Alessandra Tanesini: Must we be either ignorant or biased? A solution to Gendler’s dilemma

Professor Alessandra Tanesini (Cardiff University) speaks at a workshop on Ignorance and Under-representation. Part of the Edinburgh Women in Philosophy Group, the University of Edinburgh, 10th March 2015.

Abstract: In ‘On the epistemic costs of implicit bias’ (2011) Tamar Szabó Gendler has argued that knowledge that some prejudices are widely shared among one’s peers causes one to become implicitly biased. As a result individuals face an ethical- epistemic dilemma: either they wilfully try to become ignorant of facts about their society or they accept that they will behave in a way that they judge to be morally wrong. In the first part of this talk I argue that thinking of explicit prejudice and implicit bias as attitudes (as this notion is understood in social psychology) offers a solution to the dilemma. Mere knowledge of the existence of shared prejudices can cause one to become biased only if it is allowed to become part of attitudes about the target of prejudice that have social-adjustive functions. In other words, it is only if we are inclined to share the preferences of other members of our society, that knowledge of those preferences causes one to adopt them (perhaps implicitly). In the second part I discuss some strategies that may be effective in changing the contents, strength or function of attitudes so as to weaken the effects of implicit biases. Insofar as implicit biases figure among the causes of underrepresentation these strategies should be of assistance when addressing this complex issue. Finally, I develop an account of implicit biases as components of attitudes which are ambivalent or whose cognitive and affective parts are inconsistent. Implicit biases are in my account a symptom of a failure to develop fully some intellectual virtues such as courage. Explicit prejudice, instead, may be more symptomatic of a range of intellectual vices.

Feminist science studies has examined underrepresentation extensively. Primarily, this has consisted of documenting and analysing the historical and ongoing exclusion of women from scientific vocations. First banned entirely, then grudgingly granted places in these fields, women continue to represent a small population in science. Feminist science studies has similarly studied the relationship between gender and ignorance. Women’s early exclusion from science was in part due to presumed intellectual inability—unlike men, women were unable to practice reason or comprehend sophisticated ideas. Again, such presuppositions—unsupported notions that women are relatively ignorant—continue to affect women, whose scientific, technological and mathematical skills are questioned from the earliest days of school.

The sociology of knowledge has also studied ignorance. It conceptualises knowledge as a social institution—a collective good—and knowing as a social standing attributed to the individual by the collective. Thus ignorance—absence of knowing—can be conceptualised as a person’s lack of social status. Being knowledgeable demands membership in the group, a standing constantly under supervision. Moreover, because all social statuses are moulded by groups’ political particularities, knowing is political.