a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Moral values Page 1 of 7

Invisible discrimination: the double role of implicit bias

In this post, Katharina Berndt Rasmussen (Stockholm University & Institute for Futures Studies) discusses her recently published article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy (co-authored by Nicolas Olsson Yaouzis) exploring the roles that implicit bias and social norms play in discriminating hiring practices.

The US, like many other countries, is marked by pervasive racial inequalities, not least in the job market. Yet many US Americans, when asked directly, uphold egalitarian “colour-blind” norms: one’s race shouldn’t matter for one’s chances to get hired. Sure enough, there is substantial disagreement about whether it (still) does matter, but most agree that it shouldn’t. Given such egalitarian attitudes, one would expect there to be very little hiring discrimination. The puzzle is how then to explain the racial inequalities in hiring outcomes.

A second puzzle is the frequent occurrence of complaints about “reverse discrimination” in contexts such as the US. “You only got the job because you’re black” is a reaction familiar to many who do get a prestigious job while being black, as it were. Why are people so suspicious when racial minorities are hired?

In a recent paper, my colleague Nicolas Olsson Yaouzis and I offer an explanation for both puzzles: we model the workings of implicit racial bias in a population of egalitarian norm followers. Implicit biases have been shown to affect basically all of us. They are, roughly, automatically activated stereotypes about social groups. They are often unnoticed and unendorsed by their bearers. And they correlate with social inequalities on population levels. But how, exactly, should we understand the underlying mechanism? Here’s our model:

Imagine a big firm consisting of a large number of subsections, each headed by a manager. From time to time these managers hire new people. Assume that the firm was initially all-white (think of the early sixties Mad Men era). Managers knew that there was some great competence among the black applicants, which would benefit the firm overall. Still, each preferred to head a racially homogenous subsection, because it saved them trouble. They were thus all trapped in a prisoner’s dilemma: each doing what was (supposedly) better for them, while the firm missed out on competence.

Social norms solve prisoner’s dilemmas. Suppose that (in the early seventies) the managers become aware of an egalitarian social norm: “When hiring, hire the most competent candidate, regardless of their race”. This norm changes their incentives: as long as they believe that enough others will both comply with it and expect them in turn to comply, they want to comply with it themselves. Imagine now that each manager comes to believe this about the other managers. Each then complies with the egalitarian norm and hires black applicants whenever they are the most competent. Slowly, the racial composition of the firm will change.

However, if there are implicit racial biases among the managers, this will sometimes distort their actions. They want to comply with the norm but sometimes make mistakes. Due to the nature of implicit bias these mistakes are asymmetrical. That is, they sometimes occur when the most qualified candidate is black (such that a white candidate is hired instead), but never occur when the most qualified candidate is white (such that a black candidate would be hired).

Now, assume that there are many decisions and many managers, so mistakes add up. This could, on the whole, explain large scale hiring inequalities. But this would mean that each of them, observing that the egalitarian norm is violated time and again, would cease to believe that enough others complied with it. Moreover, observing that such frequent norm violations are not met with protests by the others, each manager would cease to believe that enough others expect them in turn to comply. Then, each would no longer want to comply and the norm would break down.

Yet this is not what seems to happen. Rather, the norm stays in place (people uphold the norm when asked) and large-scale hiring discrimination persists (causing the pervasive racial inequalities). Our model can account for this, by illuminating the intricate interplay between implicit bias and job competence. To see this, consider a specific recruitment case, where the most competent candidate is black. Their race is a clearly observable feature – their competence typically is not. Suppose that the hiring manager makes an implicit bias-mistake and hires a less competent white candidate. The other managers likely cannot directly observe that a norm violation has taken place. They can, however, observe the successful candidate’s race. If they (like most of us) hold implicit racial biases, they may perceive the white candidate as more competent than they actually are, and (falsely) infer that the egalitarian norm was followed. Thus no one protests, and no one changes their belief that enough others comply with the norm and expect them in turn to comply. The norm may be repeatedly violated, but does not break down. This explains the first puzzle.

Now consider the same case, but suppose the manager doesn’t make a mistake. The most competent black candidate is hired. Again, the others can observe the candidate’s race but not their competence. Again, if they hold implicit racial biases, they may perceive the black candidate as less competent than they actually are – and (falsely) infer that the egalitarian norm was violated. If this happens repeatedly, observers might eventually (falsely) conclude that the egalitarian norm has come to be replaced with a norm of “political correctness”: “When hiring, hire the most qualified minority candidate (to increase firm diversity)”. This explains the second puzzle.

In sum, we propose a toy model of hiring decisions. Those are, of course, much more complex in real life. Still, the model helps us see the double role of implicit bias: in the hiring decisions themselves, and in bystander evaluations of these decisions. It solves the two puzzles by explaining how hiring discrimination can be invisible in seemingly egalitarian social contexts — and why instead non-discrimination may appear suspicious.

A final word: in a world where explicit racism is on the rise, why worry about implicit bias? Our analysis does not imply that explicit racism doesn’t matter (and we certainly think it does). It just shows that focusing narrowly on eradicating explicit racism will not be enough.

Katharina Berndt Rasmussen

Intellectually Humble Free Speech Law

Scholars familiar with the philosophical arguments in favor of robust free speech protections commonly identify three kinds of arguments given in favor of such protections:

1. Free speech helps us discover truth,
2. Free speech is required for democratic self-governance,
3. Free speech is an important part of autonomy.

Contemporary social and political circumstances—including the persistent spread of viral misinformation via social media—have called these traditional arguments into question.

Can we really claim that free speech helps us discover truth when the data suggest that falsehoods travel, on average, much faster and farther than truthful corrections? Does free speech, on balance, help preserve democracy when the integrity of elections is being undermined by orchestrated viral disinformation campaigns?

Such questions prompted by social, political, and material reality ought to be taken seriously. Taking such questions seriously may require us to reconsider what kinds of arguments best ground free speech rights. This may, in turn, require us to reconsider what good free speech law and policy should look like.

An ad-hominem attack on… actually, let’s just call it Reply to Van Goozen

Thanks to Sara for a thoughtful response to my initial post. Sara’s very reasonable, and I confess a certain deliberate provocativeness in the original post. Nonetheless, I want to push back on a few things.

An ad-hominem attack on an ad-hominem attack on non-consequentialism

Last week, Michael Bennett proposed an ‘ad-hominem attack’ on non-consequentialism. He suggested, quite plausibly, that philosophers and political theorists tend to produce work that is complex, at least partially because ‘[p]romotion and prestige requires a constant stream of publications’ and it is ‘difficult to keep that up unless you have complex theories that require a great deal of elaboration’. This provides support for a kind-of debunking argument against contemporary anti-consequentialism:

It does seem awfully suspicious that the normative realm would turn out to be so complicated, given our career incentives to make it look complicated. I think we have reason to be less confident in complex philosophy as a result, and less confident in anti-consequentialism in particular.

I think it’s clear that among academic philosophers there is a tendency to overcomplicate things. This applies to philosophers of all stripes and backgrounds, but is perhaps particularly jarring among philosophers of the ‘analytic’ or ‘Anglo-American’ tradition, given our avowed focus on analysis, logic argument and rigour (this characterization of the analytic tradition can and has been questioned, but let’s go with it for the time being). Indeed, the focus on providing logical arguments for our positions seems to me to contribute significantly to this  tendency towards complexity, often at the cost of clarity.

But to get to the point – does this institutional and epistemic bias in favour of complexity provide an argument (debunking or otherwise) against anti-consequentialism? I’m not sure that this is the case.

An ad-hominem attack on anti-consequentialism

I think there’s something unintentionally revealing about the title of Frances Kamm’s book Intricate Ethics. Most people, I expect, would find it quite odd for intricacy to be a key selling point for a theory of ethics. Yet this actually makes complete sense, albeit not in the way Kamm intends. Philosophers need ethics to be intricate. If it were simple, they’d be out of a job.

Selling Silence: The Morality of Sexual Harassment NDAs

In this post, Scott Altman (USC Gould) discusses his recent JOAP 2022 Annual Essay Prize winning article about the morality of sexual harassment nondisclosure agreements.

Harvey Weinstein, Chairman, The Weinstein Company
Harvey Weinstein by Thomas Hawk (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) pay sexual harassment and abuse victims not to tell their stories or name their abusers. Harvey Weinstein’s many NDAs, and the #MeToo movement, spurred some states to make such NDAs legally unenforceable. 

My Selling Silence article argued in favor of these laws. Sexual wrongdoer NDAs protect abusers, endanger future victims, and undermine deterrence. The article rejected three justifications for wrongdoer NDAs, two of which I will mention briefly before explaining the third.

Why schools should teach that it’s okay to be LGBT

In this post, Christina Easton (University of Warwick) discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy about the value and appropriate shape of LGBT-inclusive education.

Image by Cinthya Liang from Pixabay

All schools in England now teach about LBGT relationships as part of a new, compulsory Relationships Education curriculum. Unsurprisingly, some parents have been unhappy about this. But even amongst those supportive of LGBT-inclusive curricula, there’s some confusion about what the purpose of this teaching should be. England’s Department for Education sometimes talk about LGBT relationships as “loving, healthy relationships”. They also say that religious schools can teach the curriculum whilst “reflecting their beliefs in their teaching”. But conservative branches of major religions say that LGBT relationships aren’t healthy at all – they’re sinful in fact. So what are teachers actually meant to be teaching? Should the state curriculum be taking a stand on whether LGBT relationships are “healthy”, or not? In a recent article, I argue that the answer is ‘yes’: schools should aim for children to believe that there’s nothing wrong with LGBT relationships.

The Ethics of Keeping Pets: Why Love is Not Enough

photo of man hugging tan dogPhoto by Eric Ward on Unsplash

I have been thinking about the ethics of keeping sentient animals as pets. As someone who has lived with dogs, cats, rats, mice, gerbils, rabbits, lizards, guinea pigs, and chickens, I have experienced first-hand the joy and companionship that such creatures can bring to our lives and the love that we can have for them. Yet, as a philosopher interested in animal ethics, I am aware of the many moral problems associated with our practice of keeping animals as pets. These problems have led me to reconsider human-animal companionship, and I have come to think that no matter how much we might love the animals we bring into our homes, we cannot justify doing so.

Should you be grateful to nature?

In this post, Max Lewis (University of Helsinki) discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy about the kinds of gratitude appropriate for our relationship with nature.

If someone provides you with a gift or does you a favor, you should be grateful to them for what they did. This seems undeniable. In fact, failing to be grateful to them would make you morally criticizable. But here’s a puzzle. Nature provides you with an abundance of benefits you did not earn and are not owed. This too seems undeniable. But, if you are like most people, you are not grateful to nature. You are like the boy in the classic children’s book The Giving Tree: always taking from nature, but never giving back. After all, if you were grateful, you would try to pay nature back.

Image by shameersrk from Pixabay

So, are you morally criticizable for your lack of gratitude? Fortunately, I think not. In On Gratitude to Nature, I argue that we do not owe nature any gratitude. Nonetheless, it can be appropriate to be grateful for nature in numerous ways.

Throwing tomato soup at van Gogh

In October, the environmental group Just Stop Oil staged a number of nonviolent direct actions across London. The most visible of these actions was the throwing of tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery. This action has been highly controversial and has attracted a number of criticisms, both from those who are usually critical of this kind of environmental activism as well as from people who tend to be sympathetic with the cause, and in some cases the methods chosen by these groups, including some who are themselves part of the environmental movement. There were two main kinds of criticism made. First, some felt that the painting was the wrong target for such a protest, often reacting angrily out of fear that that painting had been damaged, which was soon revealed not to be the case. Second, many argued that this kind of action is to be criticised for strategic reasons as it does attract attention, but it mainly alienates people from the cause.

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