Awareness, Control and Responsibility for Implicit Bias
: The Continuum Thesis

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


A growing body of empirical research reveals that implicit biases manifest in many of our actions. It has been suggested that there is a fundamental distinction between (i) our implicit biases and the actions which they influence; and (ii) attitudes such as beliefs that we attribute to persons and think of as agential, and the actions that they guide. Call these the ‘substantial distinction’ (SD) views.
According to SD arguments, implicit biases are distinguishable from beliefs and other agential attitudes, on the basis of one or more of the following features:
• We lack awareness of our implicit biases.
• Implicit biases are associative, and so they lack the appropriate structure to enter into logical inference relations with mental states that have propositional content.
• We lack control over the formation of our implicit biases, and over the execution of our implicitly biased actions.
Some SD theorists have further argued that because implicit biases and implicitly biased actions lack one or more of the above features, they are not appropriate candidates for normative evaluation, and we are therefore not morally responsible for our implicitly biased actions.
I reject the central claim of the SD view, namely, that there is a fundamental distinction between implicit biases and agential attitudes such as beliefs, and the actions guided by each. I argue that at least some of our implicit biases are propositional in structure, and that we have the same kind of awareness and control of at least some of them, and the actions that they guide, as we do of at least some of our beliefs, and belief-guided actions. As a result, there is no principled way in which to maintain the required substantial distinction. Having shown that the SD view fails, I develop a ‘continuum thesis’ on which implicit biases and beliefs are not fundamentally discontinuous, and at least some of the former share all of their characteristics with at least some of the latter. I argue that this account is best able to accommodate the findings on implicit bias. According to the continuum thesis, we have a sufficient level of awareness and control such that at least some implicit biases are agential, and at least sometimes, agents are morally responsible for implicitly biased actions.
Date of Award2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMaria Alvarez (Supervisor) & Nicholas Shea (Supervisor)

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