Humble trust


I challenge the common view that trust is characteristically risky compared to distrust by drawing attention to the moral and epistemic risks of distrust. Distrust that is based in real fear yet fails to target ill will, lack of integrity, or incompetence, serves to marginalize and exclude individuals who have done nothing that would justify their marginalization or exclusion. I begin with a characterization of the suite of behaviors characteristic of trust and distrust. I then survey the epistemic and moral hazards of distrust, in particular, distrust’s propensity to bias interpretation, to perpetuate itself, to confirm itself, to dishonor, and to insult. Taking seriously these moral and epistemic hazards requires taking affirmative measures to respond to them. I elaborate one such response: “humble trust”. The practice of humble trust issues from skepticism about the warrant of one’s own felt attitudes of trust and distrust, curiosity about who might be unexpectedly responsive to trust and in which contexts, and commitment to abjure and to avoid distrust of the trustworthy. Humble trust enables individuals to trust that they will be trusted.

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  1. 1.

    Notable exceptions include Hawley (2014) who holds that “it is a mistake to theorise trust without considering distrust” (3). Jones (2013) examines distrust issuing from identity-based prejudice and Krishnamurthy (2015) offers an account of distrust’s role in protecting political minorities from tyranny.

  2. 2.

    For example Baier (1986), Jones (1996), Hawley (2014) and McCleod (2002).

  3. 3.

    Approach and avoidance are fundamental motivational tendencies in virtually all organisms. Slepian et al. (2017) propose that trust and distrust should be distinguished in terms of approach and avoidance motivation.

  4. 4.

    This puts my account at odds with recent accounts of distrust advanced by Krishnamurthy (2015) and Hawley (2014). I will not have space here to draw out the differences in our views here.

  5. 5.

    Although they often go together, distrusting a person should be distinguished from signaling distrust of a person. One may privately distrust a person but decide to avoid revealing distrust for various reasons. For example, one may lack a way of withdrawing from interaction undetected and one may want to avoid insulting the person; alternatively, one may simply be averse to confrontation.

  6. 6.

    I borrow this phrasing from Hawley (2014, 2) who makes the same point with regard to trust.

  7. 7.

    In this vein, Ryan Preston-Roedder argues that having a measure of faith in humanity is central to moral life (2013) and articulates a notion of “civic trust” that involves interacting with strangers without fear while relying on their goodwill (2017).

  8. 8.

    My categorization here simplifies, since there are cases in which we have moral reasons to adopt a distrustful stance (e.g.—when the wellbeing of vulnerable others is at stake) and there are cases in which we have prudential reasons to adopt a trustful stance (e.g.—when the opportunities associated with trusting cooperation are great).

  9. 9.

    As Adam Smith put it, “Compared with the contempt of mankind, all other evils are easily supported.” (2002, 81).

  10. 10.

    Empirically informed philosophers working under the banner of “situationism” deny the existence of character traits, appealing to empirical work in psychology that indicates that seemingly trivial and normatively irrelevant situational influences, such as mood modulators and ambient sensory stimuli, predict and explain people’s cognitive, affective, evaluative, and behavioral responses. But one does not have to be situationist or a character-skeptic to appreciate role that social support plays in cultivating right action, apt emotion, and moral perception.

  11. 11.

    NE 1098b33-1099a5; see also NE 1114a7-10.

  12. 12.

    In a similar vein, John Adams avers that, “The desire for esteem is as real a want of nature as hunger, and the neglect and contempt of the world as severe a pain as gout or stone.” Adams (2001, 313).

  13. 13.

    Ryan Preston-Roedder (2013, 667–668) reviews a number of ways in which we tend to confirm the expectations of others even when we do not intend to do so. First, we tend to internalize other people’s view of us and act in ways that are consistent with this view. For example, labelling elementary school pupils as “neat and tidy people” has greater and longer lasting effects than asking them to refrain from littering (Miller et al. 1975). Second, we tend to respond to subtle cues that are sent by the expectations of others by adopting the very behaviors they expect. For instance, Word et al. found that poor performance among black interviewees was predicted by and responsive to cues sent by white interviewers such as sitting relatively far away and making relatively little eye contact (1974). Third, the opportunities that are given to or withheld from us are influenced by how we are expected to behave, and access or lack of access to opportunity may result in our adopting the expected behaviors. Finally, when others expect us to act poorly, we may react in ways that shield us from the shame of confirming their low expectations. We may come to care less about how we behave or “self-handicap” so as to create obstacles for ourselves rather than having our failures chalked up to our lack of competence or character (Berglas and Jones 1978).

  14. 14.

    The dominant view is that although people reliably agree on which faces look untrustworthy or trustworthy (Rule et al. 2013; Todorov 2008) these judgments show no predictive validity (Todorov et al. 2015) because there is no reliable correspondence with actual trustworthiness (Todorov and Porter 2014). In contrast, Slepian and Ames argue for the internalized impressions account according to which a lifetime of being treated as trustworthy or untrustworthy as a result of one’s appearance may lead one to internalize these expectations and act in accordance with them, which eventually results in (modest) appearance-based accuracy (2016).

  15. 15.

    The pernicious distributive effects of prejudicial distrust manifest themselves in a measurable way in research on the “sharing economy”. Consider the case of airbnb. Staying in another person’s home or allowing someone to stay in your home is a context in which attitudes of trust and distrust play a central role in shaping decision making. A 2014 HBS study on airbnb found that non-black hosts are able to charge approximately 12% more than black hosts, holding location, rental characteristics, and quality constant. Moreover, black hosts receive a larger price penalty for having a poor location score relative to non-black hosts (2014, 4). A later study found that applications from guests with distinctively African American names are 16% less likely to be accepted relative to identical guests with distinctively white names (B. Edelman et al. 2017, 2).

  16. 16.

    Cf. Hieronymi (2008).

  17. 17.

    This feature of humble trust overlaps with what Preston-Roedder dubs “faith in humanity”: “So even a reasonably careful and clearheaded person could easily overlook evidence of people’s decency. But someone who has faith in humanity is especially sensitive to such evidence. She tends to look for, recognize, and focus on the good in people, and as a result, she is somewhat more likely than her peers to judge that people are decent, or that they have behaved well.” (2013, 667).

  18. 18.

    I have doubts about whether reciprocation in the trust game is good evidence of trustworthiness. Insofar as a player plays by the rules set out, it is not clear that their behavior is “untrustworthy” even if she keep all the money since that the player has made no commitment to do otherwise, even from within the game. I do think, however, that the trust game measures something in the vicinity of trust. I don’t have room to spell out the subtleties in this paper, however.

  19. 19.

    The ideas in this work were developed during my stay at the Centre de recherche en éthique (CRE) at Université de Montréal. Early versions of the paper were presented at McGill, Université de Montréal, American University in Beirut, Marist College, University of New Mexico, Sienna College, and the APA Pacific Division meeting. I received valuable feedback from Anthony Booth, Karen Jones, Katherine Hawley, Meena Krishnamurthy, Andrei Buckareff, Fadlo Khuri, Michael Brownstein, Angie Pepper, Christine Tappolet, Sarah Stroud, Paul Boswell, Richard Healey, Étienne Brown, and Mark Alfano.


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D’Cruz, J. Humble trust. Philos Stud 176, 933–953 (2019).

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  • Trust
  • Distrust
  • Exclusion
  • Insult
  • Trustworthiness
  • Trust game
  • Decision-making
  • Facial appearance
  • Automatic processing
  • Implicit processing
  • Humble trust