Moral responsibility and implicit bias



Today I want to talk about moral responsibility and implicit bias. I have to confess that I’m not quite up-to-date on the implicit bias literature, including this new book, “Implicit Bias and Philosophy,” eds. M. Brownstein & Jennifer Saul (2016), so this will be an informal treatment.

As I noted in previous posts, some of the debates in moral philosophy centre on whether a person can be responsible for unconscious/implicit/system-1 states or processes. There are disagreements in both major camps: character theory and control theory. That is, there are disagreements between camps, and also within camps. Here’s an example of some fractures.

On the control theory side, Jules Holroyd (2012) argues that we cannot be responsible for having implicit biases, since we lack direct control over them, but we can be responsible for manifesting implicit biases insofar as we failed to put into place strategies for preventing them from influencing our behaviour – strategies like anonymizing job applications. Neil Levy similarly (2014, 2014b) argues that we cannot be responsible for manifesting implicit biases because we don’t have personal-level control over them.

Amongst character theorists, Angela Smith (2005) thinks that we can be responsible for implicit biases because they can reflect our evaluative judgments – our character – whether we explicitly endorse them or not. On the other hand, Holly Smith (2014) (not to be confused with Angela) argues that we cannot be responsible for implicit biases because they don’t reflect our ‘full evaluative structure’: they’re recalcitrant, alien states, that are outweighed by our explicit commitments. Levy similarly holds that implicit biases are not blameworthy on character theory because they’re ‘too alien to the self to ground responsibility.’

Obviously this doesn’t exhaust the possible responses to this question. I just wanted to point our some of the fault lines in the literature and then throw in my own two cents.

I feel like we can be responsible for acting on implicit biases, even if we don’t have direct reflective control over them, and even if they run afoul of our explicit commitments. I’m not going to make a theoretical case for this intuition: I’m just going to tell a kind of story.

When I was searching for pictures for my post on responsibility and attachment theory the other day, I did an image search for ‘attachment theory’ to find some stock photos. I had already decided that I wanted to use fairly generic, mostly cartoon-y, images for all of my posts. These are the first three images of human figures that I found, and they’re typical examples:


Notice anything? These are all pictures of White women with White babies. (The third picture is of a White woman’s hand holding a White baby’s hand – another typical image). The frequency of this particular type of image is troubling for several reasons, including the following. First, it marginalizes interracial families (like my own extended family). Second, when interpreted against the backdrop of western patriarchal colonialism, it implies that White people are more concerned to ensure that their (White) children grow up with a healthy attachment style: that this is a special concern for White mothers. And third, it suggests that women (not men) are primarily responsible for ensuring that their children develop secure attachment. And conversely, when children turn out badly, mothers are to blame.

The pictures of White dads and babies were way down the list. And the pictures of Black dads and babies were way, way, way down the list. No one curated this list, so I’m not saying that there’s a biased curator behind the results. But the list reflects the top hits of Google users, so it reflects a culture-wide implicit bias – a composite sketch of our implicit biases.

It’s worth noting that attachment theory was originally a theory about women’s parenting abilities. John Bowlby’s original formulation of the view was called ‘maternal attachment theory,’ and it posited a lack of proper bonding with the mother as the main source of later emotional problems in the child. In a report for the World Health Organization titled ‘Maternal Care and Mental Health,’ Bowlby wrote that “the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment” or else the child was at risk of serious mental health problems (1953). To be fair to Bowlby, women were obliged to do a majority of the care-taking in his time, but only because they lived in a patriarchal culture where men were generally unwilling to do their fair share. This doesn’t mean that women were exclusively, or primarily, blameworthy for their children’s emotional problems. Bowlby also lived at a time when it was natural to assume that parents formed heterosexual pair-bonds, which explains his assumption that there would even be a mother, and only one (cisgender) mother, paired with a (probably cisgender) father. In other words, the theory, in its original formulation, is archaic. That’s why people now call it just ‘attachment theory,’ and expunge all of the (implicitly) heteronormative, racist, and sexist parts of the original theory.

It’s problematic that in 2016, the Google image page for attachment theory still reflects Bowlby’s original version of the theory: the idea that women have a responsibility to foster secure attachment in their babies in the context of a heteronormative same-race family.

Now, here’s how this discussion is related to responsibility. Yesterday when I was browsing the pictures, I unreflectively chose the first image in the list: the first one posted above. I was prepared to insert it at the top of my entry, under the title. I wasn’t being very discriminating: I just needed stock images to divide my entries, to make it easier for the reader to distinguish one from the other. I didn’t much care about the image. Then I scrolled down and noticed that most of the pictures were of White mothers and White babies. And then I thought about Bowlby’s implicitly sexist ‘maternal attachment theory’ from the 1950s, and how those Google images implicitly reaffirm Bowlby’s problematic conception of the ‘healthily-attached American family.’ Then I decided not to use that picture, and instead chose a generic black-and-white image of two hands. Then I did a special search, and paired the original picture with a less ambiguous one of a Black man’s hand holding a child’s hand. I didn’t want to perpetuate Bowlby’s archaic conception of the family.

I think that if I had hastily posted a stereotypical stock image, it would have been a manifestation of implicit bias, because it would have reflected my tendency to see this kind of stereotypical image as unproblematic. If someone had said, ‘you chose a stereotypical image for your picture, and it reflects implicit bias on your part,’ I would have been inclined to agree. But even if I hadn’t been acting on implicit bias, I would have been making a morally problematic choice, something for which I might be blameworthy provided that I satisfy other conditions – having the capacity for control, being a certain kind of person.

On either interpretation, the choice is problematic.

Now, when I made my original selection, did I have control over my decision? In one sense, no. I didn’t realize at the time that I was making a criticizable choice. On the other hand, with more reflection, I could have made a better choice. (Fortunately, I did reflect more; but this was something of an accident. What if I had been tired, or hungry, or in a hurry?). The idea of control is elusive. Do we have control over a certain decision if we make the decision in a hurry, and we could have made a better decision with more time? Do we have control if we act on a bad decision, when we could have solicited advice from another person prior to so acting?  What if we solicit feedback from the wrong person, when we could have gotten better advice from someone else? Is this scenario too remote to say that we had ‘control’ over our decision? In other words, how context-bound is control? Is our capacity for control ‘narrow’ or ‘extended’?

Here’s one of the problems with the notion of control (reasons-responsiveness). Our reasoning capabilities are ‘bounded,’ i.e., limited by available information, available time, and the mind’s information-processing ability (H. A. Simon 1982). This is why people perform differently in different contexts, as situationist psychology shows: moral competency is situation-sensitive (e.g., Doris 2008). A person might be better able to notice and respond to moral reasons in context A than in context B. We might be in a better position to make a decision after we have taken a nap, or had a good meal, or consulted with a trustworthy advisor, or taken a class, and so on and so forth.

It’s instructive to consider that both food and sleep (amongst other creature comforts) affect reasoning ability. Judges tend to give more lenient verdicts after lunch (Danziger et al. 2011). Sleep enhances memory processing and emotional brain reactivity (Walker 2009), and facilitates creative problem solving (Mednick 2009). Robert Louis Steven claims to have come up with the plot for ‘Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde’ during a dream, and this is also how Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein’s monster. Perhaps people are more responsive to relevant reasons when their basic necessities have been met – when they are at peak cognitive performance. Situations also make a difference. A person might be unwittingly sexist until taking a university course in feminist philosophy. The person was, in a broad sense, ‘capable’ of responding to reasons not to be sexist all along, but he needed the right circumstance to realize that capacity. He wasn’t capable of responding appropriately using only his own cognitive faculties prior to taking the class.

The point of this discussion is to point out that the correct notion of control – whether it should be narrow or extended – is debatable. Should we hold someone responsible for manifesting implicit bias only when her physical needs are met and she is at peak cognitive performance? Or also when she is hungry, tired, sick, etc.? Or also when she failed to take an interest in the patriarchal, colonial, heteronormative history of her own culture?

I don’t think this question has been satisfactorily decided, and it might underlie some of the disputes in the literature.

This also connects with character theory. Is someone who acts on implicit biases – someone who would unreflectively post problematic content on social media, or unreflectively say problematic things – ultimately not responsible for those behaviours because they are at odds with her full evaluative structure? Or does her behaviour reflect a lack of appropriate concern? If the latter, there is a case to be made that her indifference makes her responsible for manifesting implicit bias, because her indifference is really what defines her evaluative structure. She’s more indifferent than she is concerned about her moral integrity.

I can’t pretend to be able to resolve these issues. This was mostly a reflective exercise for my own benefit, and a way of understanding some of the debates in the responsibility literature.

I am aware of some good work that makes inroads into this debate. First, Levy has a couple of articles that argue that an agent’s responsibility-relevant capacities are extended beyond the agent’s mind-brain (2008, 2014); and Doris has a book that argues that agency is socially-embedded and interpersonal (2015). We can see earlier precedents for these views in feminist philosophy, including relational accounts of autonomy (e.g., Code 1991, Friedman 2003, Oshana 2006). Unfortunately, feminist philosophy hardly ever gets cited in non-specialized journals. But a relational/extended account of responsibility owes a lot to feminism.



3 thoughts on “Moral responsibility and implicit bias

  1. thanks for this great post. a minor comment about this: “women were obliged to do a majority of the care-taking in his time, but only because they lived in a patriarchal culture where men were generally unwilling to do their fair share.” i realize that this is not the main point of your post, but at the time you are talking about men were also expected to be the main providers of income for their families. it’s not just that they weren’t willing to do their fair share at home; many of them were working very hard outside the home to provide for their families. there was a different division of labor than there is today. (not that today’s division of labor is entirely fair; men still do less at home than women, on average.) someone might say: sure, but that still reflects men’s choices in a way that it doesn’t reflect women’s choices, because that division of labor was established primarily by men. maybe there’s something to that. either way, the resulting implicit bias can harm men as much as women. for example, when people got divorced, women were typically assigned most of the physical (and sometimes legal) custody of the children, whether the fathers agreed or not. luckily this is changing, but there is a way to go before men are treated equally in this area. (There are other examples.)


  2. Hi Gualtiero. Yes, I agree. I chose my language just to emphasize how wrong Bowlby’s original view was. But yes, patriarchy hurts everyone. It emotionally stultifies men and intellectually represses women and erects a false gender dichotomy that excludes non-binary trans people and harms everyone, etc., etc., etc. Some men contribute to patriarchy, but fortunately many, many men are allies. That shouldn’t go unmentioned.


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