The epistemology (and metaphysics, and ethics) of bias

Edward McClelland has an article on Salon about Obama-McCain voters– generally guys (or “dudes”, as the article puts it), who will vote for Obama if he’s the Democratic candidate but McCain if Clinton gets the Democratic nomination.  McClelland started out feeling just this inclination, and then became convinced that all his rationalisations for it were wrong, that it was sexism, and that he should vote for Clinton if she gets the nomination. What interests me is the question of how we should go about deciding in any case, including our own, whether we are motivated by an inappropriate bias or by something more respectable. It might seem obvious that every Obama-McCain voter is motivated by sexism. After all, their politics are extremely far apart (at least as far as the US political spectrum goes), and Clinton’s views are very close to Obama’s. But loads of voters don’t base their votes on detailed knowledge of candidates’ positions, and instead go by some nebulous sense of “character”. “Character” evaluations certainly make it easy for bias to come in, but surely they don’t guarantee it. Mightn’t somebody just *dislike* Clinton for non-sexist reasons, and therefore prefer Obama/McCain? Surely this is possible, and probably there’s at least one person like this. So, even if we grant that many Obama/McCain dudes are motivated by sexism, mightn’t you, or your cousin, be one who isn’t? How would you know? It’s very, very tough. You can’t point to a record of support for other women who have come close to the Presidency, as there haven’t been any.  Self-knowledge of this sort is very hard.  It’s wrong to expect that if you are influenced by sexist biases you’ll discover the belief “women suck” lurking somewhere in your subconscious.  (I think a lot of people do mistakenly assume this picture of sexism, by the way.)  If what researchers on unconscious associations and gender schemas tell is correct, *most* of us– even some of those who devote their lives to fighting sexism– are affected by sexist biases.  This may be take the form of some inferences being easier than others, or of very slight positive or negative emotions being tied to sex/gender. What McClellan realised about himself was the extent to which he associated masculinity with leadership.  

I never said to myself, “I want a man for president.” I said to myself, “I want a leader who can unite the country.” Like a lot of guys who are about to furtively nod their heads, I think of leadership as a masculine quality, so Obama and McCain seemed like the strongest candidates. I was also leery of Clinton’s association with the culture wars — I don’t want to go through that again — but she was a polarizing first lady because she was given power over healthcare before the nation was ready to see a woman in that role. (In 1994, I walked into a religious bookstore and saw an anti-Clinton biography titled “Big Sister Is Watching You.”) Ultimately, it was impossible to separate my reservations about Clinton from the fact that she’s a woman.

But realisations of this sort about oneself are hard to come by (partly because they involve admitting things we don’t want to admit, but partly just because self-knowledge is hard).  I think there’s a real epistemic problem here.  There are also some interesting issues about how to define a bias, and about how blameworthy people are for biases and actions based on biases. And, of course, these questions and phenomena are by no means confined to sexist biases.