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My dissertation research focuses on problems relating to mistaken self-defense: cases where the agent inflicts harm on someone she takes to be an aggressor, but in fact posed no genuine threat. These cases present moral and legal puzzles. Intuitively there are some cases of reasonably mistaken self-defense in which the agent does nothing wrong, as well as some cases where the defensive agent wrongs the other and owes compensation. None of the prominent accounts in moral philosophy are well-positioned to explain the intuitive pattern of responsibility for the costs of mistaken self-defense.
After considering several alternatives, I argue that an essential part of what morally justifies agents in these cases is a moral signaling convention. Since this convention is used to negotiate the boundaries of agents’ rights against harm, it must satisfy some minimal moral constraints: ensure that agents can easily avoid signaling, and not place any group of agents in a position of signaling aggression by default. Having established this as a model for morally significant signaling conventions, I argue that the legal ‘reasonability’ standard as currently applied fails to satisfy the minimal moral constraints, because it implicitly appeals to racial markers as signals of threateningness. We are therefore obligated to reform our practices by altering the signaling convention so that it satisfies the minimal constraints.
My main advisors are Jonathan Quong, Robin Jeshion, and Mark Schroeder.
Chapter summaries are below; for full drafts, feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Problem of the Mistaken Defender
Though there is widespread agreement that agents are justified in imposing defensive harm in at least some cases where she is reasonably mistaken about whether the threat is genuine (perhaps because the apparent aggressor is bluffing), not every evidentially justified mistaken defense is permissible: in some cases (like McMahan's Mistaken Resident) the mistaken defender wrongs the apparent aggressor. I argue that none of the dominant accounts are able without supplementation to secure and justify these verdicts about the cases. Accounts that base defensive permissions in the liability of the other party either generate permissions that are too restrictive, or else attach apparently disproportionate costs to merely causing someone to falsely believe that they are under threat. Such accounts need supplementation to explain and justify the claim that the apparent aggressor is not wronged in the event of a reasonable mistake. Alternatives that gloss the defensive permission as a justified infringement of the apparent aggressor's rights are similarly in need of an explanatory supplement. Unlike genuine defenders, mistaken defenders are not forced to choose between their own life and the aggressor's, and it is unlikely that the good of action-guidance is great enough to justify Defender in killing the apparent aggressor. At minimum we should look for an extension that identifies the justifying good, links the permission in the right sort of way to the apparent aggressor's actions, and keeps the account from over-generating. So we need to look beyond these presently available accounts for a theory (or extension) that can accomplish these tasks.
The Moral Grounds of Mistaken Self-Defense
Mistaken self-defense presents a puzzle: in at least some cases agents are intuitively justified in imposing defensive harm on an apparent aggressor, despite (in fact) facing no genuine threat. I argue that these cases motivate a more expansive view of the moral grounds of permissible self-defense, allowing that in addition to liability-based permissions, defenders sometimes enjoy vulnerability-based permissions. In particular, when individuals S behave in ways that conventionally signal that they pose a threat to an agent P, S cannot reasonably demand that P refrain from defensive action, so P is permitted to defend herself. I develop an account of what it is to conventionally signal threateningness, and explore some limitations on what signaling behaviors can do the relevant moral work.
Reasonable Mistakes and Regulative Norms: Racial Bias in Defensive Harm
Defensive harm can be justified not only by averting an actual threat, but also by a conventional signal that an apparent aggressor is a threat (even if mistaken). For this practice to be morally justified, and hence a genuine source of moral permissions, the signals selected must meet minimal moral constraints: to respect the equal rights of all members of the community, they must keep from placing any group in a position of default signaling. To respect their equal freedom, it must not be unduly burdensome for any group to refrain from signaling. In this paper I argue that we do in practice rely on a signaling system, but psychological data strongly suggests that in the United States, agents systematically treat racial markers as signals of threateningness. This practice violates both constraints, and consequently we have a distinctively social disjunctive obligation: either reform the signaling language so that it does not contain such impermissible signals, or else eschew reliance on signals.
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.