Implicit Bias and Moral Responsibility

To what extent are our unconscious prejudices part of our moral character? Professor Neil Levy takes a look.


Matt King and Peter Carruthers have recently argued that consciousness of our attitudes cannot play a role in distinguishing actions for which we are responsible from those for which we are not, because there are no conscious attitudes. This claim, in turn, is defended on the basis of Carruthers’ argument that access to the content of our attitudes is interpretive rather than introspective. In the first, briefer, part of this paper, I argue that however we come to be aware of the content of our attitudes, whether we are aware of this content makes a morally significant difference. In the second, longer, part of the paper I consider the implications of Carruthers’ view for moral responsibility for actions caused by implicit attitudes. We appear regularly to be aware of the content of our implicit attitudes; moreover, if Carruthers is right, we discover this content by much the same route as we discover the content of our explicit attitudes. There seems, therefore, to be a case for treating implicit and explicit attitudes alike, so far as moral responsibility is concerned. I argue that awareness of the content of our implicit attitudesis not sufficient for moral responsibility for actions caused by them. Implicit attitudes impact on behavior in ways that differ systematically from the way explicit attitudes impact on behavior. I argue that attitudes that are reportable (as propositional attitudes) have broader and more integrated structures than attitudes that cannot be reported, and that this entails that the former have a role in integrating behavior lacked by the latter.Because moral agency and responsibility requires a high degree of unity on behalf of theagent, this difference makes a morally significant difference.

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