Epistemic Responsibility and Implicit Bias, McHugh and Davidson

This is the second of a two-part series of posts about different papers from a brand new book: An Introduction to Implicit Bias: Knowledge, Justice, and the Social Mind, edited by Erin Beeghly and Alex Madva. The post today is by Lacey Davidson and Nancy McHugh. Below they introduce their paper entitled “Epistemic Responsibility and Implicit Bias”. (Preprint available here.)

Here now is Nancy Arden McHugh and Lacey J. Davidson:

Thinking about moral responsibility for implicit bias is tricky because of the nature of implicit biases. Philosophers’ theories of moral responsibility are pretty good at assigning moral responsibility in regular cases, such as when someone harms someone on purpose, but things are more complicated when individuals don’t have full control over their actions and may not know they are doing something wrong. Such is the basic story with implicit bias.

There are many paths forward for thinking about moral responsibility for implicit bias (as explored by others in the Introduction to Implicit Bias, such as Noel Dominguez in Chapter 8). In our chapter, “Epistemic Responsibility and Implicit Bias,” we focus on epistemic responsibility, a concept that focuses on our moral responsibilities to behave in epistemically virtuous ways. We argue that our moral responsibilities related to implicit bias must include a central role for seeking and disseminating knowledge and improving our epistemic practices. We also argue that biases are better addressed through the lens of collective, rather than individual, responsibility.

Epistemic practices are habits or practices that help individuals and communities gain knowledge about themselves, their communities, and the worlds they inhabit. For example, some people have the epistemic practice of asking a lot of questions and critically assessing the responses they get. Other people have the epistemic practice of going by their gut reaction. These epistemic practices help us to act more or less responsibly with respect to the knowledge we have and seek.

Epistemic responsibility develops through the cultivation of some basic epistemic virtues, such as open-mindedness, epistemic humility, and diligence that help knowers engage in seeking information about themselves, others, and the world that they inhabit (Medina 2013). Just as people can cultivate and practice epistemic virtues that lead to epistemically responsible behavior, they also can cultivate and practice epistemic vices that lead to epistemically irresponsible behavior. Epistemic vices can be thought of as the inverse of the above virtues—close-mindedness, arrogance, and laziness. These vices are less likely to yield truth about the self, others, and the world. If an individual’s goal is to gain accurate knowledge, then they need to cultivate and engage in epistemically virtuous behaviors and mitigate epistemic vices.

A ready example of epistemic vice is the many years in which white people in the United States failed to attend to and seek out information about police violence against People of Color, especially against Black people. That many white people are now choosing to act in an epistemically responsible manner and are reacting to police brutality indicates that the epistemic capability or opportunity was present, but previously not taken. White people were choosing to not know something about the world that they could have known (Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013) and in doing so allowed the continuation of state sanctioned violence against Black people and other People of Color. Thus, not only were white people failing epistemically, they were failing morally. Knowing better is necessary for doing better. Lives are at stake when we are epistemically irresponsible, when we choose not to know. We view implicit bias to be one part of a much larger set of mechanisms that cause, support, and maintain ignorance and the conditions of oppression.

Engaging in epistemically responsible behavior in spite of implicit biases requires work. This is because implicit biases function automatically. The work of epistemic responsibility is best done with the support of others and through collective practices. This is because epistemically irresponsible knowers develop in communities. No knower is an arrogant or unvirtuous island in themselves. They are, at least to a degree, shaped by the situation in which they live. Epistemic vices are frequently maintained and yet obscured by the culture in which they arise, constructing individuals and communities who are ignorant of their own epistemic irresponsibility and invested in maintaining their ignorance because it feels “psychologically and social functional,” i.e., it helps them to maintain self-esteem and to get along with other ignorant and arrogant people, yet it is epistemically dysfunctional because it is not truth-tracking (Mills 1997: 18).

We argue that being epistemically responsible requires engaging in a set of practices or habits that help us develop a better understanding of ourselves, others, and society. In addition, these practices must be supported by and within communities who have a commitment to developing epistemically responsible behaviors. This is because an individual cannot by themselves undo their own implicit biases or the widespread effects implicit (and explicit) biases have within their communities. Thus, the responsibility is collective. In line with this way of thinking, in the paper, we offer three concrete individual and collective epistemic practices that allow one to develop better habits for seeking, generating, conveying, and absorbing knowledge. We call these “Do-It-Yourself-Together” strategies.

These strategies are “world”-traveling (as theorized by the transformative feminist philosopher María Lugones 1987,who recently passed and whose ongoing contributions will be sorely missed), progressive stack (as developed by community organizers), and calling out and in. We’ll give a short summary of these practices here, and we explore the benefits, nuances, and complications of these practices in greater depth in our chapter.

“World”-traveling is the intentional, but challenging, push that develops the habit of being open-minded. By presenting other ways of being in the world, including the ways in which others live in oppressive situations, “world”-traveling forces us out of our comfort zones. One way to do this is to read or listen to content produced by those who embody identities different than your own. Once one has sufficiently worked to develop an informed and self-critical perspective, one can be in a position to engage across differences and build reciprocal relationships with others and thus more fully “world”-travel.

“Taking stack” is keeping track of the names of those who wish to speak in the order in which they indicated they wished to speak and allowing them to speak in that order. Progressive stack is similar, but it changes the order of the stack to raise up those voices that are often silenced and marginalized within dominant knowledge production. Progressive stack allows its users to develop epistemic humility by shifting those who are often given the most space to speak into a listening role.

Calling in and out are both practices of giving feedback to individuals and groups on their harmful behaviors with the goal of behavior change and contributes to the development of epistemic diligence. Calling in focuses on maintaining and growing relationships while still holding the person accountable, and calling out is focused primarily on accountability and uses the visibility of the call out as motivation for changed behavior. Both strategies can be useful. We also recognize that many white people experience any feedback as a “call out” because of white fragility; we urge our readers who experience this to resist fragility.

Interestingly, one must engage in these practices in epistemically responsible ways, including being willing to change one’s strategies and being open to being wrong or having chosen the wrong strategy. Although practices and structures can help us develop more epistemically responsible practices, epistemic responsibility is an ongoing and dynamic process that requires vigilance and openness to epistemic friction. Epistemic responsibility and the development of epistemic virtues allows us to collectively shift implicit and explicit biases and reduce their effects, which can in turn influence the material conditions of people’s lives.

4 Replies to “Epistemic Responsibility and Implicit Bias, McHugh and Davidson

  1. Thanks for this. Quick question: How is calling out someone — a matter, as you say, of accountability — justified given that person’s purported epistemic non-responsibility?

  2. Hi David, thanks for this great question. I think the question points to both a language and theoretical tension between moral responsibility and epistemic responsibility. This isn’t explored much in the paper given the audience, but I’m interested to hear what you might think.

    Let’s take a primary question in the moral responsibility literature to be: “Is S morally responsible for A?” This question is focused on the qualities or state of S, as well as S’s relationship to the action A. And let’s take a primary question in the epistemic responsibility literature to be: “What does it look like for S to do A in an epistemically responsible way?” or alternatively, “Was S acting in epistemically responsible ways when they did A?” These questions are focused less on the attributes or state of S and are more focused on the process that S used to go about doing A.

    So, when we call someone out for behaving in a non-epistemically responsible way, we are criticizing their action, but we are also making a claim that acting in more epistemically responsible ways likely would’ve changed their action. In other words, knowing differently would’ve changed their choice or behavior. This is different than saying that S was not morally responsible for A, because this claim would entail that it isn’t appropriate or fitting to praise or blame S. In contrast, when we say that someone was epistemically irresponsible or was not epistemically responsible, it doesn’t preclude us from giving a critique or blaming them with the goal of changing their process and behaviors.

  3. Thanks for the reply. So it seems you have in mind simply proleptic blame, which some think perfectly appropriate as well in the moral responsibility domain (following Bernard Williams, e.g., Vargas, Fricker, Tsai, McGeer). I don’t see this as marking a difference in the objects of assessment (actions or processes) in the two domains, therefore.

  4. Yes, I agree that proleptic blame is relevant here. I do think there are some differences to be parsed between acting as if the relevant moral considerations already matter to the blamed and calling the person’s attention to their epistemic processes.

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