Sunday, March 01, 2009

Implicit Bias vs. Implicit Malice

It's worth noting that the ordinary sort of implicit (e.g.) racial bias is not the same thing as being subconsciously "racist" (in the ordinary, vicious sense). We should take care to distinguish two forms of implicit bias. One might harbor some subconscious ill-will towards people of other races, which would clearly be a moral defect of character. But there is another possibility, which would involve a kind of defect or bias merely in cognition rather than in values or desires.

It's conceivable that you might have the best will in the world (even at the deepest depths of your subconscious), and yet - through some cognitive quirk - end up processing information in ways that leads to systematically biased judgments. For example, common cultural stereotypes might influence the 'schemas' that our minds use in categorizing and remembering information, and in generally making sense of the world. Stereotypes presumably also influence what "associations" are most salient or easily 'primed' in our minds when thinking about different groups (and individuals we implicitly classify as members of those groups). It isn't difficult to see how this could conceivably cause one to, say, (i) be more likely to interpret a black student's work negatively, or (ii) be less likely to think of a top female academic when selecting a keynote speaker, etc. -- without any hint of malice or ill-will coloring the explanation.

We may draw a couple of conclusions:

(1) Ordinary implicit bias, if purely 'cognitive' as described above, is best understood as merely unfortunate rather than inherently blameworthy. It's not necessarily a sign of hidden racial animus, or any kind of "racism" in the ordinary sense. So people needn't feel too defensive about it, the way they might if their good character were in question. Still, insofar as the cognitive disposition is unfortunate, and leads to people being treated unfairly, it is certainly something we should want to mitigate upon learning of it.

(2) The mere fact that ordinary implicit bias isn't blameworthy does not suffice to show that no subconscious attitudes are. We can imagine a character that really is subconsciously racist in the most deplorable sense (i.e. they harbor deep-rooted animosity towards people of other races), and such a character is surely bad in this respect -- however tolerant and egalitarian their consciously professed attitudes might be. If the subconscious malicious desire leads them to akratically (i.e. against their better judgment) perform racist acts, the person is surely blameworthy for this -- just as Huck Finn is praiseworthy for the good acts he performs, against his (dopey) "best judgment", in helping Jim escape.

12 comments:

  1. Does any part of your argument depend on these prejudices being implicit/unconscious? Explicit, conscious prejudice sometimes involves ill-will, but it can also be purely 'cognitive', involving the acceptance of stereotypes without any hint of malice (there is even research on Benevolent Sexism). Do you think that open, conscious bias without malice is similarly merely "unfortunate" rather than "blameworthy" or "racist" in the ordinary sense?

    I think that most people would use a harsher description than "unfortunate." Perhaps the difference is that we expect people to have control over their conscious biases. But people do have some control over their implicit biases as well - you suggest that people should mitigate them - so perhaps the difference is just a matter of degree rather than a categorical distinction.

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  2. I'm not sure there are any realistic cases of purely cognitive conscious biases. So-called "benevolent sexism", for example, seems to involve a deficit of respect for women's autonomy, which is a kind of ill-will. Much "acceptance of stereotypes" arguably involves a kind of motivated irrationality. So I think it's those underlying bad motivations (or, at least, a deficit of good motivations) that we are inclined to blame people for.

    N.B. If we are careful to imagine a hypothetical situation where someone of genuinely good will is raised in such a misleading environment that they innocently come to consciously accept certain prejudices, then yes I think it's clear that such "open, conscious bias without malice" is merely 'unfortunate' rather than 'blameworthy'. But vanishingly few real-life cases are like this.

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  3. Ordinary implicit bias, if purely 'cognitive' as described above, is best understood as merely unfortunate rather than inherently blameworthy. It's not necessarily a sign of hidden racial animus, or any kind of "racism" in the ordinary sense. So people needn't feel too defensive about it, the way they might if their good character were in question.

    I think you're leaping to an overly definitive conclusion unless you have more premises or explanation. Let's take it as a given that people are often racist in this purely cognitive sense, which does seem less blameworthy than the other kind of racism you describe. What's bothering me is: on what grounds do you not think people have an affirmative responsibility to try to figure out through introspection whether they have any inappropriate cognitive racial biases,
    and actively work to eradicate the biases?


    If we are careful to imagine a hypothetical situation where someone of genuinely good will is raised in such a misleading environment that they innocently come to consciously accept certain prejudices, then yes I think it's clear that such "open, conscious bias without malice" is merely 'unfortunate' rather than 'blameworthy'. But vanishingly few real-life cases are like this.

    I assume you're thinking about views on race in mainstream America. Isn't it plausible that there are many such cases with gender or sexual orientation? Or with race/ethnicity in other cultural contexts?

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  4. John, I thought I made clear that people do have a positive responsibility to work to mitigate any harmful biases they may have, so I'm not sure why you attribute to me the opposite view. Perhaps you are assuming that we're only obliged to rid ourselves of intrinsically "blameworthy" states. But that is a false assumption. Merely being unfortunate suffices.

    N.B. A good-willed person will want to rid themselves of any unfortunate dispositions, even if they're not intrinsically blameworthy for those dispositions. Hence, insofar as a person complacently accepts or endorses such harmful dispositions, they may be indirectly blameworthy, i.e. blameworthy in failing to have sufficient good will to work to prevent such harms. But note that it is their failure to rid themselves of the unfortunate state, rather than their simply being in the unfortunate state, which is the source of the blameworthiness here.

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  5. What I find interesting is how the degree of blameworthiness for a bias or prejudice is relative to the culture in which that bias or prejudice manifests. For example, a strong racial prejudice in the 19th century was more culturally accepted and therefore less blameworthy that the same prejudice would be today. Similarly, species prejudice (e.g. indifference toward the interests of other species in not being slaughtered, for example) is culturally accepted today and therefore less blameworthy (assuming one simply hasn’t been exposed to moral reasoning against such a prejudice). Will it be the case that we develop culturally and morally with respect to speciesism so that 50 or 100 years from now speciesism will be significantly more blameworthy?

    Please note that I am not suggesting moral relativity here. The morality of a certain prejudice may depend on a given society’s circumstances, but *assuming similar circumstances,* racism, sexism, and speciesism are equally wrong across cultures and eras. They all have the same thing in common: ignoring the morally relevant similarities (such as an interest in not being enslaved or killed) and exaggerating the morally irrelevant differences (such as race or species). But the blameworthiness of the wrongness is less when the entire culture is steeped in the prejudice; again, assuming one hasn’t been exposed to reasons for rejecting the prejudice.

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  6. I think it's interesting to consider why such 'relativity' might hold. Some philosophers have claimed that people can only be blameworthy in their unwitting prejudice if it's their fault that they are morally retarded. If they grew up in a morally retarded culture, the story goes, we have to excuse them on the grounds that "they couldn't have known any better". Or something like that.

    I strongly disagree with those philosophers. People are blameworthy whenever they act from ill-will (or a deficiency of good will), even if they don't realize there's anything wrong with maltreating certain groups. (The fact that they don't see anything wrong with such behaviour is part of what makes them bad people!)

    Having said that, I agree with you that a racist today is probably much more blameworthy than the typical racist of yore. But the 'quality of will' account offers a simple explanation for why this is: to be a racist in today's climate would seem to require a surfeit of malice! An equally hateful person living a couple hundred years ago would, I submit, be equally blameworthy, no matter the difference in social context. There's not anything intrinsically excusing about having one's prejudices be widespread or "culturally accepted". The significance is purely epistemic: chances are, a typical prejudiced person in such circumstances probably doesn't actually harbor as much ill-will as, say, bigots who are considered extremists even by their contemporaries.

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  7. Richard,

    If they don’t realize there’s anything wrong with maltreating certain groups, then they don’t have a deficiency of good will because there’s no *intent* to do wrong. Objectively, they are doing something wrong, but to them, they’re doing nothing wrong, so it is not the case that they act out of ill will.

    I agree with you that ill will is always blameworthy, but unless I’m misunderstanding you, I disagree that “doing wrong” entails, or is defined by, ill will. I believe people can do wrong (e.g. support the institution of slavery or animal exploitation), but have no ill will to go along with their wrong-doing (i.e. believe (incorrectly) that slavery or animal exploitation is morally permissible).

    Perhaps we each define “wrong” and “ill will” differently. I define “wrong” as an irreducible, non-natural evaluative/moral property. I define “ill will” as a psychological state where one believes one is doing “wrong”.

    I am new to your blog, so I don't know what metaethical and moral theories you hold to be right or best. Maybe I'll understand a little more soon. :-)

    Personally, I'm an intuitionist/cognitivist and realist about morality.

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  8. I should add to my previous comment that blameworthiness seems to me a function of both ill-will and what the moral agent either knew or should have known about the morality of their act(s). One can be blameworthy for moral negligence, rational ignorance, or rational irrationality.

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  9. I think this is a merely terminological difference. If you treat someone with less consideration than you ought to, then that is - by definition - a "deficiency of good will" towards that person.

    I agree that it is possible to be in such a state without realizing it (e.g. a self-righteous slave owner), and that such a person is blameworthy. Note that it's possible to exhibit a deficit of good will in this sense without doing anything objectively wrong. One might poke pins into voodoo dolls, for example, in the sincere belief that (i) this will cause great harm to one's enemies, and (ii) that would be a swell outcome. Such an act, though objectively harmless, exhibits what is in fact a kind of ill-will (de re -- though the agent himself doesn't realize this), and so is blameworthy on that count.

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  10. So the crucial point is that one can exhibit a deficiency of good will -- i.e. treat other people with less consideration than they are due -- without intending to act "wrongly" as such. Indeed, this happens all the time.

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  11. Thanks for that elaboration, Richard. I agree that our difference was in terminology.

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  12. I've just started my dissertation on the philosophy (especially ethics) of implicit bias so if any of you are still writing/thinking about this stuff feel free to get in touch with me.

    cheers

    peter kirwan
    UCI philosophy
    Graduate Student

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