Aristotle defined good as that at which all things aim. He offered examples. Medicine aims at health, economics at wealth, and bridle-making at horsemanship, which, in the context of fourth-century BCE Athens, aimed at war. I asked a colleague who specializes in Chinese traditions if they have analogues to this view of good. “Yes,” he replied, and then added, almost as if I had asked a silly question, “We’re all human. We’re all aiming at something.”
When I became interim director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics in September 2021, I knew little about the Institute as a whole. I had served as the faculty director of several Kenan programs, but now I was directing the Institute itself. Toward what end was not clear.
For guidance, I turned to Institute’s mission statement, which opened with the words, “Now in its third decade, the Kenan Institute for Ethics is dedicated to understanding the moral challenges of our time.” These words were an orienting force, a welcome counter to administrative vertigo; but they also raised an unanswered question: What makes the moral challenges of our time challenging?
I was working to articulate these challenges when I stumbled upon the phrase energetic pursuit of good in John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty. Writing in the 1850s, Mill left good largely undefined, but the phrase caught my attention and turned my mind to Aristotle, for whom good pursuits were paramount. “Every pursuit,” he said, “aims at some good.”
Because we’re human, all our pursuits aim at some good, but they don’t all aim at the same good. In an American context, it’s likely that we share the aim of what Mill called the greater good of human freedom. It’s just as likely that we live by his definition of it: “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs.” Most of my students tell me this is exactly how they’re living their lives. Mill advocated for this view of freedom as a greater good, but he also recognized the challenge it creates for what he deemed the great practical concerns of life.
In the absence of shared assumptions about the ultimate aims of being human, each of us pursues our own good, and we end up with opposing views of what matters most. Negotiating the conflicts that follow requires, in Mill’s words, “the reconciling and combining of opposites.” That’s difficult, Mill said, because our minds are not “sufficiently capacious.” We are generally incapable of holding opposites in mind long enough to combine them, which abandons us to “the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.” Mill wrote On Liberty more than one hundred sixty years ago. He might have written it yesterday.
Philosophically, I am inclined more to Aristotle than to Mill. Nonetheless, Mill is a worthy guide to the moral challenges of our time, and he has given me a way of describing the aims of the Institute in short form. The Kenan Institute for Ethics is an interdisciplinary home for faculty, students, and staff dedicated to understanding and negotiating the moral challenges of our time through the energetic and capacious pursuit of good.
As I settled in as director, I also found guidance from the words, “Now in its third decade …” I was charged with directing an Institute with a history. With that in mind, I included in my orienting efforts a trip to the archives: to the papers of Frank Kenan, our founding benefactor, and Nan Keohane, Duke’s president when the Institute started as the Kenan Program in Ethics in 1995.
My time in the archives led me to craft an origin story for the Institute. I encourage you to read it. There you will find a fuller account of the Institute and its mission. I also encourage you to explore our programs, which, in keeping with Good Pursuits, we organize loosely into three arenas: the good life, the good community, the good society. One of my colleagues says of ethics that it “happens by participation.” Take a look at our programs and you’ll see that to be true.
Thanks for your interest in the Kenan Institute for Ethics.