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.

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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.

Sarai Chaidez and Lana Gesinsky

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 careers — and themselves.

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“There is no direct answer to these really difficult questions. That is the struggle – and beauty – of ethics.”

Sarai Chaidez T’23
Ethics & Society Certificate Student

“I feel like ethics are usually just one day in a class. It’s like, we’re talking about a field, and we’ll talk about ethics for one day. But ethics should be a prolonged conversation.” 

Lana Gesinsky T’23
Ethics & Society Certificate Student

Detail from a self-portrait by Paul Gauguin
What should we do with the works of immoral artists?

Whether music, fiction, or film, art plays an important role in our lives. But how do we deal with artists whose actions deeply unsettle us? "Drawing the Line," a public conversation between Erich Hatala Matthes and Tom Rankin on February 6, explored this and other questions. Via Duke Research Blog.

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"The Good Place" creator Michael Schur discusses the good life with Adriane Lentz-Smith

On October 14, 2022, the Emmy-winning comedy writer and creator of “The Good Place,” Michael Schur, discussed his personal journey through moral philosophy in search of guidance for how to be a better person.

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Quinn Smith holding a tripod over his shoulder
Brodhead Fellow works with Chickasaw Nation to tell Native stories

A citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, a Public Policy major, and Documentary Studies certificate student, Quinn Smith spent his summer as a Brodhead Fellow in Ada, Oklahoma, working with Chickasaw Nation Productions, the Nation’s media production company. Via DukeEngage.

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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.

Four people hold four canvas with a mural on them

Dreams of Wilmington’s Past: Confronting History Through Art

Earlier this spring, America’s Hallowed Ground organized a set of free artist workshops in Wilmington, N.C. that explored the city’s fraught history of racial violence after the Reconstruction period. Two community members shared their experience with us.

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“They say I survived, but what does survival mean
When you see with the eyes that I’ve seen?
Been standing in this ground rooted for over 100 years.
My backbone is strong, built brick by brick
By the freemasons, freed enslaved,
And those who couldn’t write their names.”

Mahlaynee Cooper
Teaching Artist, DREAMS of Wilmington
Excerpt from a dramatic monologue on the Wilmington race massacre and coup of 1898, written from the point of view of St. Joseph’s AME Church


Kate D'Onofrio on West Campus
A Duke Dorm for Big Ideas — and Differing Opinions

Transformative Ideas offers courses to Duke sophomores on big ideas — like "the good life," the nature of love, or the history of science. Now it also offers a living-learning community for students who want a space on campus to freely discuss politics, religion, or simply how they want to live their lives. Via Duke Today.

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A volunteer fills out a tag with information on the remains of a body that was found in the Sonora Desert as part of the Hostile Terrain exhibit.
"Hostile Terrain 94" highlights costs of border policy through collaboratively constructed exhibit

An art exhibit commemorating many lives lost along the US-Mexico Border brings community members together.

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speech bubbles becoming less defined as they approach one another
Civil Discourse Project summer seminar seeks to support disagreeing well in college classrooms

The Civil Discourse Project sponsored a faculty seminar this summer on creating a classroom environment that enables students to discuss polarizing topics. True to their purpose, the faculty disagreed — but they disagreed well. Via The Chronicle for Higher Education.

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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.

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.

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We hold social attitudes about who deserves assistance, and some people are believed to be more deserving. There is an interaction between who we believe deserves to eat and the federal policies that shape how people get access to food.”

Aaron Lam, T’26
rLab Student

Cover of A Permanent Parliament
Social Choreography for Social Change

“It’s art as a way of seeing, and a way of reflecting and creating meaning. It also becomes practically useful to everyday life. It’s meant to be a tool for the general betterment of everyone and everything.”

Can art save us? Proponents of the emerging field of social choreography think it can.

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Angela Garbes speaking
Rethinking — and Revaluing — Care

It's the work that makes all other work possible — yet it is unpaid or underpaid. That work is mothering, along with other forms of care such as child care, health care, disability care, and more. On January 27, author Angela Garbes visited Duke and Durham to provoke thinking about the way that our society values — or doesn't value — care work.

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Kenan Senior Fellow Patrick T. Smith recently wrote that medical schools can help create a "culture of health" by promoting the virtue of solidarity, which "calls us to confront inequalities in health outcomes and advocate for the those on the margins.” Via Virtues & Vocations.

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