3/29/2014

implicit bias and vaccinations

Question: Is having a pernicious bias analogous to not getting vaccinated?

Philosophers have been talking more about implicit biases recently.  I was recently reading Payne's work on 'weapon bias'; here is the first couple sentences from the abstract of this paper:
"Race stereotypes can lead people to claim to see a weapon where there is none. Split-second decisions magnify the bias by limiting people’s ability to control responses."
That is, if forced to make a snap judgment, people in the US today are more likely to identify a non-gun tool as a gun if they have just seen a picture of someone typically racialized as black than someone typically racialized as white.  Also, if people had been under a heavy cognitive load before classifying an object as a gun or a tool, they are more likely to make this mistake.  If subjects have plenty of time, and have not been under heavy cognitive load, then they  make far fewer mistakes, and more importantly the rate of mistakes is the same regardless of race seen.

We typically say that people should be permitted complete freedom of thought: we should only be held accountable for our actions, not our beliefs.  I think (and I could be wrong about this) the usual justification for this complete freedom is: one can always control which thoughts one acts on.  For example, I can think 'I wish so-and-so were dead' without killing them, or even putting them at increased risk of being killed.  If we did not have control over whether our thoughts issued in corresponding actions, then simply having certain kinds of beliefs would put others at increased risk for harm.  It would arguably be a kind of negligence.

Cases like weapon bias suggest that the 'usual justification' above is wrong, and that my having certain (conscious or unconscious) beliefs does put others at increased risk for harm.  The usual justification holds in good circumstances: when I have plenty of time, and am not under a heavy cognitive load, I can control which of my thoughts issue in corresponding actions.  But sometimes I find myself in less than good circumstances (at least sometimes through no fault of my own).  And in those circumstances, my pernicious biases are more likely to harm others.

A biased person in a social setting that includes people stigmatized by that bias seems analogous to me to someone who has not gotten a vaccination for a communicable disease who is not quarantined.  If I don't get vaccinated, then it is of course possible that I will never get the measles, and thus never harm anyone.  But my lack of vaccination raises the risk that others will be harmed.  Having pernicious biases seems to be the same, if the weapons

Can someone talk me out of this line of reasoning?  I think I have an obligation to get vaccinated, but an obligation to have a 'thought vaccination' (whether for conscious or unconscious thoughts) sounds like the Thought Police/ brainwashing -- a result I'm guessing most people want to avoid.

6 Comments:

At 31/3/14, Anonymous BC said...

So I think the position that is most fruitful for talking you out of this is as follows.

I would argue that you are mistaken here...

"the usual justification for this complete freedom is: one can always control which thoughts one acts on"

The standard line we get from Mill on this is, as I read it, fairly complex and doesn't emerge from the idea you cite. That is, Mill acknowledges that in particular cases would could often get better outcomes using illiberal methods. However, against this he cautions the expert against her own fallibility, notes the resources for gaining compliance that we already have, and cautions that the illiberal methods will likely be worse overall than the alternative. I'll take them in order.

Fallibility - we simply don't know what the effects of 'thought vaccination' are likely to be. Such methods might leave people more susceptible to the thrall of authority, make people second guess themselves to the the point of paralysis or invite backlash. The expert's opinion and methods in such cases may turn out to carry unwanted side-effects.

Liberal methods of compliance- Mill is at pains to point out that we have plenty of methods at our disposal to ensure people don't harm others. We can hold people responsible after the fact for mistakes - or at least we should. And we can review decisions that are less urgent in forums that are especially likely to minimize bias. Further, we have charge of a person in the educational system until they are 18 which affords us the best and most extensive opportunity to shape their character.

The character of illiberality - This may seem like a repetition of the first point. It's not. That point was speculative, urging us to side with the devil we know. This point is to remind us that we know a great deal about the effects of the kinds of techniques you cite. They appear to aim at homogeneity and try to squelch dissent. For this reason they promise to be more invasive and less concerned with individual character than liberal methods. For this reason they are to be eschewed.

 
At 1/4/14, Blogger Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Thanks BC! That was extremely thoughtful and helpful. Those 3 aspects are relevant disanalogies between the two cases: 1. we do know the side-effects of measles vaccines, 2. there is no other method to give someone immunity to the measles besides a vaccine, and 3. the potential for authoritarian abuse is much less for measles vaccines than "thought-vaccines".

Thanks again!

 
At 2/4/14, Blogger Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Three further thoughts, in case I ever come back to this:

- Real life Thought Police are bad, and (probably in the vast majority of cases) the harms of using them outweigh the benefits. But (in true philosophical fashion) what if we imagine a pill (or whatever) that 1. we knew had no side-effects, 2. was the only way to fully eliminate harmful biases and 3. could only be used to correct harmful biases (the chemical mechanism wouldn't work, let's say, if the aim was to get someone to consistently vote for Democratic candidates).

- Re: 2: if one could get immunity to the measles from something like education, would I think that that was a better way to get immunity than a shot?

- BC (in real life) pointed out to me that instead of pernicious bias, driving could meet this description as well: I am raising the risk of motorists being harmed every time I get on the road. Helping and harming have to be understood as relative to a background state of what's normal. Creating benefits that go above and beyond normal benefits is helping; creating costs for others that go above and beyond normal costs (like driving does) are harms.
I have to think about that... but I am worried that this makes racist/sexist behavior not harmful, IF done in a racist/sexist society. And that seems wrong.

 
At 2/4/14, Anonymous BC said...

The good liberal could see practices, and the risks they engender, as culturally relative only provided that they don't run up against core tenets of liberalism itself. As such, driving doesn't count as a harm against a background of regular motor vehicle use. But it probably did when the first Model-Ts came rolling off the line. This need not imply that arbitrary treatment of persons could ever be culturally relativized in the same way however since the liberal claims to point to deep metaphysical facts about personhood to justify the general right of conscience.

 
At 8/4/14, Blogger Greg Frost-Arnold said...

But if racist and sexist unfairness could be ruled out by these "deep metaphysical facts about personhood," then I would think the original point of the post returns.

(It may not have been clear from the original post, but for me at least the most important issue is not that people with implicit biases are more likely to harm people in general, but rather that the harms fall disproportionately on groups who are already unfairly disadvantaged by racial discrimination.)

 
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