Research & Works in Progress

I work on a variety of issues in moral and political philosophy as well as philosophy of language. Both the pragmatics of normative language and the normative upshots of pragmatic communication fascinate me. I'm especially interested in questions relating to responsibility for the public meaning of our actions, as revealed in contexts of self-defense, promising, consent, and slur use.  

The papers below are in progress; click the titles to view the abstracts. For a draft, please email me (renee.bolinger@gmail.com).


Uncertainty and Moral Rights

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 implicit consent, evidential strength, and the ethics of war.

+ The Problem of the Mistaken Defender

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 contemporary accounts struggle to explain why.

+ The Moral Foundations of Mistaken Defense

I argue 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.

+ The Case for Conventional Defensive Permissions

I demonstrate that 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.

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. 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 allows 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.

Implications for Puzzles about Generalized Evidence

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.

+Demographic Statistics in Defensive Decisions

I argue that there is a significant asymmetry between defensive mistakes that are reasonable, because of the behavior of the apparent aggressor, and mistakes that are only rational, in which the evidence does not trace back to the apparent aggessor's agency. In the latter, mistaken defenders are responsible for the error. I examine and discard a series of arguments one might put forward to justify defenders in minimizing their risk exposure by relying on evidence (like background statistics) that does not trace back to the apparent aggressor's agency.

+The Rational Impermissibility of Accepting Racial Generalizations

I argue that racialized inferences (e.g. believing Fernando is a janitor, on the grounds that he is Salvadorean and most Salvadoreans in this area are janitors) instantiate species of a more general epistemic flaw: accepting a proposition when, given the stakes of the context, one is not adequately justified in doing so. I sketch an account of the nature of adequate justification---practical adequacy with respect to eliminating the ~P possibilities from one's epistemic statespace---and suggest that whether one is justified in accepting a proposition on generalized evidence partially depends on whether the membership conditions of the generalization satisfy constraints on permissible avoidable signaling conventions. If they do, then the moral stakes are lower, as the object of belief has waived their complaint against acceptance. Finally, I suggest that since racial membership conditions do not satisfy these constraints, generalizations based on race cannot justify acceptance of a proposition P if one risks wronging the object of belief if mistaken.

+ Explaining the Justificatory Asymmetry between Statistical and Individualized Evidence

In some cases, there appears to be an asymmetry in the evidential value of statistical and more individualized evidence. For example, while I may accept that Alex is guilty based on eyewitness testimony that is 80% likely to be accurate, it does not seem permissible to do so based on the fact that 80% of a group that Alex is a member of are guilty. In this paper I suggest that rather than reflecting a deep fact about the content of types of evidence, this asymmetry might arise from the moral features of the relation between the source of evidence and the target’s agency. While relying on statistical evidence plausibly raises the stakes of error by introducing new kinds of risk to members of the reference class, paradigmatically “individualized” evidence—evidence tracing back to A’s voluntary behaviour—lowers the stakes of error. Plausibly the degree of evidential support needed to justify accepting a proposition as true depends on the stakes of error. If so, then these facts explain the apparent evidential asymmetry without positing a deep difference in the brute justificatory power of different types of 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.


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 in progress, and one published, on the mechanics of these terms. 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.

+ Delimiting the Linguistic Community: Naive Slurring and Non-Derogatory Slurs

Some slurring terms (like 'queer') are eventually reclaimed; some fade from use (like 'coolie'). Others are active slurs in other communities, but operate at a remove from that history in this linguistic community (like 'gypsy' in American English). It's not clear that terms in these stages derogate; if they do, they plausibly do so differently from paradigmatic current slurs. Often speakers within a linguistic community use a term that they do not conceptualize as a slur, while other members of that community do conceptualize it as one. Theorists have been quick to categorize such speakers as linguistically incompetent naive slur-users when the terms in question are current, potent slurs, but it's less obvious what we should say for terms in one of the murkier stages just mentioned. This paper explores puzzles raised by these more ambiguous 'contested slurs', and aims to characterize some options for which facts we should take to determine whether a term is a slur in a given language, despite widespread ignorance of this fact, versus failing to count as a slur because of the widespread ignorance.

+ The Harm In Mental Illness Epithets

This paper aims to focus carefully on the topic of pejoratives relating to mental illness. I argue that though 'crazy' and similar mental illness-based epithets (MI-epithets) are not best understood as slurs, they do function to isolate, exclude, and marginalize members of the targeted group in ways similar to the harmfulness of slurs more generally. While they do not generally express the hate/contempt characteristic of weaponized uses of slurs, MI-epithets perpetuate epistemic injustice by portraying sufferers of mental illness as deserving minimal credibility. After outlining the ways in which these epithets can cause harm, I examine available legal and social remedies, and suggest that the best path going forward is to pursue a reclamation project rather than aiming to censure the use of MI-epithets.

+ Reporting Bad Beliefs: Solutions For Pragmatic Accounts Of Slurs

Pragmatic accounts of slurs are characterized by commitment to the equivalence thesis: that slurs are semantically equivalent to their neutral counterparts. I present the three most common objections to pragmatic approaches stemming from this thesis: the equivalence problem, that it makes “all (NCs) are (slurs)” a conceptual truth; the substitution problem, that the view falsely predicts slurs may be substituted into intensional contexts salva veritae; and the conversational problem, that reports omitting slurs are intuitively incomplete and thus indicate that slurs differ from NCs in semantic content. I show that pragmatic theorists have adequate responses to each objection. The substitution problem relies on principles she is free to deny, while the equivalence objection is question begging. Finally, the conversational problem relies on delicate data that does not clearly support a semantic interpretation.


+ Dissertation: Mistaken Defense and Normative Conventions

My dissertation examined 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.