Implicit Bias, Responsibility, and Moral Ecology
Slated to appear in: D. Shoemaker, ed., Oxford Studies in Agency and Responsibility (2017)
41 Pages Posted: 13 May 2016 Last revised: 6 Sep 2016
Date Written: May 1, 2016
Roughly, implicit bias is a partially unconscious and partially automatic (frequently negative) evaluative tendency directed at individuals, based on their apparent membership in a socially salient category or group. It is unclear what we should think about an agent’s blameworthiness for actions produced in part by implicit biases, and there are reasons that weigh both in favor and against holding that such agents are blameworthy. There is also a more radical possibility lurking: implicit bias may reveal the limitations of a widespread conception of agency. That is, perhaps implicit bias (maybe along with various other results from the cognitive and neurosciences) reveals that our received views about agency are mistaken or confused in some important way. If so, then perhaps implicit bias is not merely some further phenomenon to which we can apply our pre-existing theories of moral responsibility and agency, but instead, a kind of challenge to those theories and the presumption that responsibility can be understood and characterized without appeal to context.
In response to the foregoing thoughts, there are two main questions this essay attempts to answer. First, are people morally responsible for actions that derive from their implicit biases? Second, can we chart a middle way between the defense of common sense and the revolutionary import of phenomena like implicit bias that can sometimes suggest our received views of agency are mistaken? The view defended here is, respectively, sometimes yes, and yes. That is, there is an appealing way of thinking about the blameworthiness of actions caused by implicit bias that allows us to accommodate some of the radical aspects of the emerging scientific picture of agency, without entirely abandoning our commonsense picture of agency. The key is to recognize how a roughly “ecological” conception of moral agency can provide us with principled resources for distinguishing when agents are in circumstances that afford responsibility, and when they are now. On this approach, the status of social practices and norms is central for our being morally responsible.
Keywords: Implicit Bias, Agency, Moral Responsibility, Moral Ecology
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation