Tuesday, 7 April 2020

How To Be Trustworthy

This post is Katherine Hawley, Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews. Here she introduces her new book, How To Be Trustworthy (OUP 2019).




I set out to write a book about trust, that powerful attitude we sometimes adopt towards other people, towards social institutions, sometimes even towards inanimate objects. But instead I ended up writing a book about trustworthiness, and about the ways in which tough circumstances can make it difficult for us to be trustworthy, no matter how well-intentioned we are. I was led from trust to trustworthiness by thinking about situations where trust is absent, and about what can happen when trust is misplaced.

When we think about misplaced trust, we often think first about deception or inadequacy: our trust is misplaced if we direct it towards dishonest manipulators, or towards well-meaning types who nevertheless cannot live up to our expectations. Either way, when we’re faced with untrustworthy people, distrust rather than trust helps protect us from harm, whether emotional or practical.

But in other situations our trust is misplaced not because it is directed towards someone who is untrustworthy, but because that trust is an unwelcome, uninvited imposition into the lives of others. Unwanted trust can be a burden. Even when people have the capacity to live up to our expectations, doing so can distort their own priorities, big or small. But when people resist the pressure of unwanted trust, that often means that we regard them – unfairly! – as untrustworthy. In such situations, our trust is misplaced, but we shouldn’t be distrusting either: we should refrain from both trust and distrust.

In How To Be Trustworthy, I argue that trustworthiness requires us to avoid unfufilled commitments and broken promises. But where others misunderstand a person’s commitments, they may mistakenly regard her as untrustworthy for not acting as they expect. In my view this really is a mistake: being trustworthy does not mean living up to other people’s expectations even when they are unreasonable. But such mistakes are common, and are not easy to correct, especially when the mistaken person wields more social power.




There is no straightforward resolution to this problem, no recipe for being trustworthy. One option is to be clear and careful to a fault about exactly which commitments we’re taking on, and which we reject. But that kind of fastidiousness is tedious for all concerned; it doesn’t make for relaxed working relationships, friendships, or neighbourly good cheer. Another option is just to go with the flow, trying to conform to others’ expectations whether they are reasonable or not. But that will soon lead to disaster, as we try to jump in several different directions at once, with no time left to cultivate our own interests and projects.

Instead, we must muddle along in the middle, trying to say a clear ‘no’ when that’s important, yet acknowledging that we cannot always control what commitments we incur, nor micro-manage other people’s opinions of us. That’s life. But whilst I explore this middle ground in the book, I also illustrate the many ways in which this balancing act is made easier for people who live in stable, supportive social environments, for people with predictably good health, and for people who are materially comfortable. When you have insurance – literal or figurative – it is easier both to control your commitments and to cope with unwanted trust. Being trustworthy is not a simple matter of ‘good character’, it is a practical challenge for all of us, and especially those whose lives are difficult through no fault of their own.

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