Is everyone racist?

Nicholas Kristof asks tactfully whether everyone is a little bit racist, but since the “little bit” includes what might lead one to kill a person of another race, I’m leaving out the little bit.

The column is a fairly short but useful explanation of implicit bias. There are some of the usual links – e.g., to the implicit bias test – but one that I hadn’t realized is online. That’s the shooter task or “the police officer’s dilemma”. You are asked to decide whether someone holding something has a gun; if so, you press “j” for “shoot” and otherwise “f”. All the people one sees are men. The test is quite famous and I believe people, both white and not, are more inclined to shoot unarmed people of color than unarmed white people.

I failed miserably because for most of the time I couldn’t react in under a second, which is required. If police are making these split second decisions, I think we should try hard to stop that practice. I quickly found myself trying to create heuristics, ways of reacting before I had a full identification of what was being held. Pretty quickly I was prepared to shoot anyone who had something narrow and straight protruding from a hand. And that’s one of the kinds of mistakes police report themselves as making.

So I don’t know how the test fares as a test of racism, but I do think it should make us all very worried about armed policemen encouraged to shoot very quickly.

Empathy: pro and con

The Boston Review has a wonderful discussion about empathy. There is an extended article by Paul Bloom, a highly regarded prof in psychology at Yale, which argues that empathy as normally concieved is no friend to moral action. There are comments from a panel of people that includes very familiar philosophical names, such as Peter Singer and Jesse Prinz.

Bloom’s main claim is that emotional empathy is very partial and biased; what is needed for morality is a much more intellectually based compassion. Commenters make a number of often fascinating points. Leonardo Christov Moore and Marco Iacoboni take issue with the emotion-intellect distinction that appears to be operating at a number of points. Jesse Prinz stresses the moral importance of anger. Peter Singer links Bloom’s claim to an international movement. And there are a number of other great comments.

I haven’t read many of the comments on Bloom, but I am struck by the absence so far of something we sometimes mentioned on this blog. And that’s the effects of the lack of [emotion-based]empathy. Could empathy be necessary for an ability to identify those to whom we owe moral respect, for example? In thinking about Eric Schliiesser’s recent observations about responses to problems in our profession, I wonder if an incapacity for empathy, or a deliberate refusal to engage it is at the foundation. See, for example, this. WTF?

Some more details:

Bloom’s central claim:

… I am not against morality, compassion, kindness, love, being a good neighbor, doing the right thing, and making the world a better place. My claim is actually the opposite: if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.

A distinction he takes to be very important:

It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more coldblooded process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy. I will follow this convention here, but we should keep in mind that the two are distinct—they emerge from different brain processes; you can have a lot of one and a little of the other—and that most of the discussion of the moral implications of empathy focuses on its emotional side.

The central (and very Humean) problem he sees with empathy:

. I have argued elsewhere that certain features of empathy make it a poor guide to social policy. Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. As Mother Teresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Laboratory studies find that we really do care more about the one than about the mass, so long as we have personal information about the one.

Anne Donchin, 1930-2014

We note with regret the death of Anne Donchin, Professor Emerita of Philosophy (Indiana University) and co-editor, with Laura Purdy, of Embodying Bioethics: Recent Feminist Advances (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999).  Diana Tietjens Meyers writes, “She was a co-founder, co-coordinator and newsletter contributor of the International Network on Feminist Approaches to Bioethics (FAB), and she was a regular participant in FEAST conferences. Prior to her death she was working on a book entitled Procreation, Power and Personal Autonomy: Feminist Reflections. A memorial service is scheduled for September 2 at Grace Episcopal Church in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY.” 

Anne Donchin earned her Ph.D. from the University of Texas in 1970 and her M.A. from Rice University in 1965. Her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin in 1954 is preceded by her Ph.B from the University of Chicago in 1953. Her entry on Indiana University’s “Women Creating Excellence” webpage states that she “shaped the early development of the Women’s Studies program at IUPUI.  Within a year of her arrival to campus in 1982, Donchin became active in Women’s Studies and took on the role of program coordinator.  The position title was later renamed director.  Donchin helped guide the program through its early years of development and later served two additional years as director in the early 1990s.”  

It is customary to acknowledge one’s connection with a philosopher’s work when memorializing them here at FP.  I smile at the memory that I gave up trying to write about relational autonomy in health care when I read Anne Donchin’s article, “Understanding Autonomy Relationally: Toward a Reconfiguration of Bioethical Principles” (Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 26:4), because she articulated better than I could the “need to preserve both a generalized and a concrete standpoint.”  I leave you with her conclusion, one following her rejection of the ethics of caring as appropriate in unequal power relations, but which seems to me to be caring and attentive in the best of ways:

But by beginning moral inquiry from the initial position of individuals as situated social beings rather than presocial abstract individuals, the moral significance of concrete relationships will not be left behind in the move toward a generalized perspective. What is important for the practice of medicine is that moral inquiry be initiated from the concrete standpoint of the one needing attention rather than the standpoint of a generalized other and that we recognize differences between self and other at the outset.

What is the State of Blacks in Philosophy in the US?

A very important study.

This research note is meant to introduce into philosophical discussion the preliminary results of an empirical study on the state of blacks in philosophy, which is a joint effort of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Black Philosophers (APA CSBP) and the Society of Young Black Philosophers (SYBP). The study is intended to settle factual issues in furtherance of contributing to dialogues surrounding at least two philosophical questions: What, if anything, is the philosophical value of demographic diversity in professional philosophy? And what is philosophy? The empirical goals of the study are (1) to identify and enumerate U.S. blacks in philosophy, (2) to determine the distribution of blacks in philosophy across career stages, (3) to determine correlates to the success of blacks in philosophy at different career stages, and (4) to compare and contrast results internally and externally to explain any career stage gaps and determine any other disparities.