AS287: Atheist Ethics and Implicit Biases, with Alonzo Fyfe

Joining me today is Alonzo Fyfe, who publishes the blog “Atheist Ethicist.” We talk about some really interesting topics including implicit biases and how they’re affecting this election. Alonzo has a theory that, though they might not be aware of it, most people who are anti-Hillary are actually victims of their own implicit biases.

We talk that and plenty more!

9 thoughts on “AS287: Atheist Ethics and Implicit Biases, with Alonzo Fyfe”

  1. As is always the case in things like this, when it is done, I think of things I should have said, should not have said, should have said differently, and could not have said because of limitations in time. Fortunately, on the internet, there is an opportunity to revise and extend my remarks.

    Clinton’s Honesty

    At the top of the list, I wish I could have said more in defense of my claim that a belief in Clinton’s dishonesty and corruption is so contrary to reason that we must look for something other than “the available evidence” to explain the source of this belief.

    I suspect that there will be many listeners who hold that this is such an absurd claim that my making it destroys all credibility. Furthermore, I suspect that there will be some who will be angry at the accusation that they have based these beliefs on something other than good evidence.

    On the latter claim, I did not give enough attention to the use of “fallible but fast” sources of belief. We all use them. We have to. We do not have the time to hold all of our beliefs up to the careful light of reason. It is not an “accusation” to claim that this has been done.

    There are many people who establish their belief that Clinton is corrupt on the basis of “a lot of other people have said it”. This is often not a bad system, but it does have its limits. In “quick but fallible heuristics” there is, after all, that “fallible” part.

    As I mentioned in the podcast, Clinton comes out as one of the ten most honest politicians according to Politifact. One does not get a score like that by accident.

    Her Foundation has a AAAA rating. It uses 85% of its contributions to help those it intends to help, spends 15% on overhead and paid staff, and gives 0% to the Clintons.

    We have her tax records over the past 30 plus years and we know where her money comes from. Almost all of it has come from books and speaking engagements.

    As far as the speaking fees go, to understand that business it is useful to think of acting. Imagine that you want to become an actor. You get an agent. The agent tries to book you at the highest possible fee. (They live off of a percentage.) if you can get a following, your agent can get more money. A few top actors can get $20 million per movie and the actor STILL has a choice as to which scripts to accept.

    In the same way that some top actors can get $20 million or more per movie, some top in-demand speakers can get $200,000 or more per appearance.

    To think that this money had bribe potential one has to think that the speaker needs the money and has no other way to get it. In the case of highly paid speakers, this is not true. The speakers can get as much money from the speaking engagements they turned down.

    In addition, we now have a huge number of emails – collected by Russia in an attempt to disrupt the American election and manipulate its voters (according to US Intelligence sources – who express confidence in this result). These emails were not filtered by lawyers before being harvested. Yet, still, we are not seeing evidence of anything other than an uncorrupted political candidate working to win an election.

    In addition, the way in which the emails are being released shows that those releasing them are not motivated by an interest in giving the voters useful information – that would argue for releasing all of the emails at once. They are releasing the emails to serve a political agenda – which gives us reason to wonder if they are not using this political agenda to decide which emails to release.

    So, yes, I think that one can well substantiate the claim that the belief that Clinton is dishonest or corrupt cannot be built on available evidence. It has to have its foundation in “something else”.

    The Ethics of Implicit Bias

    I stated that implicit biases are common and gave a recent story that exposed my own recent bias.

    I am worried that my comments may be taken as excusing such behavior, as saying, “It’s okay. Everybody does it.”

    The fact is, these biases hurt people. They cause people to be treated unjustly and, in the cases of some unarmed black men mentioned in recent news reports, implicit biases get innocent people killed.

    It is NOT okay.

    Implicit biases are learned. In fact, some people have not learned them and show no signs of implicit bias when tested.

    Given the injustices that spring from implicit biases, there is a moral obligation to try to unlearn them. As “mental habits” one cannot simply turn them off. However, as with any habit, we can put effort into unlearning a bad habit (training oneself to notice when the bad habit is manifesting itself and forcing oneself to stop) and replacing them with better habits.

    In the mean time, insofar as one has implicit biases and insofar as they result in unjust action, a person with implicit biases should avoid putting oneself in a position where those implicit biases pose a threat to others. Cops should be tested for implicit biases and, where they fail those tests, be removed from positions where those biases may bring harm to innocent people – until, through training, they can show that they have removed those implicit biases or they no longer but other people at risk.

    The same argument applies to people in a position where they hire and fire or otherwise evaluate others.

    How we are going to handle implicit biases among those in charge of voting is certainly a difficult challenge. However, at the very least, it argues that, since one is making a decision in a situation where implicit biases are known to widely operate, one should put extra effort into determining if one is, in fact, acting on an implicit bias.

    Since biases are learned, then, one of the ways in which we can deal with implicit biases is to take steps to make sure that we do not teach them to the next generation. That does not solve the current problem, but it does help to reduce the amount of future injustice.

    Third Parties

    I argued that – in our political system – voting or supporting a third party in a close election counts as giving a political advantage to the major party that least represents one’s views.

    This situation was contrasted with voting for a third party in a race that is not close – where one’s vote is not going to determine the outcome anyway.

    I did not think to mention at the time that I have discussed this situation in my blog. What I argue for is that, where one party has a lock on the current offices, that the right to representation implies a right to join that party and to exercise one’s power in influencing who that party selects for its candidate. The only other option is to, effectively, decide to have no voice in selecting the winning candidate and to render oneself politically impotent.

    In other words, even in a district where one party will clearly win the election, in our electoral system, one should not support a third party candidate. One should not even support a second party candidate if that party is too small to win an election in that district. One should join the only governing party in that district and help in the selection of the person who will actually be representing that district in government.


    I do hope that you found the podcast episode useful and informative. I am pleased to have had an opportunity to make it. I hope that you take these comments into consideration in evaluating it.

  2. Implicit biases are fascinating. Back in the 1960s and 70s audiophile magazines got into “double blind” listening tests of hi-fi stereo equipment. Double blind is where the listener doesn’t know which of multiple items they are listening to and neither does the presenter. This way the “presenter,” the person telling the listener when the trial begins and ends and how to mark down their preferences, doesn’t “contaminate” the results by giving subtle verbal cues, consciously or unconsciously, as to which item the listener is “supposed” to like better.

    What the audio industry learned was that they didn’t want to know. In some of these tests, based solely on blind listener preference, aging vacuum tube equipment out-performed the very latest solid-state stereo gear. Even worse, it seemed that many listeners preferred systems with a certain amount of distortion (as long as it was the right kind of distortion) over systems that were much cleaner overall. The reigning paradigm was that any amount of any distortion was BAD and that audio gear with the least distortion automatically sounded best.

    So, the audio industry at least, threw objective testing out the window and went to exclusively subjective evaluation. Because, after all, the listener, listening at home, was going to be listening subjectively. Turns out guitar players have preferred ratty old tube amps over solid-state ones for over fifty years because they only care what they sound like; the electrical specs are meaningless to them.

    It would be cool if there were a battery of tests one could take on line that would expose otherwise hidden biases similar to the orchestra director’s tendency to hire male performers over females without even being consciously aware of it. Of course, you’d want to take it by yourself so that if it exposed anything particularly unsavory, you could just pretend it didn’t happen, even though the results would live on in the NSA’s data center in Utah for pretty much time and eternity.

    1. I had similar thoughts when listening to this episode. I remember reading about a study on wine-tasting which found that while participants often rated cheap wine better tasting than expensive wine in blind taste-tests, the results weren’t applicable to real world scenarios because the perception of value increased satisfaction and taste scores. Essentially, the blind taste-test only determined which wines taste best in blind taste-tests.

      1. I remember the wine test stories. Somebody told me that that’s how Chilean wines made it onto the world market: they did exceptionally well in blind taste tests, though that could be urban legend.

        You have a good point. Wine, food, soda pop, stereo sound and any number of other things are a composite experience that involves several, if not many, factors. It’s the whole package that counts.

  3. I agree with Fyfe’s assessment of the current voting system. I have no confidence that we will ever see a third party become viable any time soon with a winner-take-all system, and if it does it will simply replace one of the parties so that at the time of the next election there will again only be two major parties.

    Regardless of how I feel, telling me to vote third party (in my swing state of CO) is actively telling me to utilize the voting system in a way that doesn’t reward me, since we are set up to reward voting AGAINST the worst candidate. That’s not me defending the system, that’s just how it works. Implement range voting as Thomas Described, or implement voter runoff, or make it so if 51% of the population votes for a candidate they get 100% of the position.

    1. Actually, I would not “tell you how to vote”. Voting is an action that can be done for any number of reasons. In fact, as an intentional action, it is always done for a number of different reasons – nobody ever acts on just one motive.

      There are reasons for adopting a new voter system. However, the question of, “What voter system should we adopt?” and “How should I vote in this voting system?” are distinct questions. We can spend days debating the answer to question 1, and not say anything that is even at all relevant to question 2.

      The question of, “How should I vote in this voting system?” may have different answers for different people. However, in all cases it should be grounded on true beliefs. One of those true beliefs is that voting for a third party gives a small but non-zero advantage to the major party that least represents one’s views. It may not be a significant or important fact – but it is a fact. And the stronger the third party becomes – the more votes it draws – the more power it gives to the major party that least represents its views.

      Now, one argument that can be made is that, if the third party gets strong enough, one of the major parties will hijack its views in order to get its votes. However, this is true only to the degree that (1) third party voters are willing to go to the major party that hijacks its views, and (2) the votes it gains by doing so exceed the votes it will lose by others who are unwilling to accept those views.

      Let us assume that the third party voters are NOT willing to return to a major party that adopts its views – or the major party believes it will lose more voters than it gains. In this case, the major party needs to make up the lost votes. It can best do so by drifting away from the third-party voters, adopting policies it would otherwise have to reject under the influence of those voters.

      This is not an exhaustive list of all of the considerations, but they are considerations nonetheless.

      1. Sorry if I implied that you were telling me that, I was referring to other people. I’m actually quite supportive of third party voters who are trying to gain traction for a variety of reasons, though I’m generally not as supportive if they’re going to try and introduce it at the presidential level from the top-down. Regardless, I’m weary of being berated (by people who aren’t you) that I’m enforcing the two-party system by voting for a major party when the system that currently exists won’t reward me for it (not much, anyway).

  4. An observation my wife made the other day that really brought home sexist bias to me was “just imagine if it were Clinton, instead of Trump, who had 5 children from 3 different partners. I doubt she’d have a chance in hell of even being nominated, because she’d be seen as damaged goods, no matter how honest she was.

    1. I meant to add that of course very few would say they weren’t voting for her because she’s a “slut”, or “has poor judgement”, they would come up with some other excuse to justify it.

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