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Attributionism and Moral Responsibility for Implicit Bias

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Abstract

Implicit intergroup biases have been shown to impact social behavior in many unsettling ways, from disparities in decisions to “shoot” black and white men in a computer simulation to unequal gender-based evaluations of résumés and CVs. It is a difficult question whether, and in what way, agents are responsible for behaviors affected by implicit biases. I argue that in paradigmatic cases agents are responsible for these behaviors in the sense that the behavior is “attributable” to them. That is, behaviors affected by implicit biases reflect upon who one is as a moral agent.

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Notes

  1. For review see Greenwald et al. (2009), Jost et al. (2009), and Nosek et al. (2007a). For a critique of measures of implicit bias, see Oswald et al. (2013); see Greenwald et al. (2015) for reply. For a more detailed introduction to implicit bias, see Brownstein (2015).

  2. See Valian (2004) on the “accumulation of advantage.” See also Greenwald et al. (2015).

  3. One possibility is that no one in particular—no individual—is responsible for implicit bias. By this I mean that implicit bias is an effect of legacies of historical inequality, patterns of residential and occupational segregation, discriminatory laws and political policies, and so on. There are multiple ways to render this “institutional” approach to understanding implicit bias. For examples, see Anderson (2010) and Haslanger (2015). I am sympathetic to these approaches, although I think there are significant reasons to examine implicit bias in terms of individuals too, at least alongside social-institutional considerations. For a response to the institutional critique of research on implicit bias, see Madva (ms a). One aim of this paper is to show why the question of individual moral responsibility for implicit bias matters.

  4. Tamar Gendler’s (2008a,b) influential account of implicit attitudes as “aliefs” argues that these mental states are responsible for the management of much of “moment-to-moment” behavior.

  5. See, for example, Hardin and Banaji (2013).

  6. As Levy (2014) and Mallon (forthcoming) put it, terms of moral assessment are connected to folk psychological concepts like “belief.” So one reason the question of moral responsibility for implicit bias is important is because of the way in which implicit biases are, and are not, belief-like. Levy (2014) argues that implicit biases are neither beliefs nor mere associations; because of this, neither blame nor excuse for them is appropriate. The view I develop here can be understood as (mostly) accepting Levy’s account of the psychological structure of implicit attitudes, but rejecting the claim that neither blame nor excuse is appropriate. For discussion of whether implicit biases are beliefs, see Brownstein (2015), Gendler (2008a,b), Levy (2012, 2014), Madva (2012, forthcoming), Mandelbaum (2015), and Schwitzgebel (2010).

  7. See Faucher (forthcoming), Glasgow (forthcoming); Holroyd (2012); Kelly and Roedder (2008); Levy (2012, 2014, forthcoming); Madva (2012, ms b); Saul (2013); Sie and Vorst Vader-Bours (forthcoming); Washington and Kelly (forthcoming); and Zheng (forthcoming).

  8. To my knowledge, those few are Zheng (forthcoming), Glasgow (forthcoming), and, briefly, Smith (2012). Faucher (forthcoming) discusses related issues. For key accounts of attributionism, see Arpaly (2004), Frankfurt (1971), Hieronymi (2008), Jaworska (2007), Scanlon (1998), Sher (2009), Shoemaker (2003), Smith (2005, 2008, 2012), Sripada (2010, 2015), and Watson (1975, 1996).

  9. Sripada (2010) quotes from Hume’s Treatise: “Actions are by their very nature temporary and perishing; and where they proceed not from some cause in the characters and disposition of the person, who perform’d them, they infix not themselves upon him, and can neither redound to his honour, if good, nor infamy, if evil, the action itself may be blameable; it may be contrary to all the rules of morality and religion: But the person is not responsible for it: and as it proceeded from nothing in him, that is durable or constant, and leaves nothing of that nature behind it, ‘tis impossible he can, upon its account, become the object of punishment or vengeance” (Treatise, bk. 11, Pt. 111, sec. 2).

  10. I entirely sidestep the question of whether this emerging picture of the mind threatens free will.

  11. I am indebted to Chandra Sripada (2015) for this way of dividing up the central questions facing attributionism.

  12. As will be clear, this is a different sense of caring than the more familiar one developed by Frankfurt (1988).

  13. I focus on responsibility for behavior rather than for attitudes simply because I find the former to be more tractable. In future work I hope to consider the question of responsibility for implicit bias itself. For discussion of responsibility for attitudes, see Smith (2005, 2008, 2012). Also see Zheng (forthcoming) for discussion of the conditions under which an implicit bias is implicated in behavior, as it relates to questions about moral responsibility.

  14. Perhaps deep down one can be fundamentally conflicted, as I briefly discuss in §7.1, but this possibility is not usually reflected in the experimental literature on the deep self. Thanks to Alex Madva and Susanna Siegel for pushing me to clarify this. An important question for future research is whether and how the account I develop here integrates with experimental approaches to folk conceptions of the deep self.

  15. In their influential 2008 paper, for example, Kelly and Roedder write, “the IAT requires subjects to make snap judgments that must be made quickly, and thus without moderating influence of introspection and deliberation and often without conscious intention. Biases revealed by an IAT are often thought to implicate relatively automatic processes” (525). Jennifer Saul (2012, 244) describes implicit biases as “unconscious tendencies to automatically associate concepts with one another.” And elsewhere I have called implicit biases “relatively unconscious and relatively automatic features of prejudiced judgment and social behavior” (Brownstein 2015).

  16. An immediate objection stems from the fact that a good number of our explicit attitudes—in the philosophical sense of attitudes—fail to be sensitive to what we think to be true or good. The large literature on belief perseverance is one testament to this (see Anderson and Lindsay (1998) for review). My view—discussed in more depth elsewhere (Brownstein, M. Manuscript, The Implicit Mind (Unpublished))—is that explicit attitudes like beliefs have the possibility of being irrational because part of their function is to respect certain basic rules of rationality (e.g., to be sensitive to logical operators like negation, to be “inferentially promiscuous,” and so). As I suggest below, implicit attitudes don’t have this function. They don’t play the game of rationality. Thus they are arational, not irrational. Thanks to Susanna Siegel for pushing me to clarify this point.

  17. The rest of this paragraph, as well as the paragraph following, are adapted from Brownstein (forthcoming).

  18. Of course, a person will have many associations with the name Malcolm X, just as they will with virtually any cue. APE offers a complex account of which associations will be activated in a given context. This account is largely in keeping with connectionist models of cognition.

  19. A note on potential terminological confusion: APE focuses on what it calls propositional processes, not propositional states (i.e., not mental states with propositional structure, the kind with which philosophers of mind are typically concerned). For more, see Brownstein (2015).

  20. But note that stereotypes such as “athletic” can be positive in some contexts but negative in others. “Athletic” is often associated with “unintelligent,” for example. On the relationship between implicit stereotypes and evaluation, see Amodio and Devine (2006), Holroyd and Sweetman (forthcoming), and Madva and Brownstein (ms).

  21. Notably, Bodenhausen and Gawronski (2014, 957) write that the “distinction between associative and propositional evaluations is analogous to the distinction between ‘alief’ and belief in recent philosophy of epistemology.”

  22. Although note that Levy (2014) does not endorse an associative picture of implicit attitudes. See Mandelbaum (2015) for a contrasting view.

  23. Indulge me in a brief bit of textual interpretation. The fact that the author says he gets angry about slut-shaming, stereotype threat, or “whatever is the affront du jour” strikes me as dismissive of gender prejudice, as if slut-shaming and stereotype threat are passing fads. This seems to be a nice example of unintended bias being expressed in writing. This is striking, since it’s in an essay about unintended biases.

  24. See, respectively, Frankfurt (1971), Watson (1975), and Scanlon (1998).

  25. In the same vein as what I said in §1 with respect to attributionism in general, my central aim is not to promote care-based approaches as such. So I will not offer arguments for the superiority of the care-based approach to these other attributionist theories. I do hope, however, to strengthen the case for a care-based account by showing how it can make sense of responsibility for BEIB.

  26. Different theorists place emphasis on these features in different ways. I draw largely upon Jaworska (1999, 2007), Shoemaker (2003, 2013), and Sripada (2010, 2015), although the synthesis I present in this section is my own.

  27. Sripada’s (2015) closely related view is that “cares involve a complex syndrome of motivational, commitmental, evaluative, and affective dispositions.”

  28. For a dissenting view on the role of consciousness in caring, see Levy (2011).

  29. A slightly stronger claim than that cares and explicit judgments are typically correlated is that caring about something disposes an agent to judge the thing to be good (Sripada 2015). Also, there is another potential point of disagreement between theorists about cares having to do with just how fundamental cares are. One possibility is that cares, alongside evaluative judgments, are inherently internal (Jaworska 2007, 559, fn 88). Another possibility is that cares are the source of all states that are internal in the relevant sense (Shoemaker 2003).

  30. Most researchers writing on attributionism accept that a causal connection between an agent’s identity-grounding states and her attitudes/actions is a necessary condition for reflection (e.g., Levy 2011; Scanlon 1998; Sripada 2015). Note also two points of clarification on Levy’s (2011) terminology. First, he identifies a set of propositional attitudes that play the same role in his discussion as what I have been calling cares. That is, he simply refers to an agent’s identity-grounding states as “attitudes.” Second, Levy distinguishes between an action “expressing,” “reflecting,” and “matching” at attitude (or, as I would put it, an action or attitude expressing, reflecting, and matching an agent’s cares). The crucial one of these relations is expression. It is analogous to what I will call “reflection.”

  31. I am grateful to Sripada (p.c.) for this illustration.

  32. To answer this question, Sripada (2015) proposes the “motivational support account of expression.” Roughly, an action is said to reflect upon one’s deep self, on this view, if and only if the motive expressed in the action is one of the agent’s cares. A motive is said to be expressed in an action if and only if the motive exerts influence of sufficient strength on the agent’s “action-directing psychological mechanisms.”

  33. Levy (2011, 252–253) makes a similar point in the case of omissions: “patterns of lapses are good evidence about agents’ attitudes for reasons to do with the nature of probability. From the fact that there is, say, a 50 % chance per hour of my recalling that it is my friend’s birthday if it is true that I care for him or her and if internal and external conditions are suitable for my recalling the information (if I am not tired, stressed, or distracted; my environment is such that I am likely to encounter cues that prompt me to think of my friend and of his or her birthday, and so on), and the fact that I failed to recall her birthday over, say, a 6-h stretch, we can conclude that one of the following is the case: either I failed during that stretch to care for him or her or my environment was not conductive to my thinking of him or her or I was tired, stressed, distracted, or what have you, or I was unlucky. But when the stretch of time is much longer, the probability that I failed to encounter relevant cues is much lower; if it is reasonable to think that during that stretch there were extended periods of time in which I was in a fit state to recall the information, then I would have had to have been much unluckier to have failed to recall the information if I genuinely cared for my friend (Levy 2011). The longer the period of time, and the more conducive the internal and external environment, the lower the probability that my failure to recall is a product of my bad luck rather than of my failure to care sufficiently. This is part of the reason why ordinary people care whether an action is out of character for an agent: character, as manifested in patterns of response over time, is good evidence of the agent’s evaluative commitments in a way that a single lapse cannot be.”

  34. See footnote #20.

  35. For some data, see Dunham et al. (2013) and Devine et al. (2012).

  36. See Redford & Ratliff (ms) for data suggesting that participant judgments about what agents have an obligation to foresee (rather than what they do in fact foresee) mediates their responsibility judgments for BEIB. Note also that Cameron and colleagues report that the 4 items on the scale had an “acceptable” internal consistency (Cronbach’s α = .65). This means that participants’ answers to the 4 items on the scale were somewhat, but not strongly, correlated with each other, and that the scale may in fact reflect multiple distinct concepts.

  37. Shoemaker (2003, 97) discusses why only nonwanton actions reflect cares. See also Lippert-Rasmussen (2003) for discussion of “whim” cases in which agents don’t seem to have any significant attitudes toward their actions.

  38. See also Shoemaker (2003, 93–94) and the distinction between pleasure and “central affective states” in Haybron (2013).

  39. For illuminating discussion of how attributionism can seem to collapse into voluntarism about moral responsibility, see Holly Smith (2011).

  40. For views of emotions that fall in this “middle zone” between reflex-like and reason-like responses, see D’Arms and Jacobson (2000) and Prinz (2004). I am indebted to Madva (ms b) for the idea that one can be in a mood without noticing it.

  41. Although see Mandelbaum (2015) for argument that implicit attitudes are sometimes even susceptible to revision by reason alone. See also Holroyd (2012) for discussion of what makes a self-regulation strategy “indirect.”

  42. Or perhaps responsibility has multiple “faces,” as Watson (1996) and Shoemaker (2011) suggest.

  43. Whether phobic reactions, actions resulting from brainwashing, or addictive behaviors are attributable to agents depends on whether the empirical facts meet the conditions I discussed in §4 and §5.

  44. One might demand that I attend to or explain (in an etiological sense) why I seem to believe both p and not-p. But demanding that I justify these conflicting beliefs does not make sense. This is, on my view, a problem for Smith’s (2005, 2008) theory that moral responsibility just is answerability. This is relevant because Smith argues that agents are answerable for (what I would call) BEIB. She writes: “I think it is often the case . . . that we simply take or see certain things as counting in favor of certain attitudes without being fully aware of these reasons or the role they play in justifying our attitudes. And I think these normative ‘takings’ or ‘seemings’ can sometimes operate alongside more consciously formulated judgments to the effect that such considerations do not serve to justify our attitudes. So, for example, a person may hold consciously egalitarian views and yet still find herself taking the fact of a person’s race as a reason not to trust her or not to hire her. In these cases, I think an answerability demand directed toward her racist reactions still makes perfect sense—a person’s explicitly avowed beliefs do not settle the question of what she regards as a justifying consideration” (2012, 581, fn 10). I agree with Smith that “takings” and “seemings” may fall within the domain of moral responsibility, but I do not think this is because we are answerable for them, in the sense of being reasonably demanded to justify them. I address Smith’s view in Brownstein, M. Manuscript, The Implicit Mind (Unpublished).

  45. On the social nature of accountability, see, for instance, Watson (1996, 262): “Holding people responsible is not just a matter of the relation of an individual to her behavior; it also involves a social setting in which we demand (require) certain conduct from one another and respond adversely to one another’s failures to comply with these demands.”

  46. For discussion of holding-responsible for BEIB, see Banaji et al. (2015).

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Acknowledgments

For invaluable suggestions and discussion, I am grateful to Jules Holroyd, Daniel Kelly, W. John Koolage, Joshua Knobe, Alex Madva, Mytro Mylopoulos, Jeremy Pober, Eric Schwitzgebel, David Shoemaker, Susanna Siegel, Holly Smith, Chandra Sripada, Natalia Washington, Robin Zheng, an anonymous reviewer for The Review of Philosophy and Psychology, and audiences at the fall 2012 Wittgenstein Workshop, the 2013 meeting of the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and the 2013 Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association. Thanks also to the Leverhulme Trust for funding the “Implicit Bias and Philosophy” workshops at the University of Sheffield from 2011–2013, out of which this work grew.

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Brownstein, M. Attributionism and Moral Responsibility for Implicit Bias. Rev.Phil.Psych. 7, 765–786 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-015-0287-7

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