This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mind: Chapter on Responsibility and Implicit Bias

Posted on 24 July 2014


Here’s a draft of the chapter of my moral psychology textbook. It’s on implicit bias and responsibility.  This one was much more depressing to write than the one on preferences.  As always, questions, comments, suggestions, and criticisms are most welcome.


“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”

~ William Shakespeare, The Tempest, 5.1.289-290

1 Some incidents

At 12:40 AM, February 4th, 1999, Amadou Diallo, a student, entrepreneur, and African immigrant, was standing outside his apartment building in the southeast Bronx. In the gloom, four passing police officers in street clothes mistook him for Isaac Jones, a serial rapist who had been terrorizing the neighborhood. Shouting commands, they approached Diallo. He headed towards the front door of his building. Diallo stopped on the dimly lit stoop and took his wallet out of his jacket. Perhaps he thought they were cops and was trying to show them his ID; maybe he thought they were violent thieves and was trying to hand over his cash and credit cards. We will never know. One of them, Sean Carroll, mistook the wallet for a gun. Alerting his fellow officers, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon, and Kenneth Boss, to the perceived threat, he triggered a firestorm: together, they fired 41 shots at Diallo, 19 of which found their mark. He died on the spot. He was unarmed. All four officers were ruled by the New York Police Department to have acted as a “reasonable” police officer would have acted in the circumstances. Subsequently indicted for second-degree murder and reckless endangerment, they were acquitted on all charges.

Like so many others, Sean Bell, a black resident of Queens, had some drinks with his friends at a club the night before his wedding, which was scheduled for November 25th, 2006. As they were leaving the club, though, something less typical happened: five members of the New York City Police Department shot about fifty bullets at them, killing Bell and permanently wounding his friends, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman. The first officer to shoot, Gescard Isnora, claimed afterward that he’d seen Guzman reach for a gun. Detective Paul Headley fired one shot; officer Michael Carey fired three bullets; officer Marc Cooper shot four times; officer Isnora fired eleven shots. Officer Michael Oliver emptied an entire magazine of his 9 mm handgun into Bell’s car, paused to reload, then emptied another magazine. Bell, Benefield, and Guzman were unarmed. In part because Benefield’s and Guzman’s testimony was confused (understandably, given that they’d had a few drinks and then been shot), all of the police officers were acquitted. New York City agreed to pay Benefield, Guzman, and Bell’s fiancée just over seven million dollars (roughly £4,000,000)in damages, which prompted Michael Paladino, the head of the New York City Detectives Endowment Association, to complain, “I think the settlement is a joke. The detectives were exonerated… and now the taxpayer is on the hook for $7 million and the attorneys are in line to get $2 million without suffering a scratch.”

In 1979, Lilly Ledbetter was hired as a supervisor by Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. Initially, her salary roughly matched those of her peers, the vast majority of whom were men. Over the next two decades, her and her peers’ raises, which when awarded were a percentage of current salary, were contingent on periodic performance evaluations. In some cases, Ledbetter received raises. In many, she was denied. By the time she retired in 1997, her monthly salary was $3727. The other supervisors – all men – were then being paid between $4286 and $5236. Over the years, her compensation had lagged further and further behind those of men performing substantially similar work; by the time she retired, she was making between 71% and 87% what her male counterparts earned. Just after retiring, Ledbetter launched charges of discrimination, alleging that Goodyear had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits, among other things, discrimination with respect to compensation because of the target’s sex. Although a jury of her peers found in her favor, Ledbetter’s case was appealed all the way to the American Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 against her. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito argued that Ledbetter’s case was unsound because the alleged acts of discrimination occurred more than 180 days before she filed suit, putting them beyond the pale of the statute of limitations and effectively immunizing Goodyear. In 2009, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, loosening such temporal restrictions to make suits like hers easier to prosecute.

Though appalling, Ledbetter’s example is actually unremarkable. On average in the United States, women earn 77% of what their male counterparts earn for comparable work. A longitudinal study of the careers of men and women in business indicates that Ledbetter’s case fits a general pattern. Although no gender differences were found early-career, by mid-career, women reported lower salaries, less career satisfaction, and less feelings of being appreciated by their bosses (Schneer & Reitman 1994). Over the long term, many small, subtle, but systematic biases often snowball into an unfair and dissatisfying career experience.

Why consider these cases together? What – other than their repugnance – unites them? The exact motives of the people involved are opaque to us, but we can speculate and consider what we should think about the responsibility of those involved, given plausible interpretations of their behavior and motives. This lets us evaluate related cases and think systematically about responsibility, regardless of how we judge the historical examples used as models. In particular, in this chapter I’ll consider the question whether and to what extent someone who acts out of bias is responsible for their behavior. The police seem to have been in some way biased against Diallo and Bell; Ledbetter’s supervisors seem to have been in some way biased against her. To explore the extent to which they were morally responsible for acting from these biases, I’ll first discuss philosophical approaches to the question of responsibility. Next, I’ll explain some of the relevant psychological research on bias. I’ll then consider how this research should inform our understanding of the moral psychology of responsibility. Finally, I’ll point to opportunities for further philosophical and psychological research.

Continue reading