An Intellectual Oasis in the Summer Heat: Kenan Hosts Discussion with Gerald Taylor on Strengthening Communities and Congregations

Gerald TaylorWhy and how should individuals effectively organize for political change?  These were the central questions at the center of a discussion led by renowned labor organizer, Gerald Taylor, Tuesday in the beautiful York Chapel at Duke’s Divinity School.  The event, hosted by the faculty working group on race, religion, and politics (supported by an Intellectual Community Planning Grant from the Duke University Office of the Provost) and co-sponsored by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, provided an intellectual oasis in the Durham summer heat this week for grateful community members. 

Taylor, former regional director for the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in the Southeast, talked about the need to check corporate power in the United States through institution-building and reconnecting with faith-based groups, rural communities and military veterans. 

During Taylor’s time at the IAF, the organization pursued a similar strategy of investing in communities and neighborhoods in cities such as San Antonio, Baltimore, and New York.  He singled out the Durham CAN network of congregations, associations, and neighborhoods as pursuing such a strategy in the Triangle.

Left unchecked, Taylor warned, corporate power can lead to abuses that can ruin an individual’s financial credit, jeopardize their personal information on social media, and destroy the historic fabric of the communities they live in.

Taylor regretted that the progressive liberal establishment today no longer invests in relationship-building with churches, unions, or rural communities, which was common during the height of the historical populist movement that peaked in the 1890s, before corporate power was concentrated in the steel, railroad, and oil industries. Pointing to this historic, if short-lived example of Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, and other white and black churches organizing together for policies to benefit all citizens, he emphasized the importance of understanding faith communities’ influence on all aspects of their members’ lives, and finding ways to work together for the common good.

Duke faculty and students, coming from multiple departments, Religious Life, and the Duke Faculty Union joined members of various local faith communities, schools, and nonprofits for the conversation. Participants continued to talk and make connections with one another informally even after the event ended, and expressed appreciation for this dynamic discussion.

Doing the Right Thing: Ethical Obligations and School Re-segregation in America

“What a turnout this evening!” marveled Suzanne Shanahan, the director of the Kenan Institute as she introduced the final installment of the “Ethics of Now” conversation series last Friday.  Moderated by Adriane Lentz-Smith (History), the Ethics of Now engages the Durham community in discussions with prominent artists, politicians, and activists.  Shanahan paid special tribute to “super supporters” Danny and Nancy Katz, whose family supported the evening’s events through their Women, Ethics and Leadership fund.

The guest was none other than award-winning New York Times journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones.  Originally from Iowa, Jones is no stranger to the Triangle having graduated from UNC and worked for the Raleigh News & Observer and the African-American Triangle Tribune.  As one would expect from anyone who adopted the name of one of America’s most famous investigative journalists, Ida B. Wells, as her Twitter handle, Jones engaged in a lively debate with her audience over racism, school desegregation, charter schools, and vouchers.

Why do we keep “hating on reporters?” Lentz-Smith asked Jones.  Public anger at the media is a symptom of the lack of good reporting outside of big cities and sloppy journalism that seems to hide sources rather than reveal them.  As ad revenues fall off, newspapers are finding it hard to make their bottom line with subscriptions only.  Add to that the “gossipy” nature of a lot of news these days (poorly sourced and relying on anonymous tips) and you have a recipe for media fatigue among the public.  The solution?  Explore new funding models (private foundations and philanthropy are possibilities) and be as transparent as possible with readers about who your sources actually are.

Jones reminisced about working for the newspaper, Triangle Tribune, when asked about the crisis facing the African-American press in particular.  So important in the post-World War II period for their searing coverage of lynchings and Jim Crow legislation, their decline means there’s now less coverage of civil rights in general and the loss of a unique perspective on issues important to the black community.  For those interested to see what we’re in the process of losing, Jones recommends Gerrick D. Kennedy’s article analyzing the impact of Nipsey Hussle’s murder on the L.A. community in which he lived and supported.

Jones, Lentz and members of the audience voiced strong opinions for and against charter and magnet schools throughout the discussion.  Jones came out emphatically against any attempt to “resegregate” neighborhoods under the banner of “school choice.”  Education is increasingly thought of as a consumer good instead of a common good in American elite circles, she warned.  Explaining the hard choices facing parents who want to do right by their children, she admitted “You wrestle with protecting your child or addressing larger social ills”. But for Jone the ethical choice was clear.

Bringing it back to the Durham public schools, she warned that school inequality in Durham is getting worse by white withdrawal from public school systems, as they send their kids to charter, magnet, or private schools.  In a stark criticism, Jones added, “Everyone (white and black) has abandoned poor black kids:” Is it really equitable to have only 18% of white families enrolling their children in Durham public schools?

Ethics of Now - Nikole Hannah Jones


Ethics of Now - Nikole Hannah Jones


The Ethics of Now with Adriane Lentz Smith continues next year.

Civility and Tolerance as Virtues in the University

How can the principles of civility and tolerance allow us to coexist and thrive with those who think and act differently from ourselves?  Should universities strive to be “agreeable” to all?  

The Arete Initiative at the Kenan Institute for Ethics hosted a vibrant discussion of these timely questions. Introduced by Arete Director Farr Curlin and Trinity Dean Valerie Ashby, panelists Teresa Bejan (Oxford University) and John Bowlin (Princeton Theological Seminary) explored the significance of and relationship between civility and tolerance.  Moderator and Duke Classical Studies Associate Professor Jed Atkins steered the conversation by posing questions designed to bring the concepts of civility and tolerance to the real-world, or university, level.

The conversation opened with Bejan and Bowlin sharing the different origins of their scholarly work on civility. Bejan cites her discovery of the works of Roger Williams, a Puritan scholar who wrote on religious freedom, equality for Native Americans, and abolition.  Bowlin credits reluctantly attending a cockfighting in an attempt to show solidarity with his surrounding community in Oklahoma as the formative moment in his thinking on civiity.

Atkins questioned Bejan about Williams – noted as one of the most tolerant Christians of his age but also in conflict with the Quakers.  Bejan explained that the Quakers of early colonial America behaved very differently from what we think of today. She described early Quakers as “disruptive Evangelicals” who interrupted others’ church services in their effort to witness against the perceived blasphemy.  Bejan argued that Williams made a relevant distinction: finding their actions “intolerable,” yet believing the notion of tolerance, including civil conversation, to be critcal. According to Bejan, civility is striving to keep conversations active in the face of conflict; and in this way, civility and tolerance must go together to maintain peace.

For Bowlin, civility depends on and is tested by conflict.  From personal interactions at his cockfight experience in comparison to conversations with academic peers, he discovered how tolerance is viewed across demographics.  According to Bowlin, some feel tolerance opens the door to moral collapse while others use it as a way to negatively perceive the less-educated.

Further analyzing the principle of tolerance, Atkins challenged Bowlin to dispell the perception that tolerance is just “forbearance of injustice” and at worst an enabler of evil deeds.  Bowlin agreed that there are limits to exhibiting tolerance such as massive rights violations.

The conversation then turned to Duke focusing on concerns over debate, tolerance, and civility on  campus. Bowlin and Bejan agree that while historic civil rights and social justice movements began with communities in disagreement, managing dissent on college campuses has become increasingly difficult. Part of this challenge, according to Bejan, can be explained with research showing the best educated are often the most intolerant.  Both Bejan and Bowlin stressed the importance of teaching and practicing virtues such as humility, tolerance, and civility, while encouraging students to participate in true, open dialog in the face of disagreement and conflict.

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.

Thinking Outside the Box: How to Engineer Your Own Tech Career

Duke students and staff members from around campus learned valuable career advice and tips for navigating the continually evolving world of careers in information technology with Merritt Baer, Principal Security Architect at Amazon Web Services (AWS).  This “tech talk” was part of the Kenan Institute’s new Technically Right program, which is aimed to advance ethical tech policy and innovation.  Kenan Institute visiting professor, Margaret Hu, introduced Baer by highlighting her extensive background in designing web-based security infrastructures and her work in all three branches of the federal government as well as private sector expertise.

Baer began the working lunch session by stepping back to review the basics of cloud computing and the principle of “shared responsibility” to maintain security between providers like AWS and their client companies or government entities.

Throughout her talk, Baer shared valuable nuggets of insider advice for job hunting and career development in information technology:

  • As a student, work to establish your credibility: apply for fellowships that result in a published article or op-ed.
  • Think outside the box: there’s always an “option C” when engineering your career opportunities.
  • Network and cultivate relationships with professors who can enthusiastically make recommendations for you.
  • Proactively redefine your job responsibilities with your supervisor 6 months or a year into a new job to ensure better performance reviews.
  • As you advance in your career, encourage employers to create or tailor positions to your skills.

Baer also discussed the importance of women and diverse contributors to developing better technologies and securing them.  When women programmers are underrepresented or absent from project teams, the results can lack comprehensiveness and even be dangerous: Siri was recently discovered not to be able to provide resources in response to queries such as “I was raped.”  In another example, the ride-sharing sevice Uber enabled GPS user-tracking by third parties, creating a very real security risk that could be exploited by abusers. 

Reactions to the event were overwhelmingly positive.  Caitlin Burke (G’21) from the Computational Media, Arts & Culture graduate program thought Baer’s concise suggestions and sharing of her own work experience provided new insights into job hunting in the tech sector.  Kyle Levenberg (Law ’19), who asked Baer a question about the importance of diversity when hiring in IT, also hoped that more such events could be organized.

Merrit Baer



Merrit Baer


For Fall 2019, Professor Hu will offer her course, “Data & Democracy: Foreign Interference in US Elections and Cyber Ethics.” 
For more information about Technically Right, visit dukeethics.org

Ethical Challenges of Gene Editing






Just because we can do a thing, MUST we?  This question was the subtext to Dr. William Hurlbut’s (Stanford University Medical Center) talk on the ethical perils of human gene editing to an engaged audience this week.  Organized by the Arete Initiative at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, and co-sponsored by the Trent Center for Bioethics and the Duke Program in Genetics and Genomics, the talk focused on the ethical perils and human costs of rapid advances in gene editing techniques in recent years.

Editing genetic material found in cells used to take years.  With the advent of new, cheap, quick and easy to use tools that use a modified bacterial system to edit and delete animal genes, the process can now be shortened to months or weeks.  Hurlbut ventured to say that such advances could have clear benefits for all of humanity.  Imagine preventing disease by engineering infectious agents or cancerous cells out of existence? 

Why then should we be worried?  Among the troubling aspects of this new technology is the hubris of thinking we as a species can do better than evolution at designing living things. Hurlbut cautioned against replacing the ancient Galenic paradigm of healing as an end to medicine with a new “liberation” paradigm, in which we can rid ourselves of traits we deem inconvenient or socially harmful, but which do not pose a medical threat. 

The implications of more profound experiments with germ cells (those cells that have reproductive ability such as sperm or eggs) run from the horrific (the creation of human-animal mutants) to the more morally ambiguous (Should we bring species back from the dead? Or send those to extinction we deem harmful?)  

What are our medical standards in the emerging field of gene editing? By what principles will we operate?  Hurlbut recounted his experience working with and befriending He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who altered the genome of twin girls in an attempt to protect them against HIV, as a way of providing possible answers to such questions.

Despite repeated pleas not to pursue gene editing on human embryos, including many conversations with William Hurlbut, He decided to go ahead with the experiment.  In 2018, He Jiankui announced that he had successfully used germ-line genetic editing on human embryos to create twins who no longer carried the gene CCR5 – the absence of which has been shown to convey a measure of resistance against contracting the virus that causes AIDS. 

While much still remains unknown about He’s laboratory procedures in this case, Hurlbut indicated that the regulatory environment in China, where “Shenzen Speed” (a phrase referring to the pressure placed on scientists like He Jiankui to produce results) may have contributed to dubious research protocols.  In sharp contrast, the United States has a long and public history of  bioethical debate over research involving stem cells or human embryos.  Having served on President Bush’s Council for Bioethics from 2002-2009, Hurlbut walked his listeners through the legislative and executive actions taken to prevent experimentation on human embryos in the Clinton and Bush administrations.  President Bush signaled the importance he placed on human dignity and limiting experimentation with human embryos by convening the bioethics commission which Hurlbut served on.

As the Chinese case study demonstrates, it is difficult to have confidence in the global scientific community’s ability to self-regulate their research on the basis of bioethical norms.  Only governments, in global coordination, can provide appropriate regulatory oversight.  Without such safeguards, human gene editing may become widespread and dangerous.

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.

The Institute Continues Focus on Student Well-Being and Happiness

Margarita MooneyIn a packed house, members of the Duke community came together to hear Margarita Mooney (Princeton) talk about why personalism, or being human in the modern world, has value in education.  Farr Curlin, Director of the Arete Initiative at Kenan, introduced Mooney as being well-aligned with this series of speakers who explore how best to live a good and worthy life in the public sphere.  In specific reference, Arete guest speaker Christine Wampole (Princeton) focused her discussion last semester on universities as laboratories for innovation and experimentation to nurture their students’ well-being and character. 

Criticizing the “burnout culture” she described as rampant in the American university, Mooney blamed the misplaced focus on education as a credentialing opportunity, rather than an opportunity to grapple with moral virtues to discover each individual’s “inner vitality.”  This focus on grades and competitive metrics created profound unhappiness among her students who complained to Mooney of the huge discrepancy between the college experience they hoped for and the one they actually received.  This disillusionment, Mooney argued, leads to burnout and a rise in incivility, conflict and mental health issues across America’s campuses.

In response to this crisis, Mooney founded the Scala Foundation (a reference to the Benedictine rule that in order to ascend to God’s presence, one must be prepared to step down in humility) to support her students in forming authentic friendships and character building.  Drawing on the work of French philosopher, Jacques Maritain, and German phenomenologist, Max Scheler, Mooney’s project critiques the modern university’s pedagogical approach as one designed to accommodate the pragmatic instincts of many students. Since these impulses are often driven by base instincts such as power, sex, or nourishment—all at the expense students’ humanity.

Throughout her talk, Mooney repeatedly emphasized that while the university does many things well, it cannot and should not try to do all things well.  Misplaced efforts to shape students’ will or character may deform rather than construct if pressed too much.  In contrast, the Scala method emphasizes an approach based on human freedom by means of Socratic and experiential techniques to explore concepts of hospitality, charity and authentic friendship, serving to bridge the alienation and conflict often encountered on campus.  Furthermore, it guides students towards practical applications that improve their well-being and that of others around them. The Institute is trying to do just that with the new What Now: The Duke Guide to Happiness, Purpose & Well-Being in partnership with Trinity College. 

Ultimately, Mooney warned her audience that if students (and professors) are not taught to embrace the freedom and reason intrinsic to being human, then all that remains are those base desires and challenges to experiencing pleasure. We can help—and must—students integrate what they learn in the classroom to the big and small daily practices that make up a fulfilling human life. Mooney noted an alumni’s praise and endorsement for these concepts for forcing him to “reread and restructure his life in light of intellectual formation.” 

This event was co-sponsored by Center for Christianity and Scholarship.

The What Now network of first-year seminars creates a community organized around (really!) big questions and building the skills to not only begin to answer them but live better in the process. Through the network, you’ll take a seminar led by engaged faculty. You’ll also regularly connect with students and faculty in related courses. By taking one course, you’ll have access to a wider array of ideas and students than is usually possible in a single seminar.