Eliza Wells will graduate from Stanford having left her mark at the university. She has written for the Stanford Daily, immersed herself in subjects ranging from religion to computer science, and along with one other classmate, led the university's first team to compete in the national debate tournment known as the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl. Wells also participated in the Ethics Center's Undergraduate Honors Program, writing a thesis about feminist ethics of care. Before she heads off to MIT to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy, we asked her about her experience as one of our honors students.
Why did you decide to participate in the Honors Program in Ethics in Society?
I have been working with the McCoy Center for Ethics in Society since my sophomore year, when I approached them to start an Ethics Bowl team and the Practical Ethics Club at Stanford. The Center helped me get both of those projects off the ground, and I was excited about their interdisciplinary vision, so the Ethics in Society program seemed like a natural fit to write my thesis. Though I ended up completing a more philosophy-oriented project than my original idea, I'm glad I chose the EiS program because of their consistent structure and support.
In a few sentences, give us a sense of what your honors thesis research was about.
I wrote my honors thesis about feminist ethics of care, which is a normative ethical framework focused on interdependence and vulnerability. My project was to fill a hole in the care ethics literature by proposing a model of a caring relation that mattered on both an individual and institutional level. I argued that there are certain attitudes we ought to have towards those we encounter, whether friends, strangers, or colleagues, and that we ought to work to meet their needs. If they respond to our care with similar attitudes towards us, then we are in a caring relation. I argued that this model better captures our intuitions about what care is, allowing us to care for those we love as well as for strangers. Thinking of institutional role-occupants as engaging in caring relations also helps us understand how institutions can care.
How would you contrast the work you put into completing your thesis with the rest of your academic experiences at Stanford?
I think I learned more writing my thesis than I have in any other experience at Stanford. The opportunity to take a problem that mattered to me and wrestle with it over the course of almost a year and a half, rather than just ten weeks, was incredible. My thinking was able to change a lot in that time – I started out with a completely different thesis idea – and I was able to really try to find a good solution, not just a passable one. In the end, it felt like I was able to make an original contribution, which is something that rarely happens in term papers. This was a much bigger project than I had ever done before, so it forced me to stretch my thinking, writing, and time-management skills in ways for which I am very grateful.
What was the single most rewarding aspect of writing your honors thesis?
I really enjoyed the experience of getting to know a particular literature very well. It was exciting to see articles about ethics of care and have already read the books that were mentioned, as well as to be able to tell when the authors were interpreting those texts differently. I was also able to see how so many parts of philosophy connected to each other, which, though it was sometimes overwhelming, gave me a deeper appreciation for what it means to do that kind of work.
What are your plans for after graduation? Will your work in Ethics in Society inform any opportunities you pursue?
Next year, I will pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy at MIT. My hope is to continue working on ethics of care in the long term, and I know that my experience writing a thesis has helped enormously in preparing me to do higher-level work in philosophy.