Renee Bolinger, USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Philosophy

2016 Recipients of the PhD Achievement Award

Renee Bolinger, USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Philosophy

Faculty Advisor: Jonathan Quong

I just finished my fourth year (of six) in the philosophy PhD program, specializing
in political philosophy and philosophy of language. Broadly linguistic or
conventional facts—facts about what we would communicate to others by acting in a
certain way—often make a difference to what we ought to do, and can generate new
social and legal obligations. My research analyzes two areas where this is
especially vivid: offensive or harmful speech, and self-defense.

My dissertation aims to articulate moral conditions on the criteria for counting
mistaken self-defense ‘reasonable’ (and thus justified). A society’s choice of
criteria affects what inferences we rely on, and hence the pattern of mistakes. The
best criterion is a type of signaling convention: permitting agents to assume that
someone who acts in a way that conventionally communicates aggression is in fact an
aggressor. I argue that to be morally acceptable, this convention must ensure that
agents can easily avoid signaling, and not place any group of agents in a position
of signaling aggression by default; I then demonstrate that the ‘reasonability’
standard as currently applied in US law fails the constraints by implicitly
appealing to racial markers as signals of threateningness. Predictably, this results
in a racialized pattern of false-positive defensive mistakes. We are consequently
morally obligated to alter the convention. I have so far focused on civilian
self-defense, but the problem readily generalizes to police use-of-force and the
killing of possible non-combatants in war, which I hope to address in future work.