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Society and communities

Trust: a challenge for our times

Recent polling suggests that between 21% and 36% of people in Britain think that Boris Johnson is trustworthy.

In a recent interview, Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter questioned the trustworthiness of the UK Government’s presentation of statistics.

“We get told lots of big numbers, precise numbers of tests being done - 96,878. Well, that’s not how many were done yesterday; it includes tests that were posted out.

“We’re told 31,587 people have died; no, they haven’t, it’s far more than that.

 “I think this is actually not the trustworthy communication of statistics.”

There has also been significant discussion of the impacts of Dominic Cummings’ actions. Following Cummings’ weekend press conference, Professor Robert West, from the government’s official advisory body claimed that: “We now have to recognise that central government probably cannot be trusted to provide leadership.”

These are interesting claims. But what does it mean to be, and how do we know when something is, trustworthy?

What we want to know is who we can trust. And, naturally, that suggests we ask ourselves who is worthy of that trust. Now, someone’s being worthy of our trust is not the same thing at all as our trusting them. My friend may be trustworthy, but because of a falling out we’ve had over something petty, I still may not trust them.

The first background point that we need to make is that trust goes hand in glove with betrayal. If you trust someone, you can be betrayed - you can be let down. Not all of our attitudes are like this. I can rely on an object without trusting it. For instance, I’m relying on my desk to hold my computer. But if my desk slips and my computer falls, it’s not that my desk has betrayed me. I wasn’t really trusting the desk to hold the computer. I was relying on the desk to hold it up.  

One general moral we can take from this, is that trust is a moral concept and that where we trust, we can be betrayed.

With that point made, we now need to ask how we should think of trustworthiness.

Philosopher Karen Jones argues that, for instance, my colleague is trustworthy for me when it comes to completing their work on time if and only if they are competent when it comes to completing things in a timely fashion, and, if I was relying upon them to do so, would take my relying upon them to be a compelling reason to finish their work on time. A key part of Jones’ position is that it is people who are trustworthy or untrustworthy.

"Of course, people can then be trustworthy ... interestingly, the British public seem to have expressed the view that our Prime Minister is not."
Professor Jonathan Tallant

This suggests that Professor Spiegelhalter may not quite have put things properly when he described the communication of information as not being trustworthy. Individual acts of communication are not the sorts of thing that have moral responsibility; they cannot betray us or let us down. And, borrowing from Jones, an act of communication cannot take our counting on it as a reason for action. So, if Jones is right about trustworthiness, then it’s simply a mistake to speak of anything other than a person - a Prime Minister or their advisor, for example - being trustworthy or untrustworthy.

Of course, people can then be trustworthy (and perhaps Professor Spiegelhalter’s real target was not the communicative acts, but those engaging in them). And, interestingly, the British public seem to have expressed the view that our Prime Minister is not.

What, then, can we learn from Jones’ analysis? Well, if people think that the Prime Minister is not trustworthy, then they would have to be forming the view that either he is not competent, or else that he would not take people’s relying upon him to act in a particular way as a compelling reason to do so. Without further research into the opinions of the British public, it’s not clear as to the extent that these to themes might be present, but those seem to be our options. Neither view would be positive, though they are, of course, very different.

Nonetheless, this does point us in the direction of a means of working out who really is deserving of our trust—who is trustworthy. In the first instance, we should look for people who are competent. And, second, we should look for people who have a track record of recognising when people are relying upon them, and treating that reliance as compelling reason to act as the need requires. If that’s right, then proper consideration of whether the Prime Minister or Dominic Cummings are deserving of our trust will depend upon whether they are competent at acting in our interests, and have a track record of treating our interests as compelling reason to act as required. For, although people may act differently in the future, a good track record of being worthy of trust is as good a sign as any that someone really is deserving of it.

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Jonathan Tallant

Professor Jonathan Tallant is a member the Department of Philosophy and the University’s Centre for Social Philosophy.

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