Day 6 – Virtue and Bias

Day 6:
Virtue and Bias

Live Like an Aristotelian

After completing the assigned exercise for today, click here to access the prompt for tonight’s reflection and to submit your 1-2 paragraph journal entry.


What, then, or what sort of thing, is deliberate choice (prohairesis), since it is none of the ones we mentioned. To be sure, it is something voluntary, apparently, although not everything voluntary is deliberately chosen. Well, is it something reached by prior deliberation at least? For deliberate choice involves reason and thought and even its name (prohairesis) seems to indicate something’s being chosen (haireton) before (pro) other things.

– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics III.2

As we’ve seen when examining Aristotle’s ethical theory, much of an education in virtue according to his view depends on habituating ourselves to act virtuously. Now, suppose you’re a person who aspires to be just and kind in your dealings with others. On Aristotle’s view, you become just and kind by repeatedly doing just and kind things, and by doing them with pleasure.

The problem is that acting habitually in this manner may not be sufficient: we now know enough about human behavior and the way our minds work to conclude that most of us have biases we’re unaware of, perhaps inculcated by our upbringing and culture, the influence of the media, groupthink, or other sources. So what may seem to us to be the just and kind thing to do could in fact (through no conscious motive of our own) fall short of actually being the just and kind thing to do, because of the way implicit and unconscious attitudes influence our actions.

Does Aristotle’s ethical theory have the resources to deal with the problem of implicit bias? Well, here is where his criterion of deliberate choice (prohairesis) in the quote above may come in. According to Aristotle’s view of ethical action, the “cause” of virtue lies in “what is up to us” (NE III.3, 1112a): the ability to engage in independent choice. Since he does not have a worked-out view of the power of the unconscious mind and its effects on human action, it’s unlikely Aristotle ever imagined the possibility of implicit bias and its effect on our choices. But once we recognize how our actions may be biased, can that knowledge empower us individually to make better choices? And at the level of politics, could it lead us to think about more structural changes to institutions in our societies?

Today's Exercise

Today’s assignment consists of two parts.

Part 1

Your first task is to become more familiar with the research and literature surrounding “implicit bias.” Here is the introduction to an article on the subject from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Research on “implicit bias” suggests that people can act on the basis of prejudice and stereotypes without intending to do so. While psychologists in the field of “implicit social cognition” study consumer products, self-esteem, food, alcohol, political values, and more, the most striking and well-known research has focused on implicit biases toward members of socially stigmatized groups, such as African-Americans, women, and the LGBTQ community. For example, imagine Frank, who explicitly believes that women and men are equally suited for careers outside the home. Despite his explicitly egalitarian belief, Frank might nevertheless behave in any number of biased ways, from distrusting feedback from female co-workers to hiring equally qualified men over women. Part of the reason for Frank’s discriminatory behavior might be an implicit gender bias. Psychological research on implicit bias has grown steadily, raising metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical questions.

Many of you will be familiar with a research project run by a group of social psychologists at Harvard University who study implicit bias. This project, called “Project Implicit,” includes a website on which participants can take a variety of “Implicit Association Tests” (IATs) that purport to measure implicit biases and attitudes towards gender, age, sexuality, religion, weight, skin-tone, and so on. (For some background to the project, see here.) The most well known of these IATs measures bias on the basis of race and you can take a version of that test by clicking here and following the online instructions. The test is completely anonymous and should take no longer than five minutes.

One frequent criticism of the IATs is that they do not reliably predict an individual person’s behavior. However, as this piece in Scientific American by the psychologists Keith Payne and Laura Niemi and the philosopher John Doris explains, the instructional value of these tests does not lie in their ability to make individual-level predictions:

Most measures in psychology, from aptitude tests to personality scales, are useful for predicting how groups will respond on average, not forecasting how particular individuals will behave. … Implicit bias researchers have always warned against using the tests for predicting individual outcomes, such as how a particular manager will behave in job interviews—they’ve never been in the palm-reading business. What the IAT does, and does well, is predict average outcomes across larger entities like counties, cities or states. For example, metro areas with greater average implicit bias have larger racial disparities in police shootings. And counties with greater average implicit bias have larger racial disparities in infant health problems. These correlations are important: the lives of Black citizens and newborn Black babies depend on them.

By this standard, focusing solely on aggregate responses to the IATs, results from the tests have proven highly stable and longstanding over several years. The charts below summarize the data collected on IATs over more than a decade measuring participants’ attitudes towards race, gender, and sexual orientation (click image for full size):

These distribution results have remained steady over time and their durability suggests that the effects of implicit attitudes across population-level samples can be considerable, as studies that have examined racial bias in the fields of medicine and law have indeed found.

Part 2

For the rest of today, continue the training regimen you’ve begun this week by exercising your two chosen virtues and completing your virtue logs, but now considered in light of the issue of implicit bias. If you took the race-based IAT today and believe you’re part of the small percentage of respondents to this test who don’t show an automatic preference for one racial group or another, consider the statistic represented in the chart above: that almost seven out of ten of all test-takers show some automatic preference for White people compared with Black people. As you seek out the “medial condition” of virtue today, think about how the phenomenon of implicit bias and its effects on a systemic level might affect your feelings, choices, and actions.