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The Buzz

Ethics in Society student honored with Rhodes Scholarship

By Lily B. Clausen on November 28, 2012

Stanford senior Margaret Hayden was sitting at one end of a long conference table at a law firm in Manhattan. On the other end were seven panelists deciding her fate as a 2013 Rhodes Scholar.

What else should they know about her that they hadn’t already asked, one of them inquired. “I know we’ve talked about how I’m interested in mental illness,” she recalled telling the panel. “But more broadly I’m interested in how humans come to terms with these essential vulnerabilities in our condition.” 

Hayden is among 32 young Americans selected as 2013 Rhodes Scholars. The oldest and most celebrated international fellowship awards, the scholarship provides all expenses for two or three years of study at Oxford University. Rhodes Scholars are awarded not only for scholarly achievements, but for their character, commitment to others and to the common good, and for their potential for leadership. Stanford student Rachel Kolb, who is studying for her master’s in English, is also a 2013 Rhodes Scholarship recipient.

Hayden is a senior majoring in human biology and is writing her honors thesis in the Program in Ethics in Society. She is the second student in recent years from the Program to be recognized with a Rhodes Scholarship. Last year former Ethics in Society honors student Aysha Bagchi was recognized with the prestigious award.

Hayden came to the undergraduate ethics program as a freshman to bring ethical reflection to bear in her studies. “I like that we have this small cohort of students that we get to know,” she said. “There’s a lot of personal attention and community.”

In her working thesis, "The Ethical Implications of Biological Conceptions of Mental Illness and Personhood," Hayden explores the ethics of patient care.

"I’m interested in how people think about mental illness and how that changes across different cultures and across time,” Hayden said. “And then the connections between how we talk about mental illness and the larger questions about what it means to be humans — questions of autonomy and moral responsibility.”

Hayden hopes to pursue a master's degree in anthropology at Oxford.

Reached at her family home in Brunswick, Maine, Hayden recounted the moments leading up to finding out she was a recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship. After leaving the interview room she said she “sighed a big sigh of relief that she didn’t have to go back into the stressful conference room again,” and took a seat with 11 other nervous finalists from her northeast region, “just waiting for what was going to happen next.”

“At around 4:30 p.m. the panelist filed into our room and I had my face set to smile at whoever would win,” she said. “And then they said my name and I was so shocked. I wasn’t sure where to look or whose hand to shake.”

Hayden spoke with the Ethics Center about what the award means to her as a budding ethicist.

Q: Do you identify as an ethicist? If so, what does that mean to you?

A: I think I'm still figuring out what exactly ethics means to me, but I saw the Ethics in Society program as a space where I could study and grapple with issues I cared about in terms that went beyond what was most efficient or politically and economically effective. Not that those aren't worthwhile concerns, but I think even as a freshman I had a vague awareness that I was interested in deeper, more philosophical investigations - questions that don't have easy, factual, objective answers.

Q: How does studying ethics shape you as a scholar? And how does ethics inform the way you’ve developed intellectually?

A: I hope that my thesis and my time in the Ethics in Society program will serve as a foundation for my future studies. I'm not planning on going on to graduate work in philosophy, but I do, at least right now, think I want to spend the rest of my life thinking about issues of mental illness, and how, within that topic, moral, medical, economic, and political interests get so intertwined. Personally, my thesis has been a way to establish what I think of these issues, and why they matter to me - so that as I go forth and do perhaps more empirical research, I'll always be able to refer back to this work.

Q: Please explain your thesis work and the most interesting ethical dimension that’s come up.

A: I'm interested in different ways of thinking about mental illness and the way these different models have different implications for how we view human nature more broadly. I still need to work out the details (I definitely haven't finished, even though that's what one press release says), but my instinct is that the biomedical paradigm may fail to recognize the patient within the illness experience, and this is both clinically and morally relevant. While I'm not sure exactly what I will argue or how I want to craft my argument, I see myself defending the view that a more sophisticated explanation of mental illness is necessary, one that can admit and recognize illness and disease without sacrificing the moral worth or personal responsibility of the patient.

Q: What most excites you about being a Rhodes Scholar?

A: The reality of this honor is only beginning to sink in, but I'm incredibly, incredibly excited about the prospect of studying at Oxford. Honestly, I really do love being at school - so it's pretty great that I get to continue studying at another world-class university. I think I'm equally excited about meeting the other students. I've met Rachel, the other student from Stanford, and Phil, the other winner from my district and they seem to be not only incredibly intelligent, but also very kind and lovely people. I can't wait to learn from and with the other students.

"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's student-driven news portal. We review events and speakers and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. Undergraduate Stanford students write the articles and the Center for Ethics in Society edits and produces the content so that the student writers learn to translate academic subject matter into accessible terms and strengthen the clarity and precision of their writing.