Can our social perceptions or cognition be subject to ethical judgement? I am thinking of a particular case here; let's assume, for instance, that in a certain country black people are extremely negatively portrayed by the media, in a stereotypical way. If somebody sees a perfectly innocent black person who has never done him harm, but because of widespread stereotyping sees him as dislikeable/dangerous/guilty, can we argue that he is morally responsible/guilty for such perceptions? Is the act of perceiving an innocent person as guilty immoral or, in terms of virtue ethics, unfair? What I'm wondering here especially is: since we can only be morally responsible for what is within our control, do we have enough control over our perceptions to consider them subject of moral judgement?

What's outside the agent's control is, I think, somewhat narrower than what you call "perceptions or cognition." Suppose new DNA evidence reveals that a black man on death row is actually innocent. And suppose the jurors who declared him guilty say that they couldn't help seeing him as guilty when he was brought before them. I think we should be most reluctant to accept this excuse. Perhaps they could not have avoided a certain negative emotional rection to the accused (given the racism of their society and upbringing). But perceiving a person as guilty (of some crime) involves a good bit of judgment on the basis of testimony and other evidence. And here we can examine whether the jurors weighed the evidence carefully, deliberated thoroughly, and so on. As a juror one is not bound to let one's emotional reactions prevail. One can, and one ought to, try one's utmost to put these reactions aside and to judge the case on the basis of the evidence alone.

Now let's look at the narrower question whether we can be morally responsible for our immediate emotional reactions, for the "gut" dislike we sometimes experience for people with certain characteristics. Your argument for a negative answer -- such reactions are not sufficiently under our control -- is plausible when one considers merely the time at which the emotional reaction occurs: at this moment one indeed cannot avoid having it. But when you take a larger time frame, then the reaction is avoidable: when one finds oneself disliking people of a certain kind, then one can make an effort to get to know some of them, for example, and to try to form relationships and friendships that may gradually transform this emotional reaction. (Or may not: you may never be able to shake off your negative emotional reaction to educated people who manifestly don't care about their over-sized ecological footprint.) Those who never make such an effort can be morally responsible for their unwarranted negative emotional reactions.

Consider this parallel case. A driver hits a child that is running across the road. The driver says that he should not be held morally responsible for the accident because, given how fast he was going and how much alcohol he had consumed, he was simply not able to prevent his car from hitting the child. Even if we agree with this driver about the facts, we won't agree with him about his moral responsibility. He could have avoided the accident earlier: by drinking less, by taking a taxi instead of driving himself, or by driving more slowly. Similarly for racist (and analogous) emotional reactions: even if they are unavoidable at the time they are experienced, they may well have been avoidable earlier and are then morally attributable to the person.

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