What are we responsible for?

Josh Glasgow, Sonoma State University

From time to time, I feel alienated from my actions and thoughts.  I wonder why I did or said something that I did not really want to do or say.  I recoil at a rogue thought that drifts through my mind. And of course, many are upset to find themselves harboring an implicit bias grossly at odds with their firm explicit moral commitments.  Are we right to hold ourselves responsible for such biases, thoughts, and behaviors?

Of course, unwanted thoughts or actions sometimes disclose honest but difficult truths about ourselves.  You might discover that though you wished you had a desire to be nice to your colleague, every fiber within you actually wants to tell him off for some terrible thing he did.  Or you might find yourself feeling romantic towards someone who is not your monogamous partner.  Sometimes such unbidden desires reveal hidden aspects of ourselves—that we aren’t the pure sweeties we thought we were, or in happier surprises that we are braver or kinder or nobler than we had previously thought.

But other times, unbidden desires, thoughts, motives, and behaviors are not revealing our ‘deep’ or ‘real’ or ‘true’ selves.  This seems possible on any plausible story of what the real self is.  Such desires and thoughts are alien to us; we are alienated from them.  For many of us, this is how implicit biases appear.  “Alienation and Responsibility,” my chapter in Implicit Bias and Philosophy, focuses on these alienated elements that rampage unwelcome within us.

Of course, we might argue about whether any given implicit bias is really alienated, for in many cases an implicit racial or gender bias might well be one of those ominous expressions of our flawed selves.  But I think it is safe to say that, whatever you think constitutes the ‘true’ or ‘deep’ self, implicit biases are at least sometimes alienated from the true or deep self.  It is these cases that interest me.

Here is why I think they are particularly interesting: standard stories of responsibility have a hard time accommodating alienated implicit biases.  In the responsibility literature there is controversy over the claim that identifying with some desire is enough to make you responsible for it.  (After all, the mad scientist might have programmed your deep self to identify with the desire!)  The opposite is less controversial—though not entirely uncontroversial: alienation from one’s true self is enough to at least partly exculpate.  Harry Frankfurt famously argued that the unwilling addict, who is fully alienated from her desire to take the drug, is less responsible than the willing addict (who embraces her desire to take the drug).  This case resonates with many readers, who conclude that alienation has exculpatory power.  But I believe that cases of alienated implicit bias, and some other cases, force us to complicate this story.

Many people discover that they harbor implicit biases, with an unwillingness equal to the addict’s (modify ‘willingness’ to fit your favored theory of the real self).  Their true selves are alienated from their biases (again, on whatever theory of the true self you favor).  And yet here’s the puzzle: we—many of us, anyway—do not feel exculpated by the fact that our biases are alienated, even though we do think that alienation exculpates in the case of the unwilling addict.

Moreover, implicit bias appears to be a notable tip of an iceberg.  There are other cases of alienated desires, thoughts, and actions where our alienation or unwillingness is not thought to diminish our responsibility in the least.  These cases include saying something hurtful that you don’t really mean, certain cases of infidelity, and certain times when our forgetfulness impacts others.  We hold ourselves fully responsible for these behaviors (or omissions), regardless of alienation.

For those who dismiss Frankfurt’s argument, there’s no problem here: they just think that alienation does not exculpate, full stop.  But for those, myself included, who find Frankfurt’s case compelling, a puzzling asymmetry emerges: why does alienation diminish responsibility in some cases (such as the unwilling addict) but not in others, including implicit biases (as well as saying something you don’t really mean, infidelity, and so on)?

This asymmetry is a puzzle that needs solving.  My favored solution is pretty radical.  This solution is that whether alienation diminishes our responsibility for some desire, thought, or behavior depends on what desire, thought, or behavior we’re talking about, and in particular how harmful it is.  It is a variantist theory of responsibility: whether alienation exculpates in depends not just on facts about the agent, but also on extra-agential facts that impact which conditions for responsibility apply.  In other words, alienation conditions responsibility in the addiction and other cases, but not in the bias and other cases, because the latter are more harmful.  This is one way of capturing the widespread intuition that we are morally responsible for our implicit biases even when we are alienated from them.

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