Writing an Ethics in Society honors thesis requires a level of rigor and resilience that Stanford undergraduates may never have to exercise during their time at the university. Just ask Ian Miller, who wrote his thesis on the decriminalization of same-sex relations between adults in India and the role privacy played in the country's 2018 Supreme Court decision to lift the ban. While grueling, the multiyear process of the Ethics Center's Undergraduate Honors Program was well paced and allowed him to analyze a rich social issue more deeply than Stanford's quarter system typically allows. We asked Miller to elaborate before he graduates this month:
Why did you decide to participate in the Honors Program in Ethics in Society (EiS)?
When contemplating whether to write my thesis in my home department (Philosophy) or in another program, I was concerned that the work I was interested in would not be considered properly philosophical. I wanted to tackle a social issue that could only be understood through an interdisciplinary approach combining an analysis of the law, anthropological study, historical development, and normative philosophical argumentation. I was attracted to the EiS mission of combining a rigorous theoretical approach with insights from quantitative and qualitative research. I was also drawn to the strength of the program itself. The earliness of the honors seminar allowed me to develop my ideas over the course of junior year so that I was prepared to conduct field research in the summer before senior year and begin the writing process well-prepared.
In a few sentences, give us a sense of what your honors thesis research was about.
My thesis project analyzes the role of the concept of privacy in the Indian Supreme Court’s 2018 decision to decriminalize same-sex sexual relations between adults. I argue that privacy is an imperfect legal basis for the rights of gender and sexual minorities. First, privacy-based protections exclude the significant population of persons who meet sexual partners in public places, perpetuating police violence enabled by state criminalization. Second, the way in which privacy is deployed relies on a sexist construction of the public/private distinction, which deprives women of state protections within the home. I argue that the problems associated with privacy are deeply entrenched in the Indian legal system, and that social progress requires a broad-based rethinking of the state’s regulation of sexual activity.
How would you contrast the work you put into completing your thesis with the rest of your academic experiences at Stanford?
In one word — harder. Completing a thesis requires the allocation of additional time outside of core course requirements over the course of a year. Maintaining focus and determination on a project of this scope was considerably more involved than anything I had done up to this point. As I began to write, however, this depth of engagement often made me feel more interested in writing my thesis than working on other classwork. I found myself more interested in the deep dive of a year-long project than the shallower work the quarter system allows. And, in the end, I felt that the thesis allowed me to do work in which I had much more personal investment and control.
What was the single most rewarding aspect of writing your honors thesis?
My thesis project has put me into contact with a number of astounding individuals. In the summer of 2018, I spent time in India meeting with academics, activists and lawyers involved in matters of sexuality. Their bravery, intelligence and passion for social change was deeply impacting for me.
What are your plans for after graduation? Will your work in Ethics in Society inform any opportunities you pursue?
Next year I’ll be working on a related research project in the Supreme Court of India archives with support from a Fulbright-Nehru student research grant. I’ll carry my interests in performing socially relevant academic work with me, an interest that was fostered in Ethics in Society.