Why do we give kids a break when it comes to criminal law? This is the fundamental question explored by Amanda Orbuch in her Ethics in Society honor thesis. The multiyear process of the Undergraduate Honors Program helped Orbuch find her own philosophical voice and the intellectual courage to develop and defend her own distinct approach — as she came to call it “the invitation to participate” view. Orbuch also participated in the national tournament known as the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl. The group led by Associate Director for Undergraduate Outreach Collin Anthony made it to quarter finals in February. Before graduation, we asked Orbuch to elaborate on her experience.
Why did you decide to participate in the Honors Program in Ethics in Society?
I wasn’t sure that writing a thesis was right for me. In large part, that stemmed from my worry that I couldn’t commit myself to a single topic at the exclusion of all of the other ethical questions that interested me. Over the course of my college career, I found myself returning time and time again to questions about agency — the supposed prerequisite to choice and meaningful decision-making — and how that relates to moral responsibility. Underpinning these questions was a deep skepticism regarding free will. I couldn’t find in anyone a sufficient agency — irreducible to genetic predisposition or environmental influence — to constitute the kind of “will” that we refer to in life and the criminal justice system when we hold people accountable.
Once I recognized this foundational interest, I felt eager to write a thesis. Writing it through the Honors Program in Ethics in Society was the result of two factors: first, I took Justice with Professor Reich my freshman year, and after the end of the course, he suggested that I consider the program. Second, my philosophical inquiries were buttressed by how these concerns would bear on real societal practices — the kind that affect real people. I was concerned with what my study would tell me about the way we ought to treat people.
In a few sentences, give us a sense of what your honors thesis research was about.
My thesis explored why we give kids a break in the law relative to adults. The common-sense rationale — that kids’ brains are underdeveloped, that kids are more impulsive, that kids lack life experience — fails in at least one significant way. It over-includes the 17-year-old who fully understands the significance of his actions and excludes the 19-year-old who is not quite there yet in terms of maturity. Age seems to be a proxy for another characteristic — moral understanding, perhaps — that we care about, and it may not even be the best proxy at that.
Because some minors are perfectly capable of decision-making in the same way as adults, it does not seem clear that we are equipped to provide a break for kids qua kids. My goal was to understand whether it is possible to arrive at a class-based exemption for kids. Through interrogating two competing theories that both purport to account for breaks for kids, I arrived at my own theory — the “invitation to participate” view. By this view, we really do legally exempt kids because we view them as less morally responsible, but their reduced moral responsibility is not due exclusively to their capabilities. It is attributable to what “child” status means to people in a moral community with one another.
What was the single most rewarding aspect of writing your honors thesis?
I think the challenge of developing my own comprehensive view on a topic was the most rewarding aspect of this experience. In most of my classes when I was asked to take stances or develop positions to some degree, this was generally done in a limited way.I hadn’t really done this kind of in-depth generative thinking before. This thesis challenged me to commit myself to a long-term project wherein I would think slowly and deeply about a topic in order to develop a robust theory capable of withstanding critique. It challenged me in terms of the timeframe, scale and the creativity that it called for. Because of this, I am finishing the thesis with the sense that I legitimately made something, and that is an empowering feeling.
Beyond your thesis, what are some of the most memorable moments of your Stanford undergraduate experience?
I found competing with the Stanford Ethics Bowl to be a particularly meaningful experience. I learned to work through genuine disagreement on sensitive issues, to find my voice, and to listen openly. More specifically, my memories of laughing through late-night practices in the Alondra lounge, sharing pizza in a hotel room as we speed-rehearsed cases on the day of the competition, and flying back to Stanford as we reflected on our rounds serve as a reminder that we built something unique.
I also feel like some of my classes were especially impactful. From reading, “Bartleby, The Scrivener” in Perspectives on the Good Life, to laying the foundation for my philosophical studies in Justice, I feel quite strongly that my classes have really influenced the way I operate both as a thinker and as a person. Hard Science Fiction, “Evolution of the Social Contract,” and “Philosophy of Physics: Space, Time, and Motion,” all pushed me to think in new ways, to draw in knowledge from other disciplines, and to grow intellectually.
Above all, the most memorable part of my Stanford experience was meeting some really special people. Getting to know friends who are incredibly different from me — living and learning with them — ultimately gave me a deep sense of belonging and a richer perspective on the world. Those relationships have been so important to me, and through the joys and complexities of navigating them, I have found so much personal growth. I will miss the convenience of having those special people near me every day.
What opportunities would you like to pursue within the next five years?
This is a hard question. The easiest answer would be law school, and I do genuinely think that this is part of my path. Given my concerns for justice, I imagine that practicing law and/or government work are in my future, and law school would be an important stepping stone towards that. That being said, I know that the “anything is possible” culture of Stanford has heavily impacted me, and I find myself drawn to the entrepreneurial, inventive world of technology — particularly in light of the capacity for tech to help many of the most pressing political, social, and economic problems facing the world today. I’m not quite sure what that synthesizes in terms of a path for the next five years, but it feels like the truest reflection of me.