That’s Racist, Too! Bias, Norms, and the Move to Liberation (Dissertation Project)
Charles Mills (2000) claims, “That race should be irrelevant is certainly an attractive ideal, but when it has not been irrelevant, it is absurd to proceed as if it had been” (41). I’ve constructed my project with the specter of this absurdity very firmly in mind, and the dissertation proceeds by addressing two sets of longstanding questions about race. Those in the first set raise issues in ethics about the wrongs of racism. Those in the second concern issues in metaphysics and social ontology and focus on the nature of social identity categories, their cognitive functions, and the nature of the entities they pick out. I also draw on and contribute to the growing philosophic literature on social norms, which serves as my bridge between these two sets of questions.
The purpose of this project is to harness the power of traditional philosophic tools, such as conceptual analysis, alongside empirical data and theoretical strategies from the psychological sciences, behavioral economics, sociology, and cultural studies to develop clearer and more effective ways of conceptualizing race and race liberation, especially in the United States. I begin by articulating and defending a pluralistic theory of the application conditions for the predicate ‘racist’; in short, I hold that a variety of entities—mental states and processes, individual behaviors, norms, practices, policies, campaigns, institutions, etc.—are viable candidates to be classified as racist or not and that each of those types of entities can qualify as racist on non-reductive grounds, rather than derivatively, in virtue of some relation they have to some more fundamental or ultimate source of the property picked out by the predicate ‘racist’. My position is that scholars who have sought to limit the use of the term, or reserve its proper application to some core set of entities, have failed to provide convincing arguments and their restrictions have been damaging to the anti-racist project. Throughout the analysis of application conditions, I have a tripartite focus on 1) individual psychological mechanisms and states, 2) informal institutions comprised of social norms and cultural practices, and 3) formal institutions regulated by policies and laws. Then, I specifically show how both implicit biases and social norms fit into my pluralistic account of the predicate ‘racist’. I do this because these are the kind of entities that raise difficult puzzles concerning both the assignment of moral responsibility, as well as the reach and potential limits of our capacity to behave in non-racist or anti-racists ways. Many people worry that we can’t be held responsible for things we don’t have direct control over or knowledge about, and in these chapters I provide a framework for understanding our complex epistemic and moral relationship to these entities. Finally, I explore the development and implementation of what I call liberatory norms as a potential pathway for resisting racially oppressive conditions. Specifically, I look at the kinds of norms being cultivated in activist communities that work to undo oppressive individual tendencies, cultural practices, and social structures.
My dissertation aims not only to make significant contribution to several areas of academic research, but also to articulate and clarify the implications of that research for social movements, public policies, and individual strategies for mitigating bias. For example, sometimes strategies for promoting diversity in the workplace that look promising in theory actually backfire in practice, making environments more hostile rather than less, or discouraging rather than encouraging diverse groups of people to come together. I bring a philosopher’s eye to bear on these kinds of possibilities as well and carefully think through their significance. By paying close attention to the psychological mechanisms that support certain attitudes and behaviors, my framework provides many resources for identifying effective strategies for intervention.
Forthcoming in The Journal of Applied Philosophy.
In this paper we will do three things. First, we describe Charlotte Witt’s way of conceptualizing social reality, and the way it suggests that the pursuit of social justice needs to focus not just on individuals and their choices but on the social norms and social roles to which individuals are bound. Second, we review recent empirical work on the psychology of social norms, and the light that work sheds on individual behaviors, social interactions, and collective dynamics. Third, we will show how these two approaches are neatly compatible and mutually informative, and together suggest that an important component of “social reality” lies between decision making agents and their individual psychologies, on the one hand, and formal institutions and their explicit laws and codified procedures, on the other. Social norms are the key element of these informal institutions, playing the pivotal role in mediating between individual and group behaviors. Attempts to reconcile psychological with structural explanations of social injustice should recognize this middle level of social reality, and attempts to address prejudice and oppression should leverage what is known about both the individual and group properties of social norms to more effectively influence social roles and informal institutions.
In the past several years, empirical implicit bias research has been enthusiastically received by philosophers and incorporated into philosophic work on social identities, particularly in the service of explaining how individuals without explicitly held discriminatory beliefs can sometimes behave in ways that lead to discriminatory outcomes. In this paper I argue that this focus on implicit bias research can be harmful to the anti-racist project in philosophy. My worry is not that the inclusion of empirical implicit bias literature is harmful in principle, but rather that when it is used on its own without being put in its larger context, as the main motivation for believing in unconscious racism or as a more palatable placeholder for the experience of racism, this signals that it is adequate for anti-racist purposes, and this is what we should avoid. Thinking it is adequate (or even signaling so without thinking so) is an instance of what Kristie Dotson (2014) calls an epistemic exclusion.
A community demonstrates social trust when most members believe that others in their community are contributing to the goals and projects of one another by complying with shared social norms because it is the right thing to do (Vallier 2018). Scholars have argued that this social trust plays an essential stabilizing role in cooperative systems and provides many important benefits. Much of the relevant literature on social trust has assumed that individuals are epistemically justified in believing that others will comply with norms. The purpose of this paper is to look at circumstances when such epistemic justification is not present, when individuals are not epistemically justified in believing that others in their community are contributing to goals and projects or that they will comply with shared norms. Further, we seek to provide an account of justified social distrust in which individuals are justified in believing that others are irrelevant or harmful for achieving one another’s goals and that (most or at least many) members are generally unwilling or unable to contribute to their goals through upholding supportive social norms or challenging harmful social norms. We then provide empirical evidence that there are some actual groups of people that are justified in their social distrust even when within a majority trusting society. Finally, we will explore potential pathways for rebuilding trust when social distrust is justified. This is particularly important when trust is required for the provision of needed services, such as healthcare.
Activism and the Armchair: Why Philosophers Need Not Stay Out of Politics
Scholars working in Philosophy of Mind have traditionally had little to say about the political sphere or the ways in which a greater understanding of the mind might affect political change. However, in the past several years, many philosophers working in this area have turned their attention to implicit bias, including the ways our increased understanding might change our practices in and outside of our academic settings. This turn outward has led many of these philosophers to engage in activism related to their academic findings. In his paper In Defense of the Ivory Tower: Why Philosophers Should Stay Out of Politics (2015), Bas van der Vossen argues that it is wrong for academics to be involved with political activism. In this paper I argue against this conclusion.
First, I challenge van der Vossen’s conception of what it means to be politically active. Specifically, I argue that his view does not give a principled way of deciding what and what is not political activism. Second, I challenge the ideal that our philosophic reasoning and arguments should be completely sterilized from bias. He writes that a problem with political activism is that it “negatively affect[s] our ability to honestly and impartially weigh the evidence” (1052). The empirical evidence about reasoning and bias does not support the idea that we ready and reliably have the ability to do so. Third, I argue against van der Vossen’s proposal that there should be a “division of labor” between activists and political philosophers in that philosophers come up with principles and activists implement them. Finally, I argue that abstaining from political activism cannot be reasonably expected from those that would otherwise be directly affected by the results of political activism, e.g. women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, etc. Though he may rightly claim that political activism simpliciter is not necessary to have a good life, he is wrong to think that a good life is afforded to all without the results of political activism.