If you google “implicit bias and blameworthiness” you are likely to find a number of philosophers asserting that acting on an implicit bias is outside the realm of moral blameworthiness.** After all, such biases operate automatically and without our awareness, it seems correct to say. But blame has a place only when we act knowingly and intentionally, it also seems correct to say.
Reading Alexis Shotwell’s Knowing Otherwise: Race, Gender, and Implicit Understanding, has led me to think that this way of thinking about bias and blame is flawed. I should say, by the way, that a number of books about, e.g., white privilege, might have had the same effect, but Shotwell does remarkably bring together the concepts we need, I think.
Let me backtrack for a minute. There is a blogger on this site who says the the first conference she organized was all male! The old story applied; her philosophy world consisted very heavily of white men and that’s who came to her mind. You don’t need much more than Humean associationism to get there. And surely that action does not mean she is a horrible bigot, or was at that moment.
There is, however, a profound difference between her and those whose implicit biases have lead to a life that has seriously damaged others. Most alarmingly, most of us who teach have the opportunity to commit acts of great epistemic injustice. It is certainly possible to discount a whole group’s ideas over decades of classes.
There seem in such cases to be two areas at least for moral concern. One is the harm, perhaps continued for long periords. The other is the kind of person one is, participating in and perpetuating an oppressive social context.
Since I am thinking about this topic, and perhaps speaking on it shortly, I would love to hear what others think. I have in fact had a tune in the back of mine mind that I fortunately discovered on the web. So do share your ideas!
The lyrics to the tune in the back of my head:
by Tom Lehrer
Who made me the genius I am today
The mathematician that others all quote
Who’s the professor that made me that way
The greatest that ever got chalk on his coat
One man deserves the credit
One man deserves the blame
And Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky is his name, hi!
Nicolai Ivanovich Lobache-
I am never forget the day I first meet the great Lobachevsky. In one word he told me secret of success in mathematics. Plagiarize!
Let no one else's work evade your eyes
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes
So don't shade your eyes
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize
Only be sure always to call it please "research"
** A notable exception is Peter Kirwan’s prospectus.