Undergraduate Spotlight: Serena Zhou

Headshot of Serena Zhou

Photo of Serena Zhou

Serena Zhou is a senior majoring in philosophy and minoring in math. She’s writing a thesis through the Ethics in Society Honors Program and is also a Hume Honors Fellow. Serena grew up in Beijing, China, and is interested in the intersection of law, philosophy, and bioscience. Beyond her research, she serves as co-president of the Stanford Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Director of Publishing at the Stanford Undergraduate Law Review. She’s also a visual artist who enjoys oil painting and portraiture.

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

I wanted to challenge myself by producing a more extended academic writing that engages with political and moral philosophy. Compared to programs that begin toward the end of junior year, the programming timeline of Ethics in Society allowed me to perform extensive research on my topic and continuously rework my argumentation. In addition, I wanted to approach my topic through a philosophical lens while incorporating interdisciplinary methods. This approach allowed me to preserve the analytic frameworks of philosophy without feeling like my work was too theoretical.

What are you exploring for your honors thesis research?

My thesis explores the philosophical justification of criminal punishment. I argue that the dominant frameworks of retributivism and consequentialism are seriously flawed in their lack of respect for both victims and perpetrators of crime. As such, I propose a new justification for criminal punishment grounded in the state’s concern for ensuring citizens can relate to one another as equals. I argue that this framework avoids the reactive blame advocated by retributivism while recognizing crime as a form of interpersonal domination.

Explain why your topic interests you and share any “aha” moments that you’ve experienced in your research.

My topic interests me because I believe that our theories of punishment impact how we conceptualize criminal offenders, as well as the forms of violence we consider permissible to inflict upon those who have committed crimes. I take great issue with the ideology of retributivism, which claims that offenders intrinsically deserve to suffer for their past actions. While I first thought retributivism to be straightforwardly “barbaric,” I soon realized that it remains persuasive because of its ability to account for victims and crime as a form of interpersonal domination. As such, my thesis advocates for the fair treatment of both victims and offenders on the grounds of relational egalitarianism, rejecting the idea that offenders “deserve” to suffer and advocating for institutions of rehabilitation and reconciliation.

How do you define ethics, and how has this approach affected how you examine your thesis topic and your other studies?

I think of ethics as the study of how we should apply our moral principles to real-world situations, policies, and institutions. The emphasis on moral principles helps identify the core values that I would like my audience to share. It creates a firm theoretical basis upon which I can develop my analysis. However, I believe that the complexities of the real world cannot be captured in “top-down” theories of justice. As a result, my thesis is also influenced by anecdotal evidence of the actual impact of punitive institutions. This made me aware of the dangers of paternalism and the way that over-commitment to abstract principles can lead to further domination.