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. Good judgment, good character, good citizens, good government, the greatest good, the common good … We speak often of good, but in the absence of agreement about what we mean when we deploy the word. Good pursuits are passionate arguments about what it means to be human — about who we are, what we are doing, and what we ought to do.

From the director

Aristotle defined good as that at which all things aim. “Every pursuit,” he said, “aims at some good.” 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.

Read More

David Toole headshot


We offer curricular and co-curricular programs that create opportunities for students to take seriously the age-old advice that the unexamined life is not worth living, that a good life is more than a good job, and that striving for self-knowledge is an essential part of a good education. Because education is lifelong work, we also field programs for alumni and the public.

How “The Good Life” Brings Students Together to Ask the Big Questions

Disappointed you didn’t get that internship you wanted? Some life advice from Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius might help.

In “The Good Life,” a class in the Transformative Ideas program, students grapple with life’s big questions, helped by philosophical, religious, and scientific teachings from across the centuries.

Read More

“These different traditions have long histories of trying to grapple with these deeply human questions that we all share…when you’re engaging in things that are deeply human, there’s a sense of connection that you begin to have with one another.”

Jed Atkins
E. Blake Byrne Associate Professor of Classical Studies
Instructor, “The Good Life”

A young person with short hair and a green and blue striped shirt bends down with a market to write something.
"Say the Thing" Encourages Ethical Reflection through Storytelling

How does telling your own story help you figure out how to live your life? With the help of great thinkers, poets, and mystics, a new initiative of the Duke Chapel and the Kenan Institute for Ethics offers students the chance to explore their own internal ethics through storytelling — and to ask how they might direct those beliefs into external action.

Read More
A group of people look at a brightly colored painting of medical personnel in the field.
To Reimagine Medicine, Pre-health Students Rethink their Relationship to the Arts

A group of 20 pre-health students spent a week immersed in the arts and the medical humanities, using movement, expressive writing, improv, art and photography to connect with others — and themselves.

Read More
Exploring Ethics at Duke: Two Seniors Look Back

For graduating seniors Sarai Chaidez and Lana Gesinsky, pursuing the Ethics & Society Certificate was a way to integrate deep personal questions about ethics into their Duke experience. Read about how programs at the Kenan Institute for Ethics helped these two students find clarity about their future career and life paths.

Read More


From research projects to pedagogical practice, we field programs that work to build bridges from classrooms and campus to local and regional communities and to communities across the nation and around the globe.

Nine Tips for Ethical Community Engagement

Choosing to devote your time and energy to a community organization is commendable, but good intentions don’t always lead to positive impacts.

Read these nine tips from Kay Jowers to learn how you can make the best contributions while volunteering — and how to cultivate meaningful relationships while you do it.

Read More

“There are times when I have felt like the annoying pest in the room, but then I would show up at a potluck a couple of weeks later and be introduced by a community member as someone who was really helping them.”

Kay Jowers
Director, Just Environments

From Classroom to Cattle Farm: Lessons Learned from DukeEngage Costa Rica

Herding cattle on horseback was just one of several new experiences for Dhruv Rungta in DukeEngage Costa Rica, where he worked on a sustainable farm. He knew he had to be strategic when choosing problems to address during the short eight-week program. Ultimately, he chose the community’s priority areas — instead of his own. Via DukeEngage.

Read More
Activists Reflect on Event Commemorating Their Historic Environmental Justice Protest

Over 40 years ago, Dollie Burwell and Wayne Moseley were two of the 500 citizens arrested for protesting the State of North Carolina's plan to dump toxic waste in their Warren County community. A few weeks ago, they visited an exhibit dedicated to the protests in the Kenan-Keohane Gallery, and told a community audience about their experiences.

Read More
DukeEngage Builds Bridges with Communities in Eswatini

This summer, DukeEngage students worked with local community members and a team of masons to construct a suspension bridge over a seasonally flooding river in Eswatini. Limited to mostly rudimentary materials, they used pickaxes, shovels, and their bare hands. They finished the 122-meter-long bridge in just nine weeks. They came home with the experience of a lifetime. Via Duke Today.

Read More


The common good is dependent on institutions that transcend individuals and communities. Some of our programs work to assess and improve — or imagine anew — these institutions and the systems they support, which either enable or impede our ability to determine and meet the needs of our common life.

An 1898 Coup Still Echoes in Today’s United States; “Scene on Radio” Asks Us to Listen

The only successful coup d’état in United States history was in 1898. White supremacists seized political power and massacred Black citizens in Wilmington, North Carolina, then a thriving majority-Black community and the most populous city in the state.

Launching January 10, the new season of the podcast “Scene on Radio,” “Echoes of a Coup,” uses archival sources, scene-based recordings, interviews with historians, and the voices of community members to bring Wilmington to life — before, during, and after the coup.

Read More

“Before 1898, Wilmington was a functioning multiracial democracy. Black aldermen were being elected to office and Black-owned businesses were thriving. White supremacists blew that world off the map. If we hadn’t lost that, who knows what kind of world we might be living in today?

Michael A. Betts II
Assistant Professor of Film Studies, UNC-Wilmington
Co-Host, “Scene on Radio” Season Five

A man lies face down in the ground, with a shovel in one hand and the other clenched around a fistful of dirt.
Exploding the Structures of Everyday Life, and Creating Something New

“We can dig a lot into the structure of socialization simply by moving our bodies and asking questions.”

By creating the conditions for groups of people to experience and imagine new possibilities through movement, Michael Kliën says, we can change the world.

Read More
DukeEngage Provides Pathways to Research for Fulbright Scholar

A DukeEngage program asked students to envision new development possibilities for Paraguay, a small South American country with a big electricity surplus. Two years after participating in DukeEngage, Austin Connors traveled to Paraguay as a Fulbright Scholar to research its energy policies amid ongoing debates. Via DukeEngage.

Read More
Imagining the Pathways to a "Happy City"

Driven by the conviction that we need to reimagine current systems, the Regenerative Futures Lab ("rLab") is a self-organized group of students who work together to envision big societal changes. “Regenerative thinking is a mode of economic thought that centers wellbeing, justice, reciprocity, and care,” said Emma Williams, one of the lab's facilitators.

Read More