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Undergraduate Spotlight: Caroline Aung

Caroline Aung graduates with a bachelor's degree in anthropology. 

Jun 12 2020
Diana Aguilera

Caroline Aung holds a strong commitment to helping and understanding others. This belief inspired her to write her honors thesis on the ethics of treating patients medically deemed near death who desire to live despite their short-term prognoses. The Ethics Center’s Undergraduate Honors Program allowed her to skillfully examine anthropological and philosophical scholarship and explore new ways of understanding desires for life as it approaches its end. Aung is the winner of the Ethics Center’s annual Lyle and Oliver Cook Prize, which is bestowed upon the graduating senior whose thesis best exemplifies the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship the honors program seeks to foster. We asked Aung about her experience writing an honors thesis. 

Why did you decide to participate in the Honors Program in Ethics in Society?

What initially stood out to me about the honors program was its interdisciplinary focus. As an anthropology major with interest in ethical theory, I was excited about pursuing a project that draws from disparate disciplines that I strongly believe have much to offer to each other. Anthropology’s ability to poignantly highlight the intimate narratives and experiences of individuals illuminates aspects of moral thinking often overlooked by ethical philosophers. Ethical philosophy provides helpful frameworks to make sense of the messiness of everyday life, central to ethnography.

In a few sentences, give us a sense of what your honors thesis research was about.

In my thesis, I show how denial, unrealistic optimism, and related mindsets that run against typical biomedical expectations sometimes should not fall prey to common criticism. Drawing on theories of epistemic injustice and the analytics of hope, I show what is morally and humanly significant about taking hospice patients with purportedly irrational attitudes seriously. I conclude with recommendations about how hospice care might be restructured to accommodate a more hopeful healthcare practice. Overall, I aim to expand the ways care providers assess and approach patients who aspire to go on living despite the pessimistic prognoses of medical professionals.

What was the single most rewarding aspect of writing your honors thesis?

The most rewarding aspect of developing my thesis was actively engaging in interdisciplinary thinking. Integrating both ethnography and ethical theory in my writing was something I’d never done before, and was honestly quite intimidating at first. Through this process, I learned that there are some academic costs in engaging with such interdisciplinary writing, but also many rewards including new and productive ways of thinking about complex topics. 

Beyond your thesis, what are some of the most memorable moments of your Stanford undergraduate experience?

The most meaningful aspect of my Stanford experience has been developing close friendships with people. I’ve gotten to know some of the kindest, funniest, and most thoughtful people on campus. I feel very lucky knowing that I’ll carry some of these friendships with me for the rest of my life. 

What opportunities would you like to pursue within the next five years?

I’m going to take a gap year after graduation to work in community health. I hope to use this time to further explore pressing issues in public health as well as figure out what kind of graduate school I’d like to pursue. I’m currently considering programs in public health, public policy, and medical anthropology/sociology.


"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's media portal for ethics-related news on campus and beyond. We review events and speakers, and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. A wide range of voices author the articles, including undergraduate students.