Featured Philosop-her: Katherine Hawley

Hawley Edgecliffe

Katherine Hawley is Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews; she lives in Anstruther in the Kingdom of Fife. She is the author of How Things Persist (OUP 2001), and Trust: a Very Short Introduction (OUP 2012), as well as articles on various topics in metaphysics, and on knowledge how, testimony, and (dis)trust. Katherine has recently got around to replacing the website she brought with her to St Andrews in 1999, so you can find more information about her at katherinehawley.org

(Un)trustworthiness and (In)competence

Katherine Hawley

My current project concerns trustworthiness and competence, within ethics and epistemology; at the bottom of this post I’ll say something about what a metaphysician like me is doing in a philosophical place like this.

What does trustworthiness require of us? A first thought is: honesty, sincerity, good will, concern for others. But we shouldn’t omit the second thought: knowledge, competence, skill, self-control. Flipping this around, we can recognise several different ways of being untrustworthy. There is the nasty scheming manipulator. But there’s also the terribly nice person who can’t say ‘no’ to a request, meaning that she takes on too much and misses deadlines, or has to stay up late and do a slapdash job. And there’s the grandly overconfident person who may also be terribly nice, but overestimates his own capacities and skills, leading to disappointment down the line.

(That’s untrustworthiness in practical matters, but likewise in terms of testimony or telling, we can distinguish the untrustworthy liar or bullshitter from the terribly nice but nevertheless untrustworthy characters who overestimate their own levels of knowledge.)

I find these ‘honest’ forms of untrustworthiness interesting for several reasons. First, I think many of us are untrustworthy in these ways much more often than we are untrustworthy through deliberate dishonesty. As I write this, I’m horribly conscious of those unanswered emails in my inbox, the articles I’m supposed to be refereeing, the as-yet imaginary paper I’ve agreed to give at that conference in the autumn, and the summer outings I’ve promised to my kids. (Not to mention the book I’m supposed to be writing on trustworthiness and competence.)

Second, whilst this kind of untrustworthiness is a vice, I think there is also an opposing ‘clean-hands’ vice of over-caution: one could avoid untrustworthiness of this kind by always hedging one’s bets, offering only to try to meet the deadline, never taking on additional responsibilities, never volunteering information for fear of getting something wrong, and generally avoiding opportunities to make commitments to others. But of course that sort of behaviour is incredibly annoying in its own way. If you think about the people in your life who are basically likeable but difficult to deal with, some will fall into the ‘over-commitment’ category, and some into the ‘over-caution’ category (others will be difficult for entirely unrelated reasons, of course).

Third, this is a rewarding, sometimes daunting, topic to work on because it connects so many issues in philosophy: so-called ‘epistemic’ norms of assertion and action; the nature of promises and promissory obligations; virtues and vices both intellectual and moral; know-how and skill; and of course trust and trustworthiness. Almost every day I wonder how far I ought to familiarise myself with existing literature on all these topics before trying to say anything of my own, and what kind of ‘ought’ that is anyway.

One point I have pressed in my work is the importance of fully considering distrust and untrustworthiness alongside trust and trustworthiness. Generally I find it fruitful to think about mirror images, inverses or analogies; in this particular case it has been very useful to notice that sometimes trust is mistaken not because the person trusted should instead have been distrusted, but because that aspect of the person’s behaviour was not a candidate for trust or distrust in the first place. If I trust my colleague to remind me of when the meeting is, then feel cross when she does not, the fault is mine not hers. She has no obligation to cosset me in this way, and her failure to do so does not demonstrate untrustworthiness; indeed if she did remind me, this might exemplify kindness rather than trustworthiness on her part. One way in which distrust can flourish is via mismatch of expectations, and I would like to understand more about how such mismatches may be generated by a difference of cultures.

Issues of distrust are central to a fascinating paper by our host here, Meena Krishnamurthy, on ‘(White) Tyranny and the Democratic Value of Distrust’.  Meena traces discussions of distrust in the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. Her key theme is the way in which King’s distrust – of the Birmingham police commissioner, of the city mayor, of ‘White moderates’ – was a motivating factor in his crucial decision to plan for direct action, rather than hoping that less radical strategies would eventually win the day. From my perspective, it is particularly interesting how King distinguished the various ways in which actors could be untrustworthy: through well-meaning ineffectiveness, as well as through determined anti-Black sentiment. This maps well onto the distinction I was emphasising above.

So how did I get from persistence, parthood and identity to trust and distrust? One ‘push’ was the metametaphysical turn, to which I didn’t have much to contribute: I think it is very difficult to say anything worthwhile in general about the nature or methodology of metaphysics (or of philosophy for that matter). But we still need good work in metaphysics, since the depressing alternative is philosophers making unreflective metaphysical assumptions without realising what they are doing. A ‘pull’ was my taking on a number of significant work responsibilities, such as editing the Philosophical Quarterly, then being Head of the School of Philosophical, Anthropological and Film Studies at St Andrews (the disciplines left awkwardly together after the popular disciplines had teamed up), and joining some heavy-duty committees. This prompted me to think harder about how people, relationships, and organisations function, and to see the philosophical issues therein. (Being a mother of twins also had an intellectual impact, alongside its more obvious impacts).

But I feel very fortunate that some of the philosophers I most admire are also now using skills honed within metaphysics, philosophy of language, and epistemology to address issues of personal and public concern, so making it easy for me to follow suit. Amongst many others I think of my former student Elizabeth Barnes and former colleague Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins, with both of whom I am proud to be associated. I am excited to see what the future holds!

Thanks for reading, thanks Meena for hosting this series of profiles, and do let me know what you think about trust, distrust, and the rest.

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