The Ethics, Society & Law (ES&L) Program engages students across disciplines and teaches them how to ask questions, think critically, conduct wide-ranging research and take meaningful action. The humanities, social sciences and natural sciences all provide useful lenses for thinking about the world. Students are required to cover core areas in each stream, but can select their own areas of focus from many optional courses.
ES&L is the only undergraduate program in Canada that integrates the three fields that give the program its name. Trinity College has been sponsoring the ES&L program on behalf of the Faculty of Arts & Science since 1988.
ES&L is open to all students in the Faculty of Arts & Science on the St. George campus, regardless of college affiliation. For first-year students, Trinity College offers the Ethics, Society & Law stream in the Margaret MacMillan Trinity One Program.
ES&L prepares students for further studies or careers in such fields as law, public policy, philosophy, political science, public health, social work and criminology. Providing a potent academic and professional foundation, ES&L also helps students to become alert, engaged and effective citizens.
Original published in Mindful Journal of Ethics 2018-2019
Nicholas Slawnych is a third-year student studying Ethics, Society, and Law, Philosophy, and Russian Language at the University of Toronto. He is especially interested in ethical representation in the literature of Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Melville.
Tarik Bacchus graduated from Ethics, Society, and Law and Criminology from the University of Toronto in 2006, and has since worked with various non-profits with foci on poverty, employment, food security, homelessness, and harm reduction. Tarik is currently the Vice-Chair of the Board of the Toronto Hostels Training Centre and the shelter manager at University Settlement’s Out of the Cold emergency shelter in downtown Toronto.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Nicholas and Tarik focused on the intersection of ethical theory and practice, the moral reasoning employed in responses to Toronto’s housing needs, and the value of interdisciplinary education.
N: How did you discover your current line of work?
T: I was raised with some concepts of equity and political consciousness and all that kind of stuff. My father was an immigrant and my mother was born here. Her family lived here for many generations, so seeing that blend gave me a unique perspective. Through U of T and ES&L specifically there were a lot of courses that allowed me to have more of a critical lens on a lot of structures. After I graduated there weren’t a lot of ethicist jobs posted and I needed to earn some money. At that time, the plan was to take a year, earn some money and write the LSATs and you know, do the normal thing. I ended up taking a job at a non-profit working in the employment department, and just through a series of fortunate of steps, absences and gaps and things like that, starting out there from employment services I got into homelessness and hunger.
In general, I was thinking of doing probations and parole as one avenue, law as another, but again I was young and idealistic, I was thinking legal aid law, or some sort of advocacy. I worked a lot in poverty but not in homelessness per se, so precarious housing and things like that were up there, but they had never occurred to me as a potential career path. So I spent a couple of nights seeing how things ran there, and I realized that was what I’m supposed to be doing.
N: What does an average day in your line of work look like?
T: “Out of the Cold” was a little more wild west. It was a part-time shelter and I was the only full-time staff with a very dedicated team of part-timers who came to staff ships. It was extremely low barrier; many of the individuals who used it were reluctant to access more traditional shelters because of safety concerns, or they weren’t ready to cooperate with case management, or they weren’t ready to work on housing from their perspective, so we were just a comfortable place where people felt safe. Along with that came some behaviours, a fair amount of alcohol use and drug use, and other self-medicating options that people take, but it was a very tight-knit community after all that. All of the residents and the staff felt very strongly about the program and its value.
Shelter services are structured because they’re better resourced by the community. In most cases there are people whose job it is to undertake each task, as opposed to “we gotta figure out how to get this done.” The structure is good, but you do sacrifice some seat of the pants capacity building. Again, great dedicated staff, still a good community of clients, although it is different, because in the shelter there is strong case management support and a lot of engagement with that process, but, also, a lot more housing getting done, a lot more people getting into housing.
On an average day I’ll review what happened over the past 24 hours, I’ll look at any incident reports, and if there are clients who are on the radar for any particular reasons—either they’re close to housing, or they’re not working on their housing. I’ll look at case notes, follow up with staff on any outstanding issues. There’s a lot of work that isn’t just at the shelter level as well: working on policy development, trying to create better processes for things like staffing and training. Most of the policies that I’d be working on day-to-day would typically be at the level of sites that I supervise, but in some cases, at the divisional level—things that we want to apply across the board. I provide a lot of escalation training for the staff as well.
N: What role do you see ethics playing in your current work?
T: There’s an antiseptic character to academia in general which you are confronted by when you enter the work environment, although there is ethical content every day in my work. When we transition people into other shelters because they’re not working on case plans and things like that, there are times when we are putting them at greater risk, so we have to balance that with who is going to be benefiting from the spot that is now created in the program, and just in general, ethics is very important in understanding the effect of homelessness in a wealthy country. I think what ethics theory gave me is the ability to take 10 steps back and look at the repetition and recapitulation of inequity throughout society, whether it’s within a corporate structure, within in economics, within housing and homelessness, within racial dynamics … ethics is there everywhere.
There’s an element of trying to make sure that people have access to the program from which they will reap the greatest benefit at any given time. Sometimes a particular program, which may have very similar structure to another program, will be a greater benefit to one person than another, and we respond to that benefit. We start with “nobody sleeps outside,” and then try to accommodate individual needs as best we can after that.
N: If there’s one piece of advice that you could give to current ES&L students, what would it be?
T: Don’t marry your path too hard. There are a lot of paths, and a lot of them are serendipitous. Small avenues you’ll take, large avenues you’ll take, there is a lot that you can’t predict. Don’t be sad about that.
Original published in Mindful Journal of Ethics 2018-2019
Chris Sims is a third-year student in Economics, Philosophy, and Mathematics with a deep interest in ethical issues.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Chris and Anthony Morgan focused on what working on an anti-black racism unit looks like, issues surrounding communication and justification, and the importance of writing effectively.
C: What does your everyday work life look like?
A: My everyday work life consists of either arranging or delivering training and development seminars to City of Toronto workers identify and address anti-black racism in service delivery and colleague interactions. I could be meeting with, say, the head of a Parks and Recreation division to discuss ways to make public spaces more inclusive for black Torontonians or delivering a training session to paramedics, police, or public health workers to discuss ways in which they can be mindful of the needs of black Torontonians while delivering services.
C: After your undergrad, you went to law school and then practiced as a lawyer for several years–what kinds of similarities do you see between your current work and your years as a lawyer?
A: You have to be an effective communicator in both roles. Even if you’re a solicitor, you have to convey a level of confidence that your client can trust the work you’re doing and that you have the expertise to provide the legal services they need. Here at the City, we’re often engaging in very challenging conversations and people need to know that I’m not there to berate them–I’m there to help them recognize and respond positively to instances of racism. Of course, in law you’re working in adversarial situations whereas now I find myself in more of an exchange with others and a teaching role.
C: What role do you see ethics, broadly considered, playing in your current work?
A: It shapes everything you do in the sense that you have to have a frame- work for engaging with questions about what is right or wrong. We always have to think about what kinds of benefits we want: do the ends justify the means, or should we think in more Kantian terms? There are also notions like Rawls’ overlapping consensus–when you have tensions and questions surrounding the fact that we have disparate outcomes for one community compared to more privileged communities, it’s important to think of how we can create a frame policies to address that disparity in way that’s persuasive and appeals to specific ethical norms.
So many questions about intervention in various ways are ethical in nature. For instance, when we think about homelessness and how the City should respond, we need to recognize that resources are finite and that some people are going to have to lose a bit to help others gain a bit more. You need some kind of ethical framework to both shape your point of entry and be persuasive when trying to change and shift policy.
C: Do you find there are often issues with justifications when you’re discussing with others?
A: One of the challenges is having a targeted focus on black communities. While people are generally supportive, there are sometimes questions about why we can’t work towards equity and inclusivity more generally. And while we support those sorts of initiatives, they still don’t get you there. There’s a history of marginalization and exclusion that’s the result of conscious and unconscious decisions to harm this particular community, and it’s difficult to get to those discussions from more general notions of equity. Somewhat separately, I also hear people ask me about why we focus on anti-black racism when so many other groups still face discrimination—a sort of “All Lives Matter” approach. Of course that’s true, but often the most ready solution people suggest, colour-blindness, doesn’t fix the underlying problems even though it may be a good thing to do from a personal perspective.
C: How does Toronto fare in comparison to other cities when it comes to addressing anti-black racism?
A: I think I can comfortably say that the City of Toronto is more advanced than the vast majority of municipalities across the Western world, with the caveat that the bar is quite low. We have the advantage of being a very diverse city which allows for a richness of ideas to be exchanged even if it doesn’t directly translate to policy. Still, the City of Toronto is the only municipality I know of that has a permanent office addressing anti-black racism, even if that is more a recognition that there’s still so much further to go than anything else.
C: If there is one piece of advice that you could give to current ES&L students, what would it be?
A: Don’t underestimate how important your ability to communicate your thoughts in writing is. Throughout undergrad, law school, and my professional life I’ve known many people who are brilliant thinkers but can’t write very clearly, so their brilliance just doesn’t translate across the written page. I’ve joked with John Duncan before that I don’t think I would have gotten into the program today if I had applied given how much the calibre of the ES&L cohort has increased. With social media, the engagement with different people and ideas is far and beyond what was possible when I was going through. Nevertheless, when I talk with university educators a lot of them discuss how the level of writing is of- ten weaker than the level of intelligence of their students. Even though our society is in many ways a very visual one, the most important and long-lasting ideas tend to be the ones that are written down.
Ethics, Society & Law has given me opportunities beyond the reach of an average undergraduate student.
I’ve been introduced to graduate-level research methods and have learned to think holistically about discourse and society.
- Mahta Talani, University College student (Class of 2019)