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Liability for Unconscious Discrimination? A Thought Experiment in the Theory of Employment Discrimination Law

Patrick S. Shin

Suffolk University Law School

April 12, 2010

Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 62
Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 10-21

A steadily mounting body of social science research suggests that ascertaining a person’s conscious motives for an action may not always provide a complete explanation of why he did it. The phenomenon of unconscious bias presents a worrisome impediment to the achievement of fair equality in the workplace. There have been numerous deeply insightful articles discussing various aspects of this problem and canvassing its implications for antidiscrimination law. My purpose in this paper is to focus directly on what might be called a more naïve question: should implicit bias be a basis of disparate treatment liability under Title VII? The question might fairly be regarded as naïve insofar as any proposal for such liability would surely be unripe for present implementation, in light of serious issues pertaining to problems of proof in individual cases, not to mention intramural disputes among experts about the proper practical inferences that can be drawn from extant social science research. My interest, however, is more theoretically basic. I want to understand whether and how the notion of unconsciously biased action fits into our operative legal concept of actionable discrimination. To reach that issue, I devise a thought experiment in which I assume, first, that unconscious or implicit bias is real in a sense that I will make explicit, and second, that unconscious discrimination is provable – i.e., that the influence of implicit bias on an agent’s action is something that can, in principle, be proved in individual cases. With these assumptions, I construct an hypothetical test case that squarely raises what I regard to be the hard question for theorizing about unconscious discrimination. Should an employment action give rise to liability when that action was provably affected by the actor’s unconscious bias in respect of a statutorily protected classification, even when the actor consciously acted only on legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons? The payoff of this thought experiment is not only a clearer picture of the theoretical commitments entailed by liability based on unconscious bias, but also a keener understanding of our currently prevailing notions of actionable discrimination.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 51

Keywords: Unconscious Bias, Unconscious Discrimination, Implicit Bias, Discrimination, Unconscious, Philosophy of Action

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Date posted: April 12, 2010 ; Last revised: November 5, 2010

Suggested Citation

Shin, Patrick S., Liability for Unconscious Discrimination? A Thought Experiment in the Theory of Employment Discrimination Law (April 12, 2010). Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 62; Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 10-21. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1588110

Contact Information

Patrick S. Shin (Contact Author)
Suffolk University Law School ( email )
120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108-4977
United States
617-573-8182 (Phone)
617-305-3090 (Fax)

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