Implicit Bias - Its Nature and Moral Blameworthiness

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Course DatesLengthMeeting TimesStatusFormatInstructor(s)CRN
July 12, 2021 - July 28, 20217/12 - 7/282 WeeksOnlineWaitlistedOnlineYing Huang

Course Description

One might believe in gender equality and participate in different gender equality movements, and yet still exhibit gender bias in one’s behaviors without being aware of it. Similarly, one might believe in racial equality, and yet still experience anxiety when walking past African American people. It is very likely that the manifested gender bias and anxious reaction are due to implicit bias. How should we understand implicit bias? What’s the mechanism of it?

This course has two main focuses, i.e. the nature and moral blameworthiness of implicit bias, and will explore the following questions: - In the first half, we will explore the nature of implicit bias. Is implicit bias fundamentally a belief? Or, is implicit bias some form of automatic association, e.g. between “women” and “less intelligent”, we have formed as part of our socio-political history? - In the second half, we will explore the moral blameworthiness of implicit bias. Are we morally blameworthy for judgments and actions done due to implicit bias - some phenomena that might be out of our conscious control? - Where should we go from here? What kind of interventions should be implemented? How can cognitive science help us with it?

Due to its socio-political implications, the phenomenon of implicit bias (IB) has raised much attention among scholars. Psychologists who take IB to be a form of automatic association have come up with the famous Implicit Association Test (IAT) to test the strength of a particular pair of associations that we might not be aware of. But what if IB is more than just automatic associations? To what extent can IAT tell us the nature of IB?

On the other hand, IB has also attracted much attention due to its moral significance. Philosophers concerned with individuals’ moral responsibilities wonder to what extent the cause and mechanism of IB are out of our conscious control, intention or awareness. If the cause and mechanism of IB are completely beyond our awareness or controllability, to what extent are we still responsible for our actions caused by IB?

On the Nature of IB:
IAT and automatic association: we will have first hand experiences with IAT! We will also explore the philosophical position that takes IB to be automatic associations (e.g. Tamar Gendler).

Belief: Other philosophers (e.g. Eric Mandelbaum) have argued that IB is indeed a form of belief. Their strategy is to look closely at cases which we might take to be IB and argue how these states still exhibit characteristics of a belief state.

Intermediate position: Some philosophers (e.g. Neil Levy) take an intermediate position along the spectrum between philosophers who take IB to be automatic association and those who take IB to be belief states.

On Moral Blameworthiness:
We will first explore questions such as: Should we be held responsible if we are not aware of our IB? Should we be held responsible if it’s not up to us to control our IB?

We will also explore how our discussions in the first half of the course, i.e. on the nature of IB, can shed some light on how we can answer the moral responsibility question. Are moral responsibilities dependent on the distinct mental mechanism that grounds implicit bias? If so, does it mean that there is a difference in degree with respect to how responsible we are, if the state of our IB is an alief rather than a belief?

On Intervention (mostly psychology): What have psychologists done in exploring the interventions of IB? How would these interventions shed light on how philosophers talk about moral responsibilities with respect to IB?

Upon completion of this course a student should be able to: - Have a clear understanding of both the philosophical and psychological basis of IB, and the core concepts and issues on moral responsibility in relation to controllability and cognitive states - Have the ability to use various philosophical tools to interpret multiple sides of a complex social issue - Have the ability to critically identify the strengths and weaknesses of arguments - Understand that a good philosophical discussion is not about competing with others in terms of ideas but rather collaboratively helping each other to understand a complex issue

Prerequisites: A background in philosophy is not necessary to succeed in this course.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEPL0944

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences for students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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