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Sources of Bias in Ethical Decisions

Sources of Bias in Ethical Decisions

Author: Glenn Kuehn

Recognize common sources of bias in ethical decisions

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Hello, I'm Glen, and in this ethics tutorial, we will be looking at sources of bias in ethical decisions. Nothing really to keep in mind this time. However, a key term for this tutorial is the word bias. And a bias is an unfair preference for or against something. In this tutorial, we will then be dealing with bias. We will look at the issue of bias in ethics, we will explore how to recognize bias, and then look at a situated example to see how bias plays out in our decision making processes.

First, let's make a general statement about bias and ethics. As you probably have understood by now, ethics overall is an endeavor that seeks to systematically and objectively evaluate all potential actions. It's a very large scoped project. That is the goal. We want to very carefully, systematically, and as unbiased as we possibly can evaluate all of our actions.

However, bias, which is an unfair preference for or against anything, is the most significant barrier to ethical evaluation. It's what impedes us the most. And the reason it does this is because it's a natural stance. All of us, I included, you, everyone is biased. I'm biased right now on a lot of things. And in fact, I'm biased on things that I don't even know about.

And that's why bias is so hard to recognize. And it's why it gets in the way so often. A lot of the time, we don't even know it's there. So philosophical ethics requires us to overcome bias. And this is a rigorous process of self evaluation and evaluation of others to see if we can find it.

Let's consider some ways to recognize bias. This is the first step in evaluation and ethical understanding that we need to be as objective as possible. Let's do what we can to recognize when bias exists. There are a couple primary sources of bias.

And the commonality that exists among these-- and there are three of them-- the commonality is that all of these things are our viewpoints, our beliefs that we hold without question. They are naturally part of our belief systems and so they really go unnoticed. And these three things are personal interest, familiarity, just simple, familiarity, and then our upbringing and perhaps our religious upbringing. Those two can obviously oftentimes go together.

So first, let's consider personal interests, what I view as just inherently in my interest. And these views might be there without me even considering them. For example, I might judge anyone who uses drugs of any kind as morally corrupt, as morally bad, whatever your drugs are. But my thinking might be biased into only thinking of illegal drugs or even prescription drugs.

So if I drink coffee and smoke cigarettes, which both contain drugs, I will be acting out of personal interest and could be pointed out as having a double standard. When we act upon the bias of personal interest, really it seems hypocritical or operating under a double standard. So if I condemn someone for smoking pot, but yet I'm addicted to Vicodin, I take a lot of Vicodin, obviously I have a bias there.

Let's say I tell a professor when I see someone else cheating on a test or an exam, but yet I cheat myself. So I'm acting out of my own personal interest because it's to my advantage to cheat. But yet I tell on other people. So there's a clear bias there.

Another way of finding bias is to locate it in the way that we were brought up in terms of familiarity. There's these other two. There's brought up in terms of familiarity or what we're used to. And then there's brought up in terms of religion. Let's first look at it just in terms of familiarity.

Let's say I say someone else should not eat meat or I believe that eating meat is wrong. And the reason I do this is because no one in my family eats meat. No one around me eats meat. So naturally, because it's familiar, I think it's wrong.

Let's say I have a racial bias. I assume people of other races are not to be trusted. Now the reason for this is simply because I grew up in a place or I live in a place where there's not a lot of other races. Everyone around, let's say here, is all white and so I'm not encountering people of other races and backgrounds. So naturally I would be biased because of what's familiar.

Then we also have another category of biases that arise from a religious upbringing. And this is where I may just not have been exposed to other religions or religion at all. So a couple examples. Let's say that I believe I should always forgive others because Jesus set the example of being non-judgmental and forgiving. That would be a bias. It doesn't sound like a bad one, but it would be a bias of being always forgiving because of this religious example.

Another one would be that someone believing that homosexuality is wrong or immoral because of statements that were made in the Old and New Testament. If this is the religious upbringing that a person has had, then naturally they would be biased in that way because of that exposure. So these are three ways in which bias occurs in our lives.

And now let's look at a situated example with a couple possible actions and see how biases could possibly be exhibited here. Again, let's look at selling our car. The actions-- we could display the car in a certain way, negotiate the price, and then discuss the history and condition of the car.

In displaying the car, biases could be exhibited in terms of personal interest in not showing the defects of the car. So I might show it in low light so the defects are not visible. I might also have a personal interest bias in making it look as good as possible. So I would clean it far greater than I would normally clean it. I'd include an air freshener. Maybe I'll put even a big ribbon and a bow on the hood. That would be acting out of self interest.

Negotiating the price-- let's say I have religious beliefs regarding usury and so I won't sell the car to someone on the basis of a loan with high interest. OK, I'd be against that. Maybe because of religious beliefs regarding non-ownership, I shouldn't have the car in the first place and maybe I'll give it away. I'm not sure. Or maybe I won't want to make money at all.

Discussing the history of the car-- maybe I've, according to my upbringing, familiarity, I'm used to being completely honest, so I will disclose the full condition and history of the repairs. These are all ways in which personal biases can play themselves out in this particular scenario.

In this tutorial, we have looked at sources of bias in ethical decisions. Specifically, how bias plays itself out in ethics, how to recognize bias, and then how it exhibits itself in our decision making regarding a specific example.

Terms to Know

An unfair preference for or against something