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Accessibility, implicit bias, and epistemic justification

Abstract

It has recently been argued that beliefs formed on the basis of implicit biases pose a challenge for accessibilism, since implicit biases are consciously inaccessible, yet they seem to be relevant to epistemic justification. Recent empirical evidence suggests, however, that while we may typically lack conscious access to the source of implicit attitudes and their impact on our beliefs and behaviour, we do have access to their content. In this paper, I discuss the notion of accessibility required for this argument to work vis-à-vis these empirical results and offer two ways in which the accessibilist could meet the challenge posed by implicit biases. Ultimately both strategies fail, but the way in which they do, I conclude, reveals something general and important about our epistemic obligations and about the intuitions that inform the role of implicit biases in accessibilist justification.

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Notes

  1. Pryor (2001, p. 104) labels this view ‘simple internalism’.

  2. I ignore here different versions of what is considered to be the appropriate kind of justifiers within each type of accessibilism. For instance, not every accessibilist would agree that perceptual experiences themselves, as opposed to the beliefs based on perceptual experiences, count as justifiers for other beliefs. These details are not important for the discussion that follows.

  3. It has been argued (Hatcher, 2016, p. 39) that Gibbons’ proposal cannot capture the intuition prompted by new the evil demon scenario because facts about which things are easily knowable are different in our world and in the evil demon world. It would thus be false that both our beliefs and our evil demon world counterparts’ are equally justified. Be this as it may, the issue does not affect my argument about the challenge of implicit biases to accessibilism. In fact, it does help fine-tune one of my proposals. See below.

  4. There are also philosophers who argue that all our attitudes, both explicit and implicit, are unconscious (see e.g. Carruthers 2017; King and Carruthers 2012). If this is true, the challenge to accessibilism will not be confined to implicit biases. The discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this paper, but if my argument here works for implicit biases, then it will also generalize to accommodate this view.

  5. E.g., the Affect Misattribution Procedure (AMP) (Payne et al. 2005) or the Go/No-go Association Task (GNAT) (Nosek and Banaji 2001).

  6. Conor McHugh (in conversation) raises a further concern. It is not even completely clear, he claims, that Jones 1 and 2 differ with regard to whether his beliefs are doxastically justified. Although Jones’ implicit racism in scenario 2 affects his assessment of the evidence, this influence by a variable irrelevant to truth still makes him reach the right conclusion since, by stipulation, that the defendant is guilty is justified by the available evidence. So, the details of the thought experiment would have to be much more elaborated to even get a difference in doxastic justification. I intentionally and charitably overlook this problem as well as the more important issue of Puddifoot’s argument failing to address propositional justification. See below.

  7. Perhaps, we could add that, in scenario 1, Jones is excessively credulous or just more credulous than in scenario 2. As I pointed out earlier, Puddifoot does mention in passing that being generally more incredulous in scenario 2 may be why, were not for the influence of his implicit racist bias, Jones would not find the available evidence convincing. Or perhaps Jones, in scenario 2, is less attentive than he is, in scenario 1, to what is exactly the same available evidence from the point of view of the evidence relevant for propositional justification so that, again, were not for the bias, Jones would fail to be convinced by it.

  8. These results are not a knockdown argument against the inaccessibility of the content of our implicit biases. They only suggest that we are more aware of their content than previously assumed. It’s just that social psychologists have been asking the wrong sort of questions. Whether or not subjects need to be cognitively sophisticated to have introspective access to the content of their implicit attitudes is a thorny issue. Hahn et al.’s previously mentioned (2014) study shows, on the one hand, that fairly cognitively unsophisticated subjects are really good at predicting their own performance on the IAT across different experimental conditions, even when they are told very little about the test or about what implicit attitudes are, thus reinforcing the view that our awareness of the content of implicit attitudes is greater than formerly thought regardless of participants’ cognitive sophistication. On the other hand, it could be argued that there may be some implicit-attitude-relevant but subtle questions that only cognitively sophisticated subjects can really ask themselves, i.e., outside experimental settings. The issue of cognitive sophistication will play an important role in the final part of my argument. See Sect. 7.

  9. See, in particular, the recent controversy over the studies that link subjects’ IAT scores and their actual discriminatory behaviour. Greenwald et al. (2009) argue for a strong link between these two variables. Oswald et al. (2013) question the link and focus on the influence of overt biases in the participants. Greenwald et al. (2015) quickly replied to the Oswald et al. meta-analysis. Additional studies since then keep feeding the debate.

  10. As an anonymous referee points out, lack of impact awareness, like lack of source awareness, is a property that affects both implicit and explicit attitudes. Explicit attitudes, such as explicit beliefs, desires or fears often have all sorts of unknown effects on other mental states and behaviour. So, if the challenge to accessibilism stems from our generally being unaware of the impact of implicit biases on thought and behaviour, the same will apply when considering explicit attitudes. It is revealing that one of the main conclusions of Hall and Payne’s (2010) meta-analysis is that “an attitude need not be unconscious to influence our thoughts and behaviors without our awareness” (p. 229). Again, discussion of this topic goes beyond the scope of this paper. I contend, however, that my argument about implicit biases vis-à-vis accessibilism will successfully generalize to cover the unbeknownst effects on thought and behaviour of the relevant explicit attitudes.

  11. Although, arguably, her argument would be much weaker if it turned out that we are aware of the content of our implicit biases most of the time.

  12. As labels go, I prefer the label wide accessibilism to access externalism. The proposal remains faithful to Gibbons’ formula though.

  13. Perhaps, it would be more appropriate to say, as an anonymous referee suggests, that what is obviously introspectively accessible is the lack of introspective accessibility of the influence of racist biases on verdicts in a wide range of cases.

  14. I thank two anonymous referees of this journal for pressing this question.

  15. I say “perhaps” to acknowledge Hahn et al.’s (2014) suggestion, mentioned in footnote 7, that remarkably naïve subjects are still surprisingly able to predict how their implicit attitudes will influence their behaviour in different experimental settings, even when they do not even seem to have a clear notion of what implicit attitudes are. This acknowledgement, however, still fails to show that the influence of implicit biases is accessible in all cases, regardless of cognitive sophistication.

  16. Interestingly, if we do have different intuitions about the two sorts of scenarios, this will seem to suggest that the factors relevant to justification must be internal, even if they need not be accessible. Thank you to Conor McHugh (in conversation) for making this point.

  17. There is a sense in which, if the influence of implicit attitudes were completely unknowable to the subject or the subject’s peers, if a subject also had no awareness of any facts about their pervasiveness, denying 3’ would be justified, as this scenario would very much be like the new evil demon scenario. Thank you to an anonymous referee for pressing me on this point.

  18. This final picture about the gradual nature of awareness, and hence accessibility and justification, fits nicely Madva’s (2017) view about the gradual nature of our moral responsibility for implicit biases. It also fits standard moral judgments about e.g. racial discrimination, as shown by some experimental philosophy studies run by Cameron et al. (2010). They found that, when implicit attitudes were characterized as completely unconscious, participants were more inclined to think that people under their influence were less morally responsible than when the influence was taken to be conscious but difficult to control.

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Acknowledgements

A version of this paper was presented at the Institute of Philosophy (London) as part of their Logic, Epistemology and Metaphysics Seminar Series. I would like to thank the audience there, especially Conor McHugh, for their helpful comments. Many thanks to Indrek Reiland, who was kind enough to help me think through one of the main objections raised by the referees of this journal. My thanks also go to them.

Funding

Research for this paper was supported by the MINECO (Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad) via research Grant MCINN FFI2014-51811, by the EC, Project: 675415 – DIAPHORA, H2020-MSCA-ITN-2015, and by AGAUR (Agència de Gestió d’Ajuts Universitaris i de Recerca) via research Grant 2014-SGR-81.

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Correspondence to Josefa Toribio.

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Toribio, J. Accessibility, implicit bias, and epistemic justification. Synthese 198 (Suppl 7), 1529–1547 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1795-7

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Keywords

  • Accessibilism
  • Implicit bias
  • Propositional justification
  • Conscious access