Attributability, Accountability, and Implicit Bias

In Implicit Bias and Philosophy: Volume 2, Moral Responsibility, Structural Injustice, and Ethics, Jennifer Saul and Michael Brownstein (eds.) New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 62-89.

This chapter distinguishes between two concepts of moral responsibility. We are responsible for our actions in the first sense only when those actions reflect our identities as moral agents, i.e. when they are attributable to us. We are responsible in the second sense when it is appropriate for others to enforce certain expectations and demands on those actions, i.e. to hold us accountable for them. This distinction allows for an account of moral responsibility for implicit bias, defended here, on which people may lack attributability for actions caused by implicit bias but are still accountable for them. What this amounts to is leaving aside appraisal-based forms of moral criticism such as blame and punishment in favor of non-appraising forms of accountability. This account not only does more justice to our moral experience and agency, but will also lead to more effective practices for combating the harms of implicit bias.

Full text available at Oxford Scholarship Online here.

Why Yellow Fever Isn’t Flattering: A Case Against Racial Fetishes

In the Journal of the American Philosophical Association Vol 2(3): 400-419. 

Most discussions of racial fetish center on the question of whether they are caused by negative racial stereotypes. In this paper I adopt a different strategy, one that begins with the experiences of those targeted by racial fetish rather than those who possess it; that is, I shift focus away from the origins of racial fetishes to their effects as a social phenomenon in a racially stratified world. I examine the case of preferences for Asian women, also known as “yellow fever,” to argue against the claim that racial fetishes are unobjectionable if they are merely based on personal or aesthetic preference rather than racial stereotypes. I contend that even if this were so, yellow fever would still be morally objectionable because of the disproportionate psychological burdens it places on Asian and Asian-American women, along with the role it plays in a pernicious system of racialized social meanings.

Full text available here

Attributability and Accountability in the Criminal Law

Presented at the Criminal Law’s Person Workshop at the University of Stockholm.

Accounts of responsibility abound in theories of criminal law, because the criminal law represents the severest, most powerful, and hence most potentially problematic means of responding to individuals that is available to us. In this paper, I examine a number of recent prominent theories of criminal responsibility, drawing on an extant distinction from the moral responsibility literature to divide them into what I call attributability-first and accountability-first theories of criminal responsibility. On that basis, I distinguish two different conceptions of the person in the criminal law.

For a full draft, email me at robin.zheng(at)yale-nus.edu.sg.

Expanding the Moral Repertoire: Oughts, Ideals, and Appraisals

Presented at the Moral Responsibility and Self-Knowledge Workshop at Nanyang Technological University, 2016 Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society & Mind Society, 2016 SSPP, 2016 Central APA, the Conference on Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Moral Responsibility at Utah Valley University, and the Universities of Michigan, Cambridge, Leeds, Depauw, Carnegie Mellon, and Kentucky.

Philosophers have overwhelmingly focused on blame, resentment (along with other reactive attitudes), and punishment. However, I argue for the existence of other important forms of moral criticism that have hitherto gone overlooked. I introduce a new category of what I call “non-appraising responses” as opposed to “appraisal-based” responses like blame and resentment, and provide both moral-theoretical and psychological arguments for this distinction. I argue that two distinct domains of morality (Ought vs. Ideal), along with two distinct psychological systems of motivation (Approach vs. Avoidance), call for these different types of moral criticism. Non-appraising responses set aside the appraisal function of blame in favor of its communicative and exhortative functions. This makes them appropriate responses to an agent’s failing on a particular occasion to carry out some action that would contribute to carrying out an imperfect duty, unlike blame, which is only appropriate for wholesale violations of imperfect and perfect duties.

For a full draft, please email me at robin.zheng(at)yale-nus.edu.sg.

(with Nils-Hennes Stear) Imagining in Oppressive Contexts, or, What’s Wrong with Blacking Up?

Presented with Nils-Hennes Stear at the Race and Aesthetics Conference at the University of Leeds.

What is wrong with the practice of “blacking up” (“blackface”) or other comparable acts of imagining or fiction-making (AIFMs)? Setting aside extrinsic flaws such as bad causal effects, aestheticians have been concerned with whether such AIFMs can exhibit intrinsic ethical flaws. Many (e.g. A.W. Eaton, Berys Gaut, Noël Carroll, James Harold) have pointed to the pernicious attitudes such AIFMs invite participants to adopt. Recently, this view has been challenged; Brandon Cooke argues that only those AIFMs which invite participants to export these pernicious attitudes to the actual world—by making the fictional attitudes actual—exhibit any intrinsic ethical flaw.

In this paper, we carve a space between Eaton et al. and Cooke. We do not believe that any AIFM is morally objectionable merely on the basis of the attitudes it invites participants to adopt, no matter how pernicious those attitudes might be. However, we argue that certain AIFMs—even when they do not cause harm, and even if they do not prescribe “export” of the pernicious attitudes in question—still exhibit a lingering ethical flaw. We draw an analogy with J.L. Austin’s speech act theory to characterize this flaw as located not in the mere content of the imagining (the locution), or its causal upshot (the perlocution), but in the act that is constituted by the imagining itself (the illocution). Crucially, our claim is that the moral contours of the act are conditioned by the socio-political context in which the act is performed; while “blacking up” and similar AIFMs per se might be ethically neutral acts in genuine post-racial or non-racialized societies, they are ethically flawed in contexts of racial oppression. In particular, we argue that such AIFMs themselves constitute an instance of oppression because they express what Patricia Hill Collins calls “controlling images,” whose very existence serves to justify racist, sexist and other oppressive ideologies.

For a full draft, please email me at zhengr(at)umich.edu.

Responsibility, Causality, and Social Inequality

Presented at the 2016 BSPS, Workshop on Poverty and Philosophy at the University of Salzburg,  Ethics and Explanation Conference at the University of Nottingham, 2014 Eastern APA, 2014 PSA, the Social Equality Conference at the University of Cape Town, 2014 FEMMSS/SWIP Canada, and the Social Impact of Philosophy Conference at the Universidad Iberoamericana.

People disagree strongly over the causes of social inequalities, e.g. whether poverty is caused by irresponsible individual behaviors or by wider structural forces. It is typically thought that philosophers, who are not trained as empirical scientists, do not have anything useful to say about which of these causal explanations to adopt. In this paper, however, I show that if (as others have argued) causal explanations actually depend on broadly practical or normative commitments, then it follows that philosophers play an important albeit often invisible role in determining those causal explanations. I demonstrate this claim by drawing together several disparate lines of thought from feminist epistemology, philosophy of science, and moral and political philosophy, along with evidence from social psychology and economics, and bringing them to bear on the case study of poverty. The upshot is that philosophers who work to reshape our normative expectations, also work to restructure acceptable causal explanations – and hence solutions – for social inequality.

For a full draft, please email me at robin.zheng(at)yale-nus.edu.sg.

Bias, Structure, and Injustice: A Reply to Haslanger

Presented at the Bias in Context Conference at the University of Sheffield, 2016 ASPP, the MAP@Leeds Conference, the University of Hamburg Feminist Philosophy Workshop, the 11th Annual Yale Bouchet Conference on Diversity and Graduate Education, and North Carolina State University Philosophy.

Sally Haslanger (2015) has argued that recent philosophical focus on implicit bias is overly individualistic, since social inequalities are best explained in terms of social structures rather than the actions and attitudes of individuals. I defend a certain kind of individualistic theorizing and practice aimed at rectifying structural injustice, and I offer an alternative conception of social structure according to which implicit biases are themselves best understood as a special type of structure.

For a full draft, please email me at robin.zheng(at)yale-nus.edu.sg.