Is implicit bias sinful?

There’s an interesting discussion of Implicit bias and moral culpability over at Feminist Philosophers. As philosophers, they have posed the question in terms of moral culpability; as a theologian, I will use the language of sinfulness.

Implicit bias is an unconscious mechanism that seems to be part of our human reasoning process, that can influence the decisions we make or actions we take even though we are not consciously aware of it. For example, even if we think we are making a purely merit-based decision, we are likely to be unconsciously influenced by the race, gender, or other personal characteristics of the persons involved. Thus I would describe the existence of the bias itself in terms of our fallen human nature: it is a tendency towards sin that we universally possess.

We therefore have a moral responsibility to resist acting unjustly as a result of this tendency, just as we have a moral responsibility to resist acting out of selfishness or envy or covetousness, which are also tendencies towards sin that we universally possess.

Evidence indicates that there are two ways to resist acting on implicit bias. First, being aware that it exists can go quite some way towards reducing its effects. If you know that you are unconsciously likely to prefer some candidates (for jobs, speaking positions, promotions, or so forth) to others, you can be more explicit about the factors you’re considering when making decisions.

From the standpoint of moral theology, you cannot resist what you don’t know about. Here I agree with some of the commenters at FP that one has a moral responsibility to educate oneself about the effects of bias, and one is morally culpable if one fails to do so. This is a due diligence type argument; in traditional terms it corresponds to the notion of a well-formed conscience. To act according to one’s conscience cannot be reduced to an individual assessment of right and wrong. One first has a responsibility to inform one’s conscience by making oneself aware of, and seriously considering, the arguments made by competent authorities. (This responsibility derives from the responsibility to resist acting on another element of our fallen human nature: the tendency towards self-deception.)

Secondly, you can build systems to compensate for it: to use a scientific analogy, once you know that a source of systematic error exists, you can modify your experimental setup to attempt to eliminate it. Most hiring procedures can be modified to include anonymity at some stage of the selection process: the most famous example is perhaps the practice of requiring musicians auditioning for an orchestra to perform from behind a screen, which resulted in a dramatic change in the number of women who passed the preliminary round and were hired. Anonymizing job applications and resumes before providing them to persons who are identifying candidates to interview would generally be possible.

The Feminist Philosophers point out that for academics, epistemic bias is also at issue: unconsciously biasing the syllabus or reading list can perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes about whose work is important or indeed present at all.

Taking the extra effort to ensure that a candidate list includes diverse candidates, even if one has to work a lot harder to find them, also falls into this category, as it attempts to compensate for the broader effects of bias in our social systems. Likewise, building systems to make it easier to find them also falls into this category.

(Might this attempt to compensate for the broader effects of bias be considered an element of repenting for and refraining from structural sin?)

I conclude that implicit bias is sinful; acting on implicit bias is a sin; and, somewhat unusually, the means by which we are to refrain from acting on implicit bias requires proaction. That is, unlike the injunction “Do not steal”, which can be satisfied by refraining from theft, satisfying the injunction “Do not act on implicit bias” requires taking positive actions to counter the influence of implicit bias.

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One Response to Is implicit bias sinful?

  1. Pingback: Inclusive Language Standards: Coming to a Seminary Near You? | Gaudete Theology

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