For 15 years, U of T’s Centre for Ethics in the Faculty of Arts & Science has served as a nexus for research and discourse on the ethical aspects of virtually every subject imaginable. Today, issues raised by the pandemic, artificial intelligence and others are provoking urgent discussions that have never been held before.
But today’s scholars of ethics aren’t only looking at new problems: they’re questioning the very foundations of what many think of as received wisdom.
So says Amelia Eaton, a recent graduate who spent the past summer as a research assistant at the centre. “Working here has allowed me to appreciate how some ethical questions have always been present but are now getting renewed attention. People are exploring them in new ways.”
That’s especially true of today’s undergraduates, who are questioning long-held assumptions in areas such as race, gender and the environment.
Their innovative spirit gave Eaton the idea to organize a July conference showcasing scholarship on a diverse array of topics. Entitled “Ethics, Intersections, Reflections,” it was the Centre for Ethics’ first-ever undergraduate research conference.
Now entering her first year of law school at Dalhousie University, Eaton recently graduated from Woodsworth College with a major in ethics, society & law and minors in philosophy and political science. With a particular interest in prison research, her fascination for ethical questions drew her to seek an appointment at the Centre for Ethics as a work-study student during the last two years of her degree.
While there, she promoted and hosted events and worked on a number of important centre initiatives, including the Annotated Bibliography of Ethics of AI — part of the centre’s online companion to the Oxford Handbook of Ethics of AI — the centre’s array of podcasts and online journals, and its expansive collection of event videos available on its YouTube channel. She even started the Centre for Ethics’s TikTok account, one of the few institutional accounts on campus.
I can’t overstate the importance of having this centre at U of T. It shows that we can all talk about ethics: that we all have not only the ability but the obligation to ask normative questions about different institutions in our society. I used to think that artificial intelligence was a technology problem, that prisons were a sociology problem, and that surveillance was a political science problem. But ethics is what brings these subjects together. It allows all disciplines to be in conversation with one another.
Says Markus Dubber, director of the Centre for Ethics: “During her time at the centre, Amelia made tremendous contributions to all aspects of the centre’s intellectual life. She took full advantage of the opportunities and resources the centre has to offer, and even created new ones along the way! Working with other students and centre researchers, she became an integral part of the centre’s efforts to create a hub for interdisciplinary research across the University and to engage the public on a wide range of issues of ethical significance”.
Eaton’s work-study program complemented her ethics, society & law studies, where she was encouraged to train a fresh ethical eye on ideas both old and new. She adds that the Trinity College program also equipped her with skills in argumentation and deductive reasoning that will serve her well in law school.
Digging deep into ethical questions, however, requires discussion. In her first years at U of T, Eaton could easily meet that requirement with friends in coffee shops or pubs.
The pandemic changed all that. Yet even online, “everyone was still so passionate about what they were researching,” Eaton says, even though “that element was taken away from us. The few people who used to stick around after the tutorial couldn’t continue chatting, because everyone would just log out of Zoom and be done.”
Thus was born Ethics, Intersections and Reflections. Through targeted advertising and word of mouth, Eaton narrowed her conference applicants down to six presenters from a variety of diverse backgrounds, with expertise in everything from computer science to anthropology to religion to urban planning. “I didn’t want it to be ten papers about Simone de Beauvoir or Plato,” she says. “I wanted presentations on topics that students discuss all the time, things are that are happening right now.
“We were also really clear in our call for submissions that they didn’t have to be philosophy students. We got a great response — there were so many submissions, it was hard to get through all of them.”
What most gratified Eaton about the conference was the level of engagement it inspired. “The presenters were not only interested in showing their own work, but in drawing connections between what they were doing and what others were doing,” she says. “I know that students were able to develop connections that I wasn’t necessarily expecting.”Eaton looks forward to organizing more conferences as a law student, and hopes that her research initiative is carried on at the Centre for Ethics — a place that has been central to her evolution as a thinker.
“I can’t overstate the importance of having this centre at U of T,” she says. “It shows that we can all talk about ethics: that we all have not only the ability but the obligation to ask normative questions about different institutions in our society. I used to think that artificial intelligence was a technology problem, that prisons were a sociology problem, and that surveillance was a political science problem. But ethics is what brings these subjects together. It allows all disciplines to be in conversation with one another.”