General Research Overview

I'm interested in how informal social practices structure our relationships in ways that change what we are permitted to do. The significance of these practices is easy to overlook when we are focused on institutions and individuals, but they are an important part of the solutions to a wide array of puzzles in social and political philosophy, ethics, and philosophy of language. My main research projects arise from tracing two lines of inquiry running from social practices to the public meanings of behaviors. The first concerns the mechanisms by which informal practices and expectations determine the meaning of terms and actions. The second is normative, asking what constraints must a practice satisfy in order to have the power to shift the boundaries of agents' moral rights and obligations, and what justifies or gives normative power to conventions like these?

The first, mechanical line of inquiry naturally feeds into a range of questions in the philosophy of language about the appropriate analysis of the semantics of offensive terms (e.g. slurs and pejoratives). This semantic debate in turn has significant implications for the appropriate social and legal response to slurring and hate speech. The normative line (which I take up in my dissertation and related papers) leads us to recognize that uncertainty shapes the moral demands agents can make on each other. Many of our interactions involve actions that are permissible---perhaps even called for---if our assumptions about the moral landscape are correct, but violate someone’s rights if we are mistaken. The need to fairly distribute the risk and costs of these mistakes in a society gives us moral reason to adopt ``normative conventions'': social practices that mediate, and in some cases alter the contours of, agents’ rights. I’m especially interested in the conditions under which such conventions can attach morally significant public meanings to behaviors (e.g. consenting by nodding, promising by shaking hands, etc.), which make it morally permissible for others to treat the agent as having consented, promised, etc. Identifying constraints on normative conventions is theoretically fruitful, allowing us not only to better understand agents’ rights and permissions under uncertainty, but also to make progress on thorny questions about evidential strength, the ethics of war, and implicit consent.


Slurs, Pejoratives, and Epithets

Racial, ethnic, and gender-based slurs are a clear instance of broader cultural meaning overruling a speaker’s particular intentions: we hold speakers responsible for the public meaning of the slurs they use, rather than only for what they directly intended to communicate. I have three papers so far on the mechanics of these terms: I argue (in “Pragmatics of Slurs”, in Nous) that the offensiveness of slurs is best explained by appeal to stable social expectations rather than special semantic content. Since unforced use of a slur typically co-occurs with contemptuous attitudes toward the target group, a speaker’s free choice to use a slur in contrast to an alternative term signals that she endorses these attitudes. This simple account explains most of the widely recognized features of slur terms, and (as I argue in “Reporting Bad Beliefs”) can adequately explain puzzles raised by indirect quotation and belief contexts.

I take up questions about the specific kind of harms imposed by slurs and pejoratives in an in-progress paper (“Harm in Mental Illness Epithets”). I also plan to pursue a variety of related questions in future papers, including the moral and theoretical significance of interpersonal phenomena like offense, ethical and legal questions concerning the kind of wrongs imposed by hate speech, and the appropriate social response to these wrongs.


Ethics of Defensive Harm

My dissertation focuses on questions from the normative line of inquiry, specifically on the justification for and constraints on normative conventions mediating defensive permissions. If an agent is confronted by a possible aggressor with a gun, she faces an urgent, high stakes decision: she must risk either being unjustly killed (if she mistakenly assumes the person is not a threat) or killing an innocent (if she mistakenly assumes the person is a threat.) These scenarios are a good starting point for inquiry into normative conventions for two reasons: first, the harms involved in the event of either error are easily comparable; second, the urgency of defensive decisions precludes resolving the uncertainty by deferring decision until one has gathered more information.

On the dominant views, an agent is permitted to impose defensive harm on another just when it is genuinely necessary and to avert an unjust threat, and the defensive harm is proportionate to the threat it averts. It follows that mistaken defense is impermissible--no matter how reasonable the mistake--because the harm imposed is not in fact necessary to avert any threat. Careful attention to cases of reasonably mistaken self-defense reveals the normative structure of defensive permissions within a society to be more nuanced than this, but (as I show in `Problem of the Mistaken Defender') contemporary accounts struggle to explain why. I argue (in `Moral Grounds of Mistaken Defense') that uncertainty over whether threats are genuine creates a coordination problem for well-intentioned agents, which if left unresolved, results in an unjust distribution of risks. Agents most careful to avoid violating others’ rights are most likely to suffer aggressive rights-violations because they are hesitant to defensively harm ambiguous threats. The problem is best resolved by marking some actions (like pointing a gun at someone) as conventionally threat-indicating signals, holding that if an agent A behaves in these ways and could easily have avoided doing so, A cannot reasonably demand that S refrain from defensive action. So, if S lacks countervailing evidence she is morally permitted to impose defensive harm on A.

I demonstrate (in `The Case for Conventional Defensive Permissions') that such a convention has the normative power to alter the boundaries of agents' stringent rights only if constrained in a few important ways: (1) all agents must be able to avoid signaling without undue cost, and (2) no agent can be placed in a position of signaling aggression by default. These then are necessary constraints on permissible reliance on a normative convention.

There is good reason to think not just that defensive permissions could work this way, but that our accountability practices for mistaken self-defense do in fact rely on such a convention. Anglo-American law commonly exonerates defenders who acted as a `reasonable person' in their place would act, but there are significant difficulties in interpreting this standard. I plan in future work to show that the framework I offer in my dissertation provides a way of conceptualizing the content of the standard that explains the importance, but also the limitations of typicality, and captures the intuitive idea that whether a defender’s mistaken use of force is justified is intimately connected to the kind of reasons she had for assuming force was necessary. Beyond yielding interpretive resources, the framework also puts us in a good position to evaluate the permissibility of our actual accountability practices. In `Racial Bias in Defensive Harm' (in The Journal of Political Philosophy), I draw on this account to argue that current legal determinations of the reasonableness of mistakes in the United States are distorted by signals for threateningness that are not avoidable, and are thus unjust.


Implications for Puzzles about Generalized Evidence

My next several projects build on the dissertation in various ways, first by utilizing insights from individual defensive permissions to make headway on some epistemic puzzles. I am currently working on the first three of several papers (`Demographic Statistics in Defensive Decisions’, 'Explaining Asymmetries', and `Rational Impermissibility of Racial Generalizations’) detailing why there should be an asymmetry in the justificatory work various sources of evidence can do, and how this in turn helps explain why statistical evidence so often fails to justify morally risky beliefs more generally.

The rich structure of normative conventions carves out new space for accounting for the evidence-dependent flavor of some moral permissions while constraining what type of evidence can ground the permissions. Evidence that consists in observing A perform a signaling behavior (like drawing a weapon) is privileged: it undermines A's complaint against suffering the costs of a mistake. Evidence that is not privileged can make action rational, but does not render a mistake permissible, and so does not lower the moral stakes of error. This asymmetry grounds a powerful explanation of the apparently mismatched justificatory force of different types of evidence, (e.g. why observing A draw a weapon is stronger evidence than third-party testimony, which is stronger than facts about statistical odds given A's apparent group memberships), and gives a principled distinction between mistakes that are morally permissible given A's behavior, and mistakes that are only excused given S's evidence.


Implications for Just War and State Use-of-Force

One of the next steps in my research is to extend the conclusions from civilian self-defense to implications for police use-of-force and military actions. This work will include a paper on the extent to which two signature commitments of classical Just War theory, the Moral Equality of Combatants (that combatants on each side are morally permitted to target and kill combatants on the other) and the Asymmetry thesis (that civilians are not legitimate direct targets, while combatants are) can be vindicated by my account, without taking on classical theory's more controversial commitments. Because normative conventions privilege a particular kind of evidence (signaling behaviors), the picture I offer can vindicate the Asymmetry thesis relatively straightforwardly.

Perhaps more surprisingly, it can also ground a restricted version of the Moral Equality of Combatants: so long as a combatant does not have good evidence that he himself poses an unjust threat, he is permitted (by the signal) to impose apparently necessary defensive harm on the armed combatants of the opposing side. With the exception of soldiers fighting patently unjust wars, this will result in a sort of parity of permissions to impose defensive and counter-defensive harm. Unlike the more standard justification, which grounds soldiers’ permissions in the right of a State to defend itself against unjust threats, the signaling story I propose need not first determine whether the group is organized enough to count as a State.


Implications for Consent and other Moral Powers

Further in the future, I aim to extend the conclusions established for defensive harm to other moral interactions including consenting. Analyzing implicit consent in terms of normative conventions has real promise as a descriptive theory. Controversies over `victim-blaming' in sexual assault can be readily understood as protest that the features commonly appealed to (e.g. dress, flirtatious behavior, etc.,) fail the constraints on permissible conventions, and so are ineligible as morally significant signals. Meanwhile the appeals themselves are easily glossed as claims that wearing such apparel or behaving those ways are permissible signals of consent. Interpreting the conflict this way does not immediately settle which side is mistaken, but it does allow us to make sense of the significance of the disagreement, and provides tools for approaching and adjudicating these disputes. Drawing on the lessons from the case of defensive permissions, a thorough treatment of implicit consent in these terms must ask whether, given the comparative risks (for each party) of errors and the costs of avoidance, an agent’s decision to behave or dress in these ways undermines her standing to complain against suffering the costs of error.