Untrustworthy People

    All people are to some extent or other trustworthy. We trust people to keep their word or show up at work or to respect a confidence-- most of the time. It would be very difficult for social life to proceed if this were not the case. We would find ourselves in some feral case of society, a Hobbesian world where all doors had to be locked, people always asked to show their credentials, people always looking over their shoulders, unless there were an all pervasive state to look to the enforcement of what are generally considered normal states of freedom or lack of fear. And all people are also sometimes or other untrustworthy in that they lapse in picking up things at the store, can be unfaithful to their spouses, and in many different ways shade the truth to leave an impression that does not square with the truth.  

Trustworthiness is an attributed role. Such roles have to do with the various emotions that can be attributed or associated with people on the basis of the indirect evidence provided by inferences from behavior. The occupational role of an actress is to feign emotions but we also attribute to some actresses some “star power”, and to all of them who claim the title of actress a little bit of “star power”, which means some measure of theatricality, that being a sense of the dramatic, that internal characteristic unspecified in the sense that any number of things may attest to that--an ability to nuance a line in its delivery, or a sense of timing, or an ability to change her facial expression--and an observer may always find something new to demonstrate the validity of the attribution. An actress has to live up to being a star.

Roles that are largely attributional do not even require specifying the purpose for which the role is undertaken, that remaining problematic. You don't have to know what use it is for a person to be mean, much less how a person got to be that way, to recognize that there are some people who deserve that title, and to be given short shrift or dealt with in some other way so as to compensate for that trait. Aristotle provided a long list of such attributes in his “Ethics” and he even posed a grand hypothesis to explain the relation between attributes, arguing that some attributes were more extreme versions of other emotions and that engaging in emotions in the middle of any number of spectra was in fact the proper or most functional way to feel and behave. Ethics meant no more than following this very practical and fact based principle.

The modern usage of the term “attribution” is to be credited to Bernard Weiner and other social psychologists. Weiner argued that people engage in a process whereby they infer political conclusions from fragmentary or even incorrect evidence. A person’s belief is the result of this process. This theory is a version of the theory of inference in Aristotle’s “Rhetoric”, where partial syllogisms take the place of rigorous proof in convincing people to support one political leader rather than another. But the connotation of attribution is more than insufficient logic; rather, it happens when evidence is inevitably unreliable. What people actually feel is known only to their own minds even if it  can be inferred from their behavior and from what they say. So we attribute any number of emotions to people including those which are, as the ancients might say, voluntary rather than inevitable. Fear is inevitable when provoked by snakes or a raised knife. Lust is inevitable but love is inferred and has to be worked on and Christianity insists that we spend a lot of time working on our ability to love. Attributional roles are that select group of roles which involve emotions that may or may not be there and which people have to work to feel or display.

Some attributional roles are so obviously so that it is considered bad manners or even a contradiction for people to claim those roles for themselves. It is up to others to claim that a person is wise or good. Many attributional roles are those which reveal themselves as such only after sociological analysis. Among those are smarts, attractiveness, and even old age. Attributional roles collectively make up so much of what we can consider the existential quality of life that they also supply a sufficient explanation for the phenomenon of the norm, which is otherwise understood, most notably by Emile Durkheim, as the world of social expectations that impinge upon us. But, contrary to Durkheim, many of the emotions associated with doing what one is conventionally supposed to do can be read as working hard to live up to (or down to) a reputation for being one sort of person rather than another, which is to say, having an attributional role rather than a role, like son or baker, with which one simply complies or not..

Being untrustworthy or trustworthy gives itself away as an attributional role in that we want ourselves to be considered trustworthy by ourselves and others and so treat lapses from that attribute as exceptions to our standard character. People work hard to make themselves more trustworthy, curbing their tendencies to be irresponsible or to embellish the truth. That is because trustworthiness is a cardinal virtue by which people’s overall character is judged and because our loved ones especially count on it so as to order their lives. We need to be trusted and others need to trust us and the truth is, however reticent people are to admit it, it isn’t always easy to be trustworthy because there are so many short term interests that might preclude it. You don’t want other people to know you have not been paying some of your bills because it will bring shame; you don’t want your wife to know where the long blonde hair on your sweater came from; you don’t want a colleague to know that you are not as conversant with the news as you pretend to be. So being trustworthy requires endless attention and effort because it is so easy to fall off the wagon.

    Aristotle, that ancient classifier of emotions, does not speak of trustworthiness, though one may infer that Aristotle might consider it part of the being of a just man, because the just man is someone who makes sound judgments in accord with reason and law. Nor does trustworthiness appear under its own name in Hobbes and Spinoza, those Early Modern composers of lists of the key emotions.  Hobbes says “To ‘have faith in’ or ‘trust to’ or ‘believe a man’ signify the same thing; namely an opinion of the veracity of the man.” But it should be said that this sense of a number of common language usages is readily associated by Hobbes with faith in the religious sense of ‘believing in’ the creed rather than the person. Hobbes has not liberated trustworthiness from Christian belief even if much of his philosophy is famously devoted to treating trust as a deliverable from a monarch in exchange for loyalty. Spinoza, for his part, derives trustworthiness from freedom when he declares that “A free man never acts deceitfully, but always honorably” (Proposition LXXII of “Ethics”) because a free man always does things at the behest of reason and using deceit as a way to overcome danger is unnecessary if people have united together to establish government, which it is within reason to conceive as necessary and proper. Again, the word “trust” is not there, but the basis for trustworthiness is. Similarly, Georg Simmel, that modern compiler of lists of central emotions, does not speak of trustworthiness but perhaps the idea can be shoehorned within his concept of “fidelity”, which means that people will remain loyal to their governments and their spouses through thick and thin, remembering the entire experience of the relationship rather than just the reason for questioning its durability.

This omission of the idea of trustworthiness by the significant students of emotion is important because the concept describes an aspect of interaction deeply ingrained in human experience. Cain was untrustworthy not because he killed his brother but because he lied or evaded the issue when confronted by God. It is no good to say that trustworthiness arises as a feeling only in later times when people create financial trusts and engage in complicated financial transactions if for no other reason than that a trustee is an ordinary noun based role, describing a set of legal responsibilities, while trustworthiness is an attributional role where a person is always struggling to live up to the appellation. A trustee, even if complying with the laws and regulations of his work, may not be regarded as a trustworthy soul.

Russell Hardin, in his book “Trust and Trustworthiness”, defines the most important versions of trustworthiness as “encapsulated self-interest”. This is a version of Hobbes’s idea that trust is an exchange of security for loyalty. Hardin generalizes that to be an interest in maintaining a relationship for all the benefits that may ensue. People remain friends because people need friends and so one puts aside all the dissatisfactions in a particular friendship. But seeing trust as a matter of reciprocity, a theory that goes back to Francis Bacon, may be a mistake. We do not always calculate why it is prudent to preserve a friendship, what exchange within it profits us, and similarly we do not as a matter of course calculate whether it is wise to trust a sibling or a spouse. That is taken for granted and it takes a good deal to question that trust. Most spouses will not worry about whether a stray blonde hair on a sweater is reason enough to distrust a spouse. Indeed, it may be that reciprocity itself may depend on the establishment of a prior trust at least to the extent that members of different tribes will let one another safely escape from their sight after an exchange has been made. What is the source of this idea of trust as the basis for rather than the result of reciprocity?

Kierkegaard suggests an alternative model for trust and trustworthiness. People trust to God whether or not He is going to give them something in exchange.  He calls that trust “faith”. It is there and justified in itself and alone regardless of consequence. Abraham did not know what the result of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac would be, whether God could not possibly go through with having him kill his son and so was merely testing him in that this was a fake test, or whether this unknowable God would indeed require the sacrifice. God might go either way. Faith in God was not in the results, as Job was also to discover, even if the redactors, feeling constrained by conventional morality, had to turn Job’s sufferings merely into a test from which Job would emerge whole.

So where does this trust come from, if it is not known by its fruits? It comes from a carefully and often long nurtured relationship which is willing to put up with a lot because most of what happens in life will be justified in terms of the subsistence of the relationship itself. Lovers can forgive being betrayed by one another or otherwise wounded by one another even if only by inattention, because they are so concerned to maintain the relationship for itself alone rather than because it has concomitants, however much those are honored by convention. It takes a lot to break that bond. The reasons people fall in love in the first place are difficult to phantom, but the issue is that once that has taken place, the loyalty or whatever is the proper name for the bond is so strong that it can withstand many a violation, even if contracts cannot. Even a technical violation of a contract supplies a possible reason for making it no longer necessary to deliver the goods. So trust is a more fundamental social idea than exchange and, therefore, may precede it historically.

Now consider the extreme version or paradoxical version of untrustworthiness, which is when people seem inevitably untrustworthy. This is not a matter of a person being clutzy or disheveled or always getting errands wrong. That comes under the category of traits people have difficulty avoiding because they are incapable of being otherwise or prefer to think they are not really all that bad at getting their bills paid on time. Rather, this is the case where people repeatedly act in a way that they can be trusted to be untrustworthy. They embrace their untrustworthiness. They prefer to lie rather than tell the truth; they can be relied on to make sexual advances that are inappropriate; the boss can not rely on what they said at work about what they had gotten done or what remained to be done.

Three thousand years of moral reflection has given us a name for this learned incapacity. That term is “evil”. Evil is when people persistently chose to act with malice, not just occasionally, or out of self-interest. Occasionally evil people, like serial killers, can be regarded as sick, while those presumably few people who prefer their dark sides are beyond that and revel in those feelings that other people but not themselves recognize as evil. Hitler and Stalin fit into that category. They can be relied on to choose to be cruel, while Richard Nixon tried to hide his dark side and was largely successful at doing so, bar certain notable lapses he felt he had been forced into by the nature of political life.

If this analysis is correct, then the “problem of evil” has been solved in that evil is reduced to a sociological phenomenon, and the following can be said about it. First, evil is a characteristic of some set of people but not of most people, and so cannot be generalized to all those who suffer from the human condition, which is what Christians tend to do. Rather, it is what happens to some people because their characters have been overdetermined by their malice, whatever is the source of that malice, evil understood to be ugly when uncovered because it reveals anger and jealousy and other vile emotions that cannot be appeased in the usual ways, by the touch of a good woman or the model of a good friend. Iago and Macbeth are of this sort, Shakespeare very much taken with the idea of portraying evil, perhaps for the reason that revealing hidden characteristics on the stage always makes for good drama. Most people, as political liberals think, are not motivated by their general untrustworthiness, but trying to do what seems by their lights to be the right thing, even if that leads to murder because of a jealous rage or to embezzlement so that one can support one’s family in the style to which they have become accustomed. Those acts are misguided, not evil, even if criminally liable. Othello was not evil; he was just tragic.

Second, there is no need to find a cause for evil that is outside the human condition. It does not have to be inflicted upon mankind because of the “crime” of Adam and Eve or have some other legendary source. Rather, it happens when a person or a society is overwhelmed by stress, that good liberal name for conditions that put more and more straws upon the camel’s back until the person breaks from ordinary attachments that thrive within and make up trustworthiness, such as a regular job or a family, and lead, not to anomie, which is to be without direction, but to a direction now dictated by loathing for oneself and others. A society can even become subject to untrustworthiness and the evil that is the experience of categorical untrustworthiness when societal stresses are magnified by a malevolent leader so that distrust is sowed throughout the society, everyone the subject for suspicion. You tell someone in Soviet Russia that you are going to Minsk because he will think you are lying and so must really be going to Pinsk when you are really going to Minsk. You distrust well educated people in Mao’s China and Jewish tendencies in Hitler’s Germany. The reality of such societies in the twentieth century world, however, should not make us think that they are default settings for where societies will go when things get bad. And the sensible forces of American society will, I think, successfully resist even the evil minded inclinations of  Trump as President.