Tuesday 22 April 2014

Implicit Bias and Epistemic Innocence: Implications

In my last post I suggested some reasons for thinking that beliefs based on implicit biases (BBIB) were at least sometimes, epistemically innocent. In this post I will outline some implications of their being so. 

I am interested in two kinds of implication, if beliefs based on implicit bias are epistemically innocent, we might think that this tell us something about:

(1) Responsibility for implicit bias. 
(2) How we ought to take the implicit bias.

With respect to (1), I do not think BBIB being epistemically innocent brings anything new to the debate. It is the No Relevant Alternatives Condition that we ought to focus on here. If BBIB meet the No Relevant Alternatives Condition, this does not speak against the responsibility or no responsibility views. For example, Jennifer Saul argues that a ‘person should not be blamed for an implicit bias of which they are completely unaware that results solely from the fact that they live in a sexist culture’ (Saul 2013: 55). She goes further arguing that even once one becomes aware of some implicit bias one holds, it does not follow that one can then control how that bias affects one’s behaviour, and so one should still ought not be blamed for having it (Saul 2013: 55). Saul’s claim that individuals are unaware of their implicit bias is in line with beliefs based on them meeting the No Relevant Alternatives condition, so she may not object to my claim that BBIB meet this condition. You might think then, that BBIB being epistemically innocent (specifically: meeting the No Relevant Alternatives Condition), speaks for no responsibility views.

However, arguments for responsibility, for example, from Jules Holroyd, do not rely on a rejection of something like the No Relevant Alternatives condition, rather, a subject’s not being aware of implicit bias does not mean she is not responsible for it. It might be that there are no relevant alternative cognitions available to the subject, but it does not follow that we are not responsible for the biases upon which our beliefs are based. This is because, Holroyd argues, ‘the extent to which we manifest biases may rather be a function of other cognitive states we have, and over which we plausibly have control’ (Holroyd 2012: 280), and that being ‘influenced by implicit bias appears also to be an effect of the kinds of explicit beliefs and evaluations individuals make, as well as the strength of the agent’s commitments to these values’ (Holroyd 2012: 282). So even if there are no relevant alternatives for our BBIB, that might be something we are responsible for, which in turn is part of the story for why we have the biases we do. Similarly, Natalia Washington argues in her post on this blog that we can be responsible for implicit biases insofar as we can be responsible for our epistemic environments. The epistemic innocence of BBIB then does not speak to the debate on responsibility.                                                                                                                               

With respect to (2), I think that BBIB being epistemically innocent does have implications for how we might tackle them. We need to make it such that beliefs based on implicit bias are not epistemically innocent, and we should go in for stopping them meeting the No Relevant Alternatives Condition. We should make it the case that BBIB do not meet the No Relevant Alternatives Condition by making available alternatives, this might result in people become aware of their biases, and more ambitiously, not having them in the first place.

To take an example, Saul suggests that one way to tackle implicit bias against women in philosophy is to ensure exposure to talented female philosophers (Saul 2013: 50). This seems right, being exposed to talented women may eradicate an implicit bias, or make it harder to hold it, either way, alternative cognitions may become available. Saul also suggests that raising awareness of implicit bias may be a way to tackle it. Again, this looks sensible. I said in my last post that part of the reason alternative cognitions are unavailable is because people are not aware of their implicit biases (though that is not to say that once they become aware the disappear). Raising awareness then, and introducing alternative cognitions, may help philosophers understand the phenomenon and ‘work to overcome [its] influence’ (Saul 2013: 55).

1 comment:

  1. I confess I haven't read Holroyd's paper, but here's an initial reaction to your post: I wonder if her argument against responsibility *does* amount to an argument against the satisfaction of the NRA condition if the 'cognition' we focus on is the belief formation process, rather than the belief (i.e. output of a process.)

    She seems to be saying that a belief formation process unduly influenced by implicit biases is one to which relevant alternatives *are* available, by way of "other cognitive processes...over which we plausibly have control". If this is true, it seems strange to me to say that (e.g.) a sexist belief which I hold is one to which no relevant alternative is available for me, since (ex hypothesi) it was within my power to form my beliefs differently such that my sexist bias wouldn't have infected them.

    More generally, I wonder whether it might be helpful to distinguish biased belief formation processes from their results as candidates for epistemic innocence.


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