The Art of the Unseen: Three challenges for Racial Profiling

The Journal of Ethics 15 (1-2):89 - 117 (2011)
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This article analyses the moral status of racial profiling from a consequentialist perspective and argues that, contrary to what proponents of racial profiling might assume, there is a prima facie case against racial profiling on consequentialist grounds. To do so it establishes general definitions of police practices and profiling, sketches out the costs and benefits involved in racial profiling in particular and presents three challenges. The foundation challenge suggests that the shifting of burdens onto marginalized minorities may, even when profiling itself is justified, serve to prolong unjustified police practices. The valuation challenge argues that although both costs and benefits are difficult to establish, the benefits of racial profiling are afflicted with greater uncertainty than the costs, and must be comparatively discounted. Finally, the application challenge argues that using racial profiling in practice will be complicated by both cognitive and psychological biases, which together reduce the effectiveness of profiling while still incurring its costs. Jointly, it is concluded, these challenges establish a prima facie case against racial profiling, so that the real challenge consists in helping officers practice the art of the police and not see that which it is useless that they should see.

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Frej Thomsen
Danish National Centre for Ethics


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