Implicit bias and moral culpability

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.

21 thoughts on “Implicit bias and moral culpability

  1. I wonder if perhaps negligence provides a bridge here between the bias and the culpability; so that, for example, implicit bias is something we have a moral responsibility for monitoring, &c., and therefore, while the having of implicit bias doesn’t involve blameworthiness, certain kinds of failure to take it into account over time do. Something like that seems suggested by the contrast made between the one-shot set of associations in the conference organizer and the “life that has seriously damaged others”.

  2. The blame game is counterproductive. I’ve won hearts and minds by discussing implicit bias in class, and having students take the online IAT test, because it gets across the idea that discrimination is just a nasty natural phenomenon that can, and should, be fixed. And my bet is that understanding it in this way is most conducive to getting it fixed. It is precisely the inflated moralistic language of ‘oppression’ and such that turns people off what and has produced a generation of women who are ‘not feminists but…’

    In my experience most students come to discussions of social disadvantage and discrimination in the grip of a false dichotomy: either wicked, white males are intentionally, and culpably, oppressing women and minorities or there is no discrimination and women and minorities are just whining. And given that choice most students, including most women, assume the latter. Giving them a third option is enlightening.

    Implicit bias happens. The data is extensive, striking and robust. It’s a natural phenomenon like tsunamis and smallpox for which no one is to blame which makes life worse for all of us, and so is something we should fix.

  3. Hi Anne- Can you say a bit more about what the motivation is for giving up the blameless implicit bias picture? Is it via the negligence route Brandon suggests, or is it something else?

    I take it that you are okay with the possibility that one can, at least in principle, participate in harm and perpetuation of the practices without responsibility precisely because of ignorance of one or another sort. Or is that what you are inclined to reject? If so, can you say more about why?

    Disclosure: I ask out of self-interest— I’d like to write about these issues at some point myself. I’m inclined to think that sometimes implicit bias is blameless and sometimes it isn’t, but I do like the idea of some or another knowledge condition on responsibility, so I guess I’m wondering if that’s what you are suggesting we should give up, or if instead you think that these conditions are satisfies in implicit bias cases.

  4. Manuel, I don’t really do moral philosophy, and I am sure there’s a lot of worked over area I need to think about. I’ve really just started to think about all this, and I now suspect that I’ve got two rather different themes going. One is connected to an Aristotelian notion of the good life; that is, a life informed by implicit bias is possibly a life largely experienced through a series of fictions of various sorts. That’s a paradigmatic Footean bad thing.

    There’s a second theme, and that’s the harm done. Maybe here it is just that we really do have something like duties and an obligation to inform ourselves about how to carry out those duties. Rather as one might argue that people who have children have an obligation to find out about basic nutrition, and so on.

    These probably come together; the first might well lead to the ignorance in the second.

    Must run: Brandom, I like your ideas, obviously. Harriet, would you say the same for most bad things, such as sexual harassment, rape, murder?

  5. Would refraining from blaming people for murder or most other bad things result in less murder or less of those bad things?

    I’m a consequentialist. The only reason I can see for blaming or punishing for an act is prevention, deterrence, or other desirable consequences. So it’s an empirical question. And I believe on empirical grounds that blaming people for implicit bias wouldn’t have good consequences. Moreover I’m convinced on admittedly anecdotal but empirical grounds that inflated language about ‘oppression’ does not produce good consequences and only discredits feminism.

    If you can provide some empirical evidence to the contrary, even anecdotal evidence, I’m listening. But all that concerns me are consequences—whether, e.g. a particular policy makes it easier for women to get traditionally male jobs, narrows wage gaps, diminishes sex segregation in the labor force, etc.

  6. A couple of clarifications.

    First, it could be that acting on implicit bias is blameworthy, while having an implicit bias is not. (My hunch is that this is correct, in fact.) Are these two things being confused? Or which is at issue?

    Second, usually in ethics the question of whether something is blameworthy is separate from the question of whether it is a good idea to blame people for it. Of course, Harriet Baber may hold a substantive view on which the two questions will always have the same answer — but they are different questions. (Compare: sometimes a proposition is belief-worthy even though it is a bad idea to believe it, and sometimes conversely.)

    My gut feeling (I don’t have a worked-out view of this at all) is that *acting* on implicit bias can be blameworthy. I think my gut tells me this because the way I worry about whether I’ve done it is the way I worry about things I’d be blameworthy for, rather than the way I worry about things I’d just feel unhappy about (much like the difference between remorse and regret). These feelings and tendency to feelings may be misplaced, but I count them as some evidence.

  7. Hello folks – bit of shameless self-promotion!!

    I’ve just written a paper on responsibility and blameworthiness for implicit biases, so I’m reading the discussion here with great interest (though the deadline for submitting it is tomorrow, so I won’t be able to read Shotwell before then, alas)!

    I think (and argue in the paper) that the picture emerging in empirical psychology doesn’t support the claim that we aren’t responsible for implicit biases (given plausible conditions for responsibility) and supports the thought that individuals might sometimes be responsible for being influenced by implicit biases. (I focus on negative race biases in particular – it isn’t clear that the relevant findings generalise to gender related biases).

    I also agree, though, with the pragmatic thought that even if we are blameworthy for biases if it isn’t useful to blame for the purpose of getting people to do something about bias, then it is better not to do so. (But I think it is a different, interesting, and as far as I know open, question as to whether blaming is an effective way of reducing biases).

    If anyone is interested in the paper, do email me – I’d be interested in any comments.
    (OK: Promo-over!)

  8. Hrumpf. Being bone ignorant of ethics I’m a Utilitarian and proud of it.

    But let me ask another question. Suppose you do separate the questions of blameworthiness and whether it’s a good idea to blame. But suppose it turns out nevertheless that blaming, even if ethically warranted (on some sort of deontological or virtuethical superstition) doing so would have very bad consequences. Couldn’t that tip the balance about how you should act, and talk, about implicit bias?

    I think that the bad consequences of blaming people for acting on implicit bias and beyond that talking about ‘oppression’ are so bad that we just shouldn’t talk that way, whether it’s true or not. I’m a Utilitarian…and a liar!

  9. Hi Harriet Baber,
    Yes, I suppose some consequentialists would refuse to separate out the questions of blameworthiness and whether one should blame!

    In the case you describe: I find it much easier to think about what what it might mean for whether we should *blame* (i.e. communicate blame) than I do for how we should *talk* about implicit bias.

    Is the idea that maybe we should keep quiet about any blameworthiness – or even not talk about the responsibility question?

    It seems to me plausible that there won’t be a general line on whether talking about responsibility, or treating people as blameworthy, is likely to bring about good or bad consequences. I can certainly think of cases in which treating as blameworthy is likely to get people’s backs up. But it doesn’t seem implausible to me that believeing you’re blameworthy can sometimes be a good reason – and motivator- for tackling a problem.

    It might also depend on what consequences we’re interested in: getting people on board with a movement (blame might backfire) or limiting the influence of biases (there is some suggestion in empirical psychology that holding responsible might be helpful for this, but more studies would be useful). I guess the tricky thing is when lots of these aims overlap. Don’t know what to say about that tricky thing!

  10. The stuff I’ve read on implicit bias–e.g. about human resources people charged with hiring–suggest that when they learn that they’ve been acting on implicit bias they’re shocked and motivated to do better. In this case, it seems, blaming doesn’t help.

    And I’ll tell you the truth here–I’m a hard determinist, and always impressed by what Spinoza sez somewhere that the more we understand, the less we blame. And that’s not because I’m some smarmy wimp–I’m as brutal and aggressive as you please, but when I beat people up it’s not because of any ascription of moral responsibility.

  11. There are some studies, though, in which quite a few subjects were aware of their different behavioural responses, and able to attribute it to implicit attitudes. (the thought it that some people who are biased are aware of it, and doesn’t suggest that if you’re not aware of anything, you’re not biased.)

    I understand that some psychologists (De Houwer Et al 2009) offer possible explanation about surprise at biases: i. The surprise is justified bc the test isn’t always tracking biases or ii

  12. (gadget fail)
    ii. The tests could be tracking bias, and whilst it may be possible to have awareness of the influence of bias, self presentation (to ourselves) might make for convenient self deception.
    iii. The surprised individuals might be in the proportion of folk not aware of biases.

    I’m not entirely clear on this, but I’ve recently discussed with some psychologists who are adamant that claims about not being aware of bias are not supported (tho it seems they agree the mere presence of bias is not available to introspective awareness).

  13. Agreed that some times it’s not a good idea to frame issues in terms of blame because of the consequences.

    However, if no one is blameworthy, no one has ethical merits, no one is worthy of praise.

    And some of us good people like to feel that we are scoring ethical merit points. The sense that we are scoring ethical merit points motivates us good people to continue being and doing good.

    So while no one should be blamed in this situation at least (even if they are blame worthy), it still makes sense to praise the virtuous.

  14. Jules, I am relieved, since I think some of my own biases are all too obvious to me, and the news that others didn’t have this experience seemed to me extremely wierd. I remember when I first came to Houston I was visited in my office by two male graduate students. One was a casual looking Hispanic student and the other, dressed in chinos and a tweed jacket, looked very East Coast academic. I don’t think I had ever seen a Hispanic grad student in philosophy before (this was 20 years ago), and I was shocked by my own bias, which I simply cannot see how I could have missed. (Would that this were the only case of bias-awareness!)

    One problem with being aware that one is biased and trying not to act on it is that one can end up not trusting one’s intuitive judgment. That’s a huge loss. Human beings process an enormous amount of information below consciousness and quite intuitive judgments can be very accurate. Trying to figure out the best candidate on “pure reason” can lead to some very screwy results. Trying to grade without knowing the name might work, but it is hard to interview candidates without some knowledge that may be biasing.

    On the other hand, I certainly have seen people say very bigoted things that one expects they wouldn’t say if they had any idea of where they come from. Over the years, especially when I was active in faculty governance, I’ve had many conversations about why, for example, it is impossible to hire black faculty that would be very funny if they were so very awful. (Comments a lot like the Republican “It isn’t that I am prejudiced against Obama; I just think he is a Muslim foreigner trying to wreck the country.”)

    Jamie, I don’t think I was conflating having a bias and acting on it. I am concerned with (1) acting on a bias and (2) being the sort of character that does react with bias more generally. I’m not sure about the test of feeling regrets. I’m very inclined to buyer’s remorse, unfortunately, and that feels very like worrying about being fair.

  15. Rob, I agree.

    Two points: I realized that as I described it, the blog person with the all-male conference isn’t really described as being bias. As it were, she just went with the regularity in nature, and nothing in the description would say she negatively evaluated women with respect to men in any way.

    Secondly, I’m not sure that it is ok to have biases one never acts on. It would depend on what that looked like, and whether in a capitalitistic society one can avoid, eg., acting on a lot of one’s biases when we perhaps carelessly exploit a lot of people. But suppose one has some category, perhaps “poor white trash” or “vicious savage” that one uses in thinking about some people. I’m supposing here that it’s part of one’s attitude that one thinks they people so described as “worthless” but one never acts on it. I’m not entirely sure it is all that good to have such attitudes, perhaps especially if it is merely circumstances that keeps one from acting on them.

  16. Great discussion so far!

    a few remarks

    Thanks for reading the prospectus! It was written over a year ago and my views have since changed somewhat so some clarifications are in order.

    In the prospectus I’m talking about blameworthiness and, strictly speaking, I just leave open the possibility of blameworthiness rather than explicitly endorsing it.

    My views has changed enough since writing it that I may not now write the (then) proposed chapter on blame for broadly the same reasons Harriet has outlined. I’m not a consequential, though, and I don’t think you have to be to hold Harriet’s (and my) position. You just have to care more about pragmatics than truth.

    Aside from the question of blameworthiness, I (like Harriet) suspect that in terms of pragmatic politics blaming people is a very very bad idea. A backlash to perceived blame was a significant part of the original response from the small but vocal Implicit Bias Critics (Tetlock, Arkes, Mitchell and others) in social psych.

    Two brief things in response to what has been said

    @ s. wallerstein

    ““However, if no one is blameworthy, no one has ethical merits, no one is worthy of praise.”

    I agree that there should be room for praise with Implicit Bias and I think the point deserves emphasis. However, I (again I’m not a consequentialist) don’t think it follows from the fact that no one is blameworthy that no one is praiseworthy because it MIGHT turn out that there are only superogatory (i always misspell that) acts with regard to one’s IB/the effects of one’s IB.

    Of course if one is a consequentialist then there aren’t any superogatory actions. Not sure how much room they have for praise though beyond ‘you screwed up a bit less than last time.’


    ““One problem with being aware that one is biased and trying not to act on it is that one can end up not trusting one’s intuitive judgment. That’s a huge loss”

    If you are interested in this issue you might like to read this (from the wonderful wonderful blog The Situationist)

    I’m currently writing on other aspects of Implicit Bias so who knows my views may change again when I come back round to the ethics!

  17. Interesting that this post/thread got a ping (#15) from a theology blog. I think some of the philosophical work relevant and important to the issues of blameworthiness in connection with unconscious or ignorant faults (e.g., regarding culpable failure to form one’s conscience, etc.) has actually been carried out in the field of moral theology, and that might be a fruitful place to look.

  18. It might not be good to have biases, but it seems that those biases inculcated in early childhood are almost impossible to erase and that the best one can do is to be aware of them and to not act on them, but they do have an unpleasant habit of pushing themselves into one’s thinking, without waiting for an invitation.

    Thus, awareness and then self-control.

  19. Thank you for this post! I have been trying to sort through these issues myself. I really enjoyed Miranda Fricker’s account of hermeneutical injustice as well as the reply in Hypatia by Rebecca Mason. I also just ordered the book you mentioned and can’t wait to read it. It seems that we do deploy many heuristics that can be epistemically beneficial especially in but it seems to me that these cognitive tools also can bog a society down in deeply problematic social justice issues. I have been focusing on ignorance accounts and also thinking about different accounts of blame in the past. Many authors have considered blaming agents of the past as inappropriate given their epistemic situation. This seems to bring in the question you are worried about insofar as we then wonder what to make of agents at a particular instant. How do we assess blameworthiness when people deploy cognitive tools that are not reflective or conscious? How do we assess a given context for tensions between dominant bias and the existence of subcultures that are subject to these biases without asserting a view from nowhere? What counts as a helpful or harmful bias at a given time? When we discover a bias in the sciences it seems that a corrective measure is put in place and it is not as contentious as in other realms ex. double blind studies. With the advent of technology we have access to more information that we need to sift through very quickly. I am not sure what to make of the claim that we are not blameworthy unless we “act” upon our implicit bias. Search engines, for example, are set up to tailor themselves to your preferences. When I utilize a search engine I will not get the same results as when you do (I mean as attached to a particular computer) and this seems to set up a situation wherein my bias will be reinforced. Insofar as my implicit bias shapes what search results I click on (action ?) this then steadily produces and shapes the information I am exposed to over time. It looks like as my body of beliefs becomes more robust I will be even less likely to accept any conflicting testimonial knowledge. My implicit biases may, through an aggregate of clicks and the epistemic feedback loop between my search engine and myself, make me resistant to certain social justice changes. I am not sure at what level an insertion of corrective measures is appropriate. I share your feeling that it is weird when someone has not been confronted with their own bias and yet even this is in part because I am a participant in a community wherein my social media connections, internet searches, and academic work are all focused on these issues. It seems that our information technologies are set up in such a way that they can create situations wherein a particular agent would be called upon to make quite a cognitive leap in order to correct their beliefs in much the same way as the blame-in-the-past case mentioned above. I am a student and also found the resources pointed out in the comments very helpful. If anyone knows of further resources about these issues I would love to hear about them.

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