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.

9 thoughts on “The epistemology (and metaphysics, and ethics) of bias

  1. Another interesting issue this raises is the distinction (if we think it an important one) between biased decisions vs. decisions based on others’ biases.

    For example, if it’s undesirable to be polarizing and “associated with the culture wars”, but the reason for this association is widespread sexism in the 90s (let’s grant for sake of argument), that nonetheless seems importantly different from (say) “think[ing] of leadership as a masculine quality” oneself. Put another way: if ‘being polarizing’ is a legitimate reason to oppose a politician, and Clinton is in fact polarizing (whatever the cause), then it doesn’t seem sexist to oppose Clinton on those grounds. But perhaps it is still somehow problematic to empower others’ sexism in this way?

  2. Great questions, and very difficult ones. One thing that’s difficult concerns what bias and biased judgment/actions are. A lot in philosophy seems, I think, to suggest it is a matter of causes at a particular point. E.g., dislike of such and such caused you to do it. I’m not sure that’s really right. It might be that whether one’s decisions are biased is more a fact about the kind of person one is. Yikes!

    Maybe in thinking about this, it’s worth noting that we probably have biases that are almost completely out of consciousness and that are even very surprising. For example, apparently a lot of us (Westerners?) associate leadership with height. It’s very hard for a short man at least to get a leadership job in industry, educations and so on.

  3. A year ago, before Senator Obama had even emerged as a significant candidate, around the time Mlle. Royal would have been running for president in France, a friend of mine proposed a question: if it’s wrong not to vote for Senator Clinton simply because she is a woman, is it not also wrong to vote for her because she is?

    I recall the question for two reasons: for one, it bothers me that I think I do, in fact, support Sen. Clinton more because she is a woman, but also, it bothers that I should be weighing this on my conscious at all. It’s undeniable that the charisma or evident character of a candidate has a tremendous effect on the way we judge their politics—especially when their politics are as similar as Obama’s and Clinton’s seem to be (insofar as whatever subtle differences they may currently have in their platforms are likely to be re-molded when they have to face the reality of being successful in Congress come 2009). But when it is not only character that shapes our judgments, but also the how a candidate should happen to rouse our preconceptions about race and gender—that is to say, how they should happen to rouse our ever-present bias—the matter of which political platform is more or less preferable seems to dissolve even further.

    If Hillary Clinton’s disadvantage as a woman running for president is real (and I would argue it is), it’s compounded: the sexual bias and/or sexism that leads some folks not to vote for the senator because they think her being a woman makes her less of a presidential candidate (or because they just don’t want her to be, regardless) also causes them to suggest that the only reason anyone would vote for her is in spite of all this. Many feminists who advocate equality are going to deny such a ludicrous claim, and for good reason. The reason why a person shouldn’t be discriminated against on the basis of her (sic) sex is the same reason a candidate’s sex ought not affect the support they receive; Sen. Clinton wouldn’t make a good candidate *because* she is a woman, but because she is simply a good candidate *regardless of whether or not* she is a woman!

    Personally, I have always found this to be an aspect of feminism mired by its mixed effectiveness. By saying that we do not claim that woman are ‘better’ than men (and surely that the opposite is also not true), we appease those who oppose the oppression of women because they themselves would never accept being oppressed, but are left without proper ammo to combat those who would blatantly harbor misogynist feelings and actively exercise them, because fighting them at their own game would involve compromising our own position (unless, our argument is that it is better to be a philogynist than a sexist, any day.)

    Whatever the case, whether or not there is a backlash to sexist views against Senator Clinton that itself hinders her support, I have faith that the notion is easily overcome, so long as it’s at least been exposed and reflected upon. If there are in fact those that would be so adamant that their support for Clinton has nothing to do with her sex that they are willing to give her opponent an added benefit of the doubt, hopefully this bias makes itself clear in time to make a fully educated decision. One not without bias, of course, but one with the knowledge of what advantages such bias presents, and how fully pervasive such bias always is.

  4. Richard and Dan,

    I think we started discussions on these topics before. See what you think and let us know if you want to add something. I don’t think either discussion arrived at THE ONE RIGHT ANSWER, supposing there’s something like that.

    For Richard’s question, see here.
    And for Dan’s see here.

  5. Excellent questions!

    One response I have is that it seems important to think of whether investigation of biases in ourselves is a properly a priori project. That is, are we able to identify times at which we are operating under biases solely by introspecting and reflecting upon (and reaching judgments of) our actions? I’m skeptical that this is going to be an adequate approach.

    One important tool at our disposal might be communication with others. It seems true that there are times when friends, family, colleagues, and other observers familiar with our dispositions and beliefs are in a better position to recognize incongruities between our actions and what we seem to be otherwise committed to. Information gained from them might be helpful for identifying instances when we act from bias.

    There may very well also be a standpoint argument here. People who occupy social positions such that they are more perceptive to incidents that point to biases that affect them might be in a better position to identify incidents where another agent is operating under that same bias. We ought to, then, be receptive to people who suggest this might be the case (this, incidentally, was one of the things that I found so frustrating about those Philosophy Job Market Blog comment threads awhile back: it wasn’t just that people were saying biased things, it was that they got so defensive and noncommunicative when it was suggested that they were operating under bias).

    This argument wouldn’t have to be based in social location, though: it could very well also apply to people who have perhaps read a little bit about stereotypes and bias, and who know how such things tend to function. But all of this is just by way of saying that there seem to be important a posteriori aspects to a project of inquiring into one’s own biases.

  6. Rachel, I want to think about your substantive points some more. In the meantime, let me point out that sexism on the philosophy job market might actually reveal a problem for the candidates. Have a look at our later post on the job talk:

  7. Suppose unconscious gender schemas work like a pair of implicit premisses (2) and (3):
    (1) Clinton has trait X.
    (2) Trait X is feminine.
    (3) Feminine traits are bad for leaders.
    (4) Hence, Clinton has a trait that is bad for leaders.

    Someone will move consciously from (1) to (4) without realising that they’re making this move on the basis of sexism. This is a ridiculous oversimplification, I think, but it illustrates the point I want to make.

    Suppose, in addition, that there’s no good argument from (1) to (4) — every list of premisses you might put in between them to explain why trait X is bad for leaders is question-begging or ad hoc or clearly sexist or has some other obvious flaw.

    Now imagine debating someone who says (4), and to back it up, says (1). What happens when you ask him (say) why (1) implies (4)? He’ll make some attempts, and you’ll swat them all down as complete BS. Hopefully he realises that his move from (1) to (4) is at least a little suspect. Then you respond with the argument lurking in the vicinity of `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’. You leave your interlocutor realising he has no good reason for prefering (sp) McCain to Clinton, and a good reason for prefering Clinton to McCain.

    I’m wary of trying to divine motivations. It seems (a posteriori!) quite clear to me that Cartesian, a priori introspection is very unreliable, and the mechanisms of interspection (to coin a term) even less so. So, when debating someone I suspect is using an unconscious gender schema, my strategy is to, first, bring the schema as close to consciousness as possible — thereby, in general, disturbing and neutralising it — and, second, find counterarguments that evade it. Accusing them of being sexist outright is too liable to make them defensive and shut down the conversation.

  8. Excellent points, all of you. A few quick thoughts: Richard– your point is one I’ve personally struggled with quite a bit in considering the election. I find it very tough. Rachel– yes, these studies really show that a posteriori information is vital. And it can even be simply information about the odds that one is biased– as suggested in the article I reference in the more recent post (can get to from comment above). Noumena– those strike me as excellent strategies for dealing with others’ possible biases. And yes, probably much more effective than explicitly suggesting there’s a bias at work.

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