Trust, love, and accountability

In Trust as a Second-Personal Attitude (of the Heart), Stephen Darwall presents relations of trust as sustained by a second-personal attitude. In a trust relation, the trusted person recognizes the fact that the trustor depends on them as a reason to do what the trustor expects of them. Darwall sees trust as a Strawsonian reactive attitude that characterizes interpersonal human relationships. The condition that such a reactive attitude is second-personal implicitly invites some form of reciprocation. However, unlike such other relations sustained by second-personal attitudes such as those of justice or respect, Darwall thinks that trust relations do not normally create rights or duties for those involved in such relations.

Consider the relations between a promisor and a promisee:

If I promise you to drive you home, you can blame me or resent me if I eventually don’t.

Having promised, I have contracted an obligation toward you that gives you the authority to demand a reason from me for breaking the promise, and confers to you the power to hold me accountable for not doing what I have promised to do. For Darwall, trust works differently:

If you trust me to drive you home because I have done that before, you can neither blame me nor resent me if this time I go somewhere else.

This characterization of relations of trust reveals how, for Darwall, trust is a non-deontic reactive attitude. Darwall argues that “trust neither presupposes nor entails any authority to demand that the trusted act as she is being trusted to do, nor consequently any authority to hold her accountable for doing so” (p. 40).

For Darwall, rather than promising, trust can be compared to love: “When we give others our love … when we place our trust in them, we lay ourselves open to them in distinctive second-personal ways that do not thereby involve the authority to make claims and demands of them.” (p. 40). Hence, the characterization of personal trust as an “attitude of the heart.”

In Darwall’s view, therefore, trust relations lack one distinguishing normative feature of standard deontic second-personal relations. This normative feature is the authority that the participants in those relations have to hold each other accountable for the ways they respond to and engage with each other. But is this view of trust sound? Consider the following scenario:

The colleague with whom you share the working space removes their facial mask—the primary indoor measure for containing COVID-19 infections—when they sit at their work station. The space is limited and no constant ventilation can be ensured. However, you do not protest as you trust your colleague not to be infective; you have seen that they always wear a mask in public spaces and keep social distance. You also know that she takes regularly swab tests, and that you are particularly sensitive to the risk of contracting a COVID-19 infection.

In such a scenario, the trust relations between you and your colleague may grow on the expectation that your colleague recognizes the fact that you depend on them for your safety as a reason to do what you expect of them.

Now, imagine the following development:

At the end of the work day, your colleague tells you that a couple of nights ago they went to a party in a private house where none of the 50 guests were wearing a mask. Now, they feel a bit tired and dizzy and, therefore, would leave the office earlier.

How would you react? You would probably feel vulnerable and anxious about your own health now. You would probably also feel disappointed in your colleague. But you would also plausibly feel betrayed and resent your colleague’s conduct. You would consider yourself rightfully entitled to ask your colleague a reason of why they did not either inform you of their potentially risky behavior or, in fact, take additional precautions by keeping their mask on. What is more, it would seem inappropriate for your colleague to respond to your  dismay by shrugging their shoulder. It seems, in fact, totally appropriate to say that in that context you have a right (or the authority) to hold your colleague accountable. As to your colleague, they had no obligation not to go the party or wear a mask in the office. However, they would nonetheless owe you at the least an explanation of why they did not inform you that they might be exposing you to a risk of infection, when they knew you were trusting them in that respect.

The discussion of this scenario suggests that relations of trust are plausibly sustained by deontic attitudes. This makes trust relations more akin to relations of justice and mutual respect than of love. This conclusion has some plausibility in the realm of interpersonal relations, which is the domain of Darwall’s concern. The plausibility is enhanced when the relevant trust relations occurs in an institutional context, such as that of the workplace in the scenario above.

Because the working of the institution where you and your colleague work depends on your performing your respective tasks, in cases of widespread COVID-positivity the entire institutional action can be impaired. Because there are limits to the restrictions to individual behavior that can be enforced by legal means and regulations, a certain degree of mutual trust between colleagues seems necessary. The interrelatedness of institutional roles in this context thus heightens the degree of mutual dependence in interpersonal trust relations and, therefore, strengthens the demands of accountability between the participants in those relations.

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Trust relations between officeholders: an affective matter? 

In Trust as an Affective Attitude (1996), Karen Jones emphasises the role of people’s goodwill and expectations in interpersonal relations of trust. For Jones, people can establish a trust relation in virtue of their affective states, which shape how people interpret others’ actions.

Trusting is composed of a cognitive and an affective element. Jones argues that A has a trust relation with B within a specific domain D iff

-        A’s attitude towards B is distinctly optimistic about B’s goodwill and

-        There is an expectation that B will be favourably and directly moved by the thought that A counts on them (p. 6).

Jones views the attitude of optimism towards the goodwill of the trusted as an emotion. Emotions are affective attitudes that express a distinctive way of seeing a situation rather than a belief – although they often give rise to beliefs. Therefore, for Jones, relations of trust rest on an affectively loaded way of seeing the trusted, rather than a belief about their trustworthiness.

What grounds the trustor’s affective attitude of optimism about the goodwill of the trusted to do whatever she is expected (counted on) to do? Jones’ notion of goodwill is tainted with some uncertainty. Because it encompasses benevolence, conscientiousness, honesty, integrity, the notion of goodwill risks being a catch-all for several heterogeneous motives for entering a trust relation. The normative grounds of trust remain unclear.

Jones herself acknowledges this problem, and, in Trustworthiness (2012), she revisits her account of trust relations. She refocuses the discussion from trust, as an optimistic affective attitude, to trustworthiness. In this revised account, B is trustworthy for A in a domain of interaction D iff

-        B is competent in D and

-        B takes the fact that A counts on them as a compelling reason to act as counted on (pp. 70-71).

The constitutive expectation of trust is that the trusted will respond to the fact that the trustor counts on them and depends on them. Trustworthiness is, in this sense, dispositional; it is a way of actively and positively engaging with the trustor’s dependency. This kind of engagement is possible because the trusted recognizes the trustor’s dependency and takes it as a compelling reason when deciding how to act.

The idea of dependency is also central to Jones’s most recent contribution to the debate. In ‘But I Was Counting On You!’ (2017), Jones claims that the heart of trust is to be found in the dual structure of dependency. This structure consists in the twofold condition that the trustor counts on the trusted

1)      in a particular domain, and

2)     to be responsive to the fact that they are being counted on (p. 100).

Throughout these specifications and refinements, Jones offers an insightful analysis of the relational structure of trust as a reactive attitude. But ultimately, this analysis remains unclear about the normative grounds that may justifiably motivate reactions and relations of trust. The choice of whether and how to respond to trust seems erratic. It looks entirely left to individuals’ personal appreciation.  No normative account is available to discriminate between cases where such an appreciation is idiosyncratic or, in fact, a justified reaction to some normatively relevant feature of the trustor, or the context of interaction between the trustor and the trusted.

This uncertainty matters in particular when trust relations occur between officeholders within the context of public institutions. In this context, trust relations are necessary to sustain institutional action. To the extent that institutional action consists in the officeholders’ interrelated action, for institutional action to proceed the officeholders must be in the position of trusting

-        each other to use their power of office to fulfil the mandate entrusted to their institutional role, and

-        that their ensuing interrelated action can sustain the working of the institution.

For such a web of trust relations to obtain and actually sustain institutional action, it is necessary that such relations rest on solid normative grounds and are not just the more or less fortunate result of idiosyncratic circumstances.

Consider the interaction between a surgeon and a surgical nurse practitioner in the context of a hospital’s operating theatre. That surgical operations work well is patently crucial for the hospital to work as an institution. In the context of hospital’s surgical operations, it seems greatly important that trust relations occur between those who occupy key institutional roles in the procedure, namely (but inter alia) between surgeons and surgical nurses. Such trust relations feature Jones’ dual dependency. A surgical nurse practitioner is trustworthy for a surgeon within the operating theater if and only if the surgical nurse practitioner is competent in performing their role and they take the fact that the surgeon counts on them as a compelling reason to act as counted on.

This notion of dual dependency can be sufficient to make epistemological sense of the trust relation in question, It can explain why the fact that the surgical nurse practitioner recognizes the surgeon’s dependency provides them with a compelling reason for diligently performing their role. However, the normative grounds of the surgeon’s trust remain unclear. The trust might rest on such various grounds as personal knowledge outside the operating theater, the track-record of successful interactions within the operating theater, as well as mere hearsays of the nurse’s skills.

To be sure, trust relations may admit a plurality of sources. And, quite clearly, this uncertainty might just be a factor to cope with in everyday interpersonal interactions between friends or relatives. However, when the working of an institution is at stake, a higher level of certainty seems in order. This certainty is necessary to nurture on justified grounds the officeholders’ reciprocal readiness to perform their roles as they expect that the other officeholders will do likewise. Trust relations in an institutional context must be responsive to a higher degree of structural interdependence that makes officeholders mutually accountable for their conduct in their institutional capacity. Individual goodwill and personal appreciations may just not be sufficiently normatively solid. The demand for a finer inquiry into the architecture of institutional action seems therefore all the more compelling.

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Officeholders' commitments and the endogenous dynamics of institutional trustworthiness

In How to be Trustworthy (OUP 2019), Katherine Hawley claims that what makes certain people trustworthy is the fact that they don’t leave their existing commitments unfulfilled. As she writes, “[t]o trust someone to do something is to believe that she has a commitment to doing it, and to rely upon her to meet that commitment” (p. 9).

We trust people, for example, when they keep their promises. And we distrust people when they feed us with false or distorted information. The commitments people have might differ in nature and origin. Certain commitments are important, others trivial; some commitments might be personally undertaken, others derive from someone’s professional role. For Hawley, none of these differences bears on whether people are trustworthy.  We trust others only when and because we believe they have a commitment to doing whatever we trust them to do.

Hawley developed her view of trustworthiness to characterize interpersonal relations of trust in ordinary people’s interactions. But her commitment-based view offers also a fruitful starting point to analyze relations of trust in an institutional context.

Institutions are systems of interrelated rule-governed embodied roles to which normative powers are entrusted with a mandate. The interrelated actions of those who occupy institutional roles (the officeholders) constitute institutional action. Institutional action is not the mere result of the officeholders’ mechanical execution of pre-fixed tasks in compliance with certain regulative rules. For institutional action to be operational, officeholders must share a commitment to exercising the normative powers (the rights and the duties) entrusted to their role in keeping with their mandate. To wit, institutional action is operational when officeholders share the commitment to acting according to a rationale justifiable as coherent with their power mandate (thus realizing the normative property of office accountability. This commitment is important because and to the extent that officeholders also share the awareness that institutional roles are interrelated in such a way that the action of any officeholder in the exercise of her powers of office depends and impacts on the actions of the other officeholders in the institution (Ceva and Ferretti 2021). A certain degree of mutual trust between officeholders is therefore necessary to sustain institutional action and make it operational over time.

Is the condition that officeholders are accountable to each other for the uses they make of their power of office sufficient to establish the kind of trust relation Hawley had in mind as a prop for institutional action? If, as Hawley writes, “trust is standardly thought to involve reliance, plus some extra factor,” what is this extra factor in the context of institutional action? Although Hawley’s primary interests lay in the trust dynamics at the individual level, we think that her commitment view offers the most promising existing approach to investigate the endogenous dynamics of institutional trustworthiness. Our only regret is that she won’t be there to lead this investigation side by side with us.

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