Jason D’Cruz is an Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University at Albany, State University of New York. During Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 he is a visiting scholar (chercheur invité) at the Centre de recherche en éthique (CRE) at Université de Montréal, where he is writing a book on trust and distrust. He is giving a colloquium paper entitled “The Moral Stakes of Distrust” at the upcoming APA Pacific Meeting in Seattle on April 14.
His work in ethics and moral psychology focuses on the topics of trust, promising, rationalization, and self-deception. His recent work appears in Ethics, Philosophical Psychology, Ratio, the Journal of the American Philosophical Association, the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, and The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.
You can find links to his work at his website.
Reasons to Renounce Distrust
What are good epistemic reasons to distrust a person? How do these reasons square with moral reasons to give someone the benefit of the doubt? When do we have moral reason to renounce distrust, and what does renouncing distrust amount to if feelings of distrust are not under a person’s control? These are the issues that guide my present research and that keep me up at night. Rather than attempt to canvass answers in this blog post, my aim is to convince you of the moral urgency and of the philosophical interest of the questions.
Here’s a real-life case that has stuck with me.
When Dr. Cross boarded Delta flight 945 from Detroit to Minneapolis last October, she confronted a situation where her skills as a physician would be of vital use, but where her offer of assistance would be declined. A Washington Post story on the incident describes the circumstance with economy: “Unconscious man on plane. Wife screaming. Doctor is two rows away. What happens next? Emergency care is delayed because flight attendant doesn’t believe black woman is a doctor. True story.” In a Facebook post that subsequently went viral, Cross relates how her offer of help was met with the patronizing response, ‘Oh no, sweetie put ur hand down; we are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel. We don’t have time to talk to you.”
Cross’s story is an object lesson in the power of distrust to insult. Several features of the story explain the fittingness of Cross’s feelings of insult: the condescending tone of the flight attendant (“sweetie”); the assumption that Cross couldn’t be a “real” doctor; the further the presumption that either Cross was not speaking honestly when she described her credentials, or else, perhaps worse, that she was not competent to discern her own status as a physician.
I propose that this kind of interaction, and many others like it, are of normative consequence that is presently under-appreciated by moral philosophers. Unwarranted distrust that is predicated on prejudice is pervasive phenomenon whose moral complexity theorists have yet to reckon fully with. If we reflect as deeply as we should, cases like this call on us to consider the high moral stakes of distrust, and in particular, to pay attention to the consequence of typically non-deliberative and spontaneous behavior that is expressive of attitudes and emotions constitutive of fearful distrust.
Here’s another case that has stuck with me. In a 1990 NYTimes op-ed, later re-written for Ebony, the philosopher Laurence Thomas relates with bitter irony that, “At times, I have looked over my shoulder expecting to see the danger to which a White was reacting, only to have it dawn on me that I was the menace.” Thomas argues that black men rarely enjoy the “public trust […] no matter how much their deportment or attire conform to the traditional standards of well-off White males.” To enjoy the public trust means “to have strangers regard one as a morally decent person in a variety of contexts.” Distrust of black men is rooted in a fear that “goes well beyond the pale of rationality” and eats away at a person’s capacity for trustworthiness:
Thus the sear of distrust festers and becomes the fountainhead of low self- esteem and self-hate. Indeed, to paraphrase the venerable Apostle Paul, those who would do right find that they cannot. This should come as no surprise, however. For it is rare for anyone to live morally without the right sort of moral and social affirmation. And to ask this of Blacks is to ask what is very nearly psychologically impossible.
Thomas picks out a feature of unjust distrust that is particularly troubling: distrust, irrational or not, has a tendency to be self-confirming. Much recent empirically-informed work in virtue ethics has come around to Thomas’s view that in order for virtue to take root and thrive, it must find social support. (Ryan Preston-Roedder’s “Faith in Humanity” (2013) give a good overview). Maria Merritt (2009) points out that even Aristotle himself thought that virtuous character needs support from social relationships. Virtues such as justice, liberality, magnificence, pride, due ambition, friendliness, and good temper all require for their practice “a social world inhabited by a community of peers.” (32) Aristotle’s own conception of virtue is highly sensitive to concerns of honor. As Thomas shows, acts that signal distrust can be deeply dishonoring. My view is that we sometimes have reason to abjure distrust because we have reason to mitigate the risk of dishonoring a person unjustly.
Contemporary philosophers working on trust have focused their attention on hazards of mislaid trust, which they rightly point out can be confidence shaking, demeaning, and even humiliating. To be let down in one’s expectations is bad enough. To be made a fool of adds insult to injury, and can damage a person’s ability to trust in the future. Trust without due caution is reckless. On the other hand, distrust without warrant (distrust that fails to target incompetence or ill will or dishonesty) is liable to insult, demean, and disempower, planting the seeds of alienation expressed in behavior that does warrant distrust. As a result, distrusting others exposes us to a kind of moral risk.
To arrive at an understanding of what it might mean to disavow distrust I draw attention in my work to distrust’s practical aspect. In my view, distrust is essentially a protective stance that responds to the perceived threat of another person’s ill will, lack of integrity, or incompetence. I think it’s useful to model distrust as having a structure that is isomorphic to that of entrusting rather than to that of trust.
Entrusting is a three-place relation: X entrusts g to Y, where g is some good. Entrusting does not involve the expectation of any particular action on the part of Y. Rather, X puts some cared-for object in Y’s hands, on the assumption that Y will not do it harm. Distrust is best understood as a refusal to entrust or a withdrawal from reliance. My working model is that distrust is an affectively-loaded withdrawal from or wished-for withdrawal from exposure to the vulnerability of reliance, on the basis of a belief or construal of the distrusted party as malevolent and/or as incompetent and/or as lacking integrity.
One upshot of thinking about distrust in this way is that distrusting a person does not require the expectation that they will act in a particular way or fail at a particular task. Rather, it consists in the refusal to expose oneself to the hazard of reliance. The refusal to entrust need not be grounded in any confident belief; mere skepticism or suspicion is sufficient.
Attention to the practical aspect of distrust helps to uncover what it might mean to renounce trust, and how it might be possible to renounce distrust while still withholding trust. My proposal is that, when we have moral reason to renounce distrust, such renunciation takes the form of entrusting others with things that are valuable to us. To be sure, when we entrust in this way we may continue to feel fear and to continue to harbor suspicion. And, needless to say, risk is unavoidable when we entrust in the face of incomplete information. But by entrusting we give others the opportunity to respond in ways that show trustworthiness. And it is the experience of this response that enables those who renounce distrust also to overcome it.