Prof. Katherine Hawley on Trust, Distrust, and Commitment

Luis Roberto Garcia Martinez
Monday 2 August 2021

We live in a crisis of trust. We have difficulty trusting those around us, our news sources, and the people that are meant to represent us. 

With a simple yes or no, think to yourself: can you confidently say you trust… your family? Your partner? Your closest friends? Politicians?  

Why is it that we trust some people but not others? What does it mean to trust… or distrust, for that matter, someone, anyway? We seem to have the most trust for people who we can rely on to act in our best interests – could this have something to do with trust? 

Philosopher Katherine Hawley (1971-2021) developed a plethora of insightful research focused on trust: enlightening us on what trust is, why it matters, and how we can come to trust and gain the trust of others. 

Hawley, like most philosophers of trust, distinguishes between the concept of trust and reliance. We rely on many things: we check timetables for the bus and rely on them to run on schedule we rely for chairs to keep us propped up on them; and rely on our close family members to be there for us in times of need. However: if the bus is late, or our chair drops us, it would be wrong to say that the chair has betrayed us – if our family abandons us, on the other hand, such words absolutely apply. 

Reliance, then, is to act on the supposition that something or someone will behave as we expect it to. We rely on many objects – and people – without trusting them. A friend who can’t help but spread gossip can be relied on to not keep a secret… but if they successfully refrained from spreading such gossip, it would be wrong to say that they had ‘deceived our trust.’ Similarly, distrust is distinct from mere non-reliance. I don’t rely on my table to tell time (of course not!), and I don’t rely on my friends to buy champagne for me five days per week. However, it would be strange (or even cruel) to say, based on these criteria, that I ‘distrust’ my table or my friends.  

While we don’t trust/distrust everyone and everything we rely/don’t rely on; we rely/don’t rely on everyone we trust/don’t trust. Trust and distrust, therefore, seems to be reliance/nonreliance alongside something else. Hawley’s brilliance elucidates what that ‘something else’ is: recognising that distrust is just as important to consider when formulating the equation about our norms of trustworthiness. 

Hawley tells us that trusting or distrust someone to do something requires believing that they have a commitment to do that thing: trust is believing that they are committed and relying on them to follow through; distrust is believing that they are committed yet not relying on them to follow through. A politician who has committed themselves to act democratically but has shown themselves to be unreliable due to a history of corruption should not be trusted – while a doctor who has no commitment to giving me opioids should not be distrusted for suggesting other forms of treatment (of course, if he fails to fulfil his commitment to work in the best interests of my health, he does become untrustworthy: his commitment can no longer be relied on). 

Commitment here is broad, implicit and explicit, and malleable: your best friend might not have ever explicitly told you that they’ll support you in difficult circumstances – but due to the role they’ve come to play in your life, it would be correct for you to feel betrayed if they failed to show up when needed. Therefore, if you want to be trusted, make sure you go through with your commitments: don’t bite off more than you can chew, and don’t neglect your obligations (both explicit and implicit). 

Hawley’s work on trust has had far reaching impact. Hawley has engaged with BBC Radio Science, Psychology Today, and large organisations to develop the Charted Institute of Insurers’ Public Trust Index: allowing insurers to measure their trustworthiness and giving them techniques to be trusted. Upon writing Trust: A Very Short Introduction, Hawley was invited to speak at the European Union, giving an expert seminar on how EU states can build trust amongst each other.  

Hawley’s work, clarifying what trust is and why it matters, is an invaluable piece of philosophy she generously shared with the public. As an academic, educator, and person, she will be thoroughly missed. 

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