Spontaneous reactions and unwelcome thoughts are in some sense outside our control. Indeed, trying to vanquish them seems sometimes only to enhance them, as in the famous case of trying not to think of a pink elephant. A particularly interesting set of cases are unwelcome racist, sexist, and ableist thoughts and reactions: If you reflexively utter racist slurs silently to yourself, or if you imagine having sex with someone with whom you're supposed to be having a professional conversation, or if you feel flashes of disgust at someone's blameless disability, are you morally blameworthy for those unwelcome thoughts and reactions? Let's stipulate that you repudiate those thoughts and reactions as soon as they occur and even work to compensate for any bias.
To help fix ideas, let's consider a hypothetical. Hemlata, let's say, lacks the kind of muscular control that most people have, so that she has a disvalued facial posture, uses a wheelchair to get around, and speaks in a way that people who don't know her find difficult to understand. Let’s also suppose that Hemlata is a sweet, competent person and a good philosopher. If the psychological literature on implicit bias is any guide, it's likely that it will be more difficult for Hemlata to get credit for intelligence and philosophical skill than it will be for otherwise similar people without her disabilities.
Now suppose that Hemlata meets Kyle – at a meeting of the American Philosophical Association, say. Kyle’s first, uncontrolled reaction to Hemlata is disgust. But he thinks to himself that disgust is not an appropriate reaction, so he tries to suppress it. He is only partly successful: He keeps having negative emotional reactions looking at Hemlata. He doesn’t feel comfortable around her. He dislikes the sound of her voice. He feels that he should be nice to her; he tries to be nice. But it feels forced, and it’s a relief when a good excuse arises for him to leave and chat with someone else. When Hemlata makes a remark about the talk that they’ve both just seen, Kyle is less immediately disposed to see the value of the remark than he would be if he were chatting with someone non-disabled. But then Kyle thinks he should try harder to appreciate the value of Hemlata's comments, given Hemlata's disability; so he makes an effort to do so. Kyle says to Hemlata that disabled philosophers are just as capable as non-disabled philosophers, and just as interesting to speak with – maybe more interesting! – and that they deserve fully equal treatment and respect. He says this quite sincerely. He even feels it passionately as he says it. But Kyle will not be seeking out Hemlata again. He thinks he will; he resolves to. But when the time comes to think about how he wants to spend the evening, he finds a good enough reason to justify hitting the pub with someone else instead.
Question: How should we think about Kyle?
I propose that we give Kyle full credit for his thoughtful egalitarian judgments and intentions but also full blame for his spontaneous, uncontrolled – to some extent uncontrollable – ableism. The fact that his ableist reactions are outside of his control does not mitigate his blameworthiness for them. When the wind blows you somewhere, the fact that you ended up there does not reflect your attitudes or personality. In contrast, in Kyle's case, his ableist reactions, repudiated though they are, are partly constitutive of his attitudes and personality. Hemlata would not be wrong to find Kyle morally blameworthy for his unwelcome ableist reactions.
Compare with the case of personality traits: Some people are more naturally sweet, some more naturally jerkish than others. Excepting bizarre or pathological cases, we praise or blame people for those dispositions without much attention to whether they worked hard to attain them or came by them easily or can't help but have them. Likewise, if you've been a spontaneous egalitarian as far back as you can remember, great! And if you've worked hard to become a thoroughgoing spontaneous egalitarian despite a strong natural tendency toward bias, also great, in a different way. And someone whose immediate reactions are so deeply, ineradicably sexist, racist, and ableist that there is no hope of ever obliterating those reactions is not thereby excused.
Part of my thought here is that words and theories and ineffective intentions are cheap. It's easy to say egalitarian things, with a feeling of sincerity. For 21st century liberals you almost have to be a contrarian not to go along with endorsing egalitarian views at an intellectual level. It seems reasonable to give ourselves some credit for that, since egalitarianism (about the right things) is good. But we take it too easy on ourselves if we think that such conscious endorsements and intentions are the main thing to which credit and blame should attach: Our spontaneous responses to people, our implicit biases, and the actual pattern of decisions we make are often not as handsome as our words and resolutions, and such things also can matter quite a bit to the people against whom we have these unwelcome thoughts, reactions, and biases. It seems a bit like excuse-making to step away from accepting full blame for that aspect of ourselves.
(This, by the way, is the topic of the talk I'll be giving at the Pacific APA meeting, in the Group Session from 6-9 pm Saturday evening, April 4.)
One compromise approach is to say that people are blameworthy only because, and to the extent, that their reactions are under their indirect control: Although Kyle now can't effectively eliminate his unwelcome reactions to Hemlata, he could earlier have engaged in a course of self-cultivation which could have reduced or eliminated his tendency toward such reactions, for example by repeatingly exposing himself to positive exemplars of disabled people. He should have taken those measures, but he didn't.
Although I'm broadly sympathetic with that line of response, I see at least two problems with insisting that at least indirect control is necessary: First, indirect control comes in degrees. Presumably, for some people, some biases or unwelcome patterns of reaction would be fairly easily controlled if they made the effort, while for other people those same patterns might be practically impossible to eliminate; but in the ordinary course of assigning praise and blame we rarely inquire into such interpersonal differences in difficulty. Second, the full suite of unwelcome thoughts, reactions, and biases, if we consider not only sexism and racism but also the manifold versions of ableism, ageism, classism, bias based on physical attractiveness, and cultural bias, as well as the full pattern of unjustifiable angry, dismissive, insulting, and unkind thoughts we can have about people even separate from bias – well, it's so huge that a self-improvement project focused on eliminating all of them would be hopeless and arguably so time-consuming that it would squeeze out many other things that also deserve attention. We are forced to choose our targets for self-improvement. But the practical impossibility of a program of self-cultivation that eliminates all unwelcome thoughts, reactions, and biases shouldn't excuse us from being blameworthy for those thoughts, reactions, and biases that remain. Given the difficulty, it's appropriately merciful to cut people some slack – but that slack should be something like understanding and forgiveness rather than excuse from praise and blame.
Update April 3:
I've been getting a lot of helpful critique, both in the comments section and orally. Let me add two important qualifications:
(1.) Pathologically obsessive thoughts probably deserve a different approach.
(2.) The case I am most interested in is self-blame and self-critique, especially among those of us with a tendency to want to let ourselves off the hook. Secondarily, I want to affirm Hemlata's mixed reaction to Kyle (and other parallel cases). What I'm least interested in is licensing a person in a position of power to have a low opinion of others because of whatever unwelcome thoughts, reactions, and biases those others might have that the person in power might or might not have.