to scholarship,” while scholarship embodies fundamental freedoms such as inquiry, thought and expression.  In this book, Harpham paints a narrative of three extraordinary individuals by examining the paths of each of their careers.  In doing so, he illustrates how these two very broad concepts of scholarship and freedom are linked together, showing his reader how scholarship plays an important role in emancipatory political and social movements as well as making connections between recent attacks on scholarship and the rise of authoritarian political movements. 

W. E. B. Du Bois
Du Bois
Bernard Lategan
Linda Nochlin
In each of the book’s three main sections, Harpham examines the career of a specific scholar while exploring a unique aspect of scholarship “on behalf of an emancipatory agenda.”  Starting with W. E. B. Du Bois’ lesser-discussed identity as an uncompromising scholar, Harpham uses his story as an example of scholarly character formation as a means of advancing social justice for African Americans.  The second chapter discusses the compelling power of evidence in scholarship through the life of Bernard Lategan, a South African Biblical scholar whose scholarly endeavors were focused at first to preserve and then to overthrow the apartheid regime. The final career study explores the ability of scholarship both to destroy and create through the work of feminist art history founder Linda Nochlin, whose essay “Why Have There Been No Great Woman Artists?” exemplifies the scholarly practice of interrogation to address social and institutional inequities.

geoffrey harpham
Geoffrey Harpham


Scholarship and Freedom is a distinctive and powerful book. A short, sharp introduction, three well-wrought case studies and an eloquent conclusion offer the reader something no one else has: a brilliant, polemical account of why scholarship in the humanities and social sciences still matters. Harpham makes this case not by slinging platitudes, as others have done, but by exemplifying the work that he shows is central to the scholarship he praises: by showing how scholars wrest from evidence, which often fights back, new and powerful accounts of society, culture and canonical texts. – Anthony Grafton, Princeton University

That he begins (and concludes) his arguments by saying that scholarship contributes to freedom by way of telling the truth, when so much of modern theory and, alas, modern public discourse is marked by a deep distrust of assertions of truth, can suggest how important this work is.  It is beautifully nuanced, structured, argued, itself both a work of scholarship and in a certain sense of art.  – Anonymous distinguished senior scholar

Scholarship and Freedom will be released next year from Harvard University Press.