October 10, 2015, by Jules Holroyd

Implicit Bias and Analyses of Discrimination

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a symposium at Humboldt University, Berlin, on Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen’s recent book on discrimination: Born Free and Equal? A Philosophical Inquiry into the Nature of Discrimination. The book offers an analysis of the notion of discrimination, and tackles some questions in which the concept is implicated (the relationship with proportional representation; whether ‘reaction qualifications’ are ever permissibly considered; in explaining when and why racial profiling is problematic). It is a rich book with much to recommend it.

I spoke on the topic of implicit bias and discrimination. The issue is that many analyses of direct discrimination formulate what it is to directly discriminate in terms of the intention to treat an individual differently on the basis of some socially salient aspect of their identity. Lippert-Rasmussen’s analysis departs from the notion of intention, and instead focuses on the thought that an individual is a member of some socially salient group (race, gender, age) – this thought is the motivating reason for differential worse treatment, on his analysis of direct discrimination.

The difficulty is that these analyses, which make reference to explicit mental states of the discriminator, are not well placed to capture cases of discrimination in which implicit bias has a role. Consider the experimental findings whereby individuals – who profess egalitarian values – make differential hiring recommendations depending on the race of an individual (black or white) as indicated by the name at the top of a CV. The hypothesis is that in these cases, what splits the difference between moderately qualified individuals is implicit bias. Individuals discriminate, but do so – at least in some cases – despite their commitment to fair treatment. But if this is the case, then here (and in other cases of discrimination in which implicit bias has a role), the discriminator will not intend to discriminate; nor will the thought that (e.g.) this individual is black be the motivating reason for differential treatment.

So, a more adequate analysis of discrimination should be formulated in ways better suited to capture cases of discriminatory actions in which implicit biases are implicated. This is just one example of how philosophical analyses can be improved by attending to the phenomena under discussion in empirical psychology.


Posted in BiaseventsExplicit attitudes