Responsibility, Epistemic Confidence, and Trust

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In my last post, I argued that severe deficits of epistemic confidence can undermine responsible agency by undermining a person’s ability to form resolutions and have a deep self. In this post, I want to discuss a related notion: trust. In writing about epistemic confidence, Miranda Fricker (2007) says that people who conspicuously lack epistemic confidence are perceived as less competent and less trustworthy. Being seen as less trustworthy undermines a person’s epistemic confidence, which in turn undermines the person’s agency or competency. Trust, epistemic confidence, and agency are thus related in a positive feedback loop. This is illustrated in the experiment on expectancy effect, in which certain students were randomly designated as academically gifted, and the teacher’s trust in the students’ academic competency actually improved their competency (as measured by test scores) over the course of the year (Rosenthal & Jacobson 1996, cited by Fricker 2007: 56).

In this post, I want to look more closely at trust and its relation to responsible agency.

Victoria McGeer also writes about trust. She argues the ‘substantial trust’—trust that goes beyond the evidence and abjures strategic judgment—enhances the trustee’s responsible agency (2008).[1] Substantial trust ‘goes beyond the evidence’ in the sense that it embodies a belief in the trustee’s moral worth that isn’t supported by the balance of evidence; and it ‘abjures strategic judgment’ in that it entails a refusal to evaluate the trustee’s worth on the basis of evidence. That is, trustors don’t meticulously scrutinize the evidence regarding their friend’s moral qualities; they take a leap of faith in favour of the friend’s potential to be good. To illustrate this epistemic state, if my friend is accused of bribery, I exhibit substantial trust if I’m biased in favour of her innocence, in spite of any evidence to the contrary. When we substantively trust someone, we refuse to judge her on evidential grounds.

A central element of substantial trust on McGeer’s view is hope: in trusting a friend, we hope the person will live up to our optimistic expectations of her moral worth, but we don’t know if she will. Yet substantive trust can’t (or shouldn’t) be delusory: if the evidence confirms our friend’s guilt beyond doubt, we shouldn’t trust in the person’s innocence; but it would still be reasonable in this case to trust in our friend’s capacity to improve. In this way, substantive trust is relatively resistant to disappointment: even if a friend fails several times, we can continue to trust in the person’s basic capacity to live up to our hopes. We trust that the person can gain new capacities or build on existing capacities to embody our ideal. Only in the face of repeated disappointment does substantive trust become irrational. ‘Irrational’ trust on McGeer’s view is pointless; it doesn’t reliably contribute to the trustee’s agency.

Substantive trust enhances the trustee’s agency because it “has a galvanizing effect on how trustees see themselves, as trustors avowedly do, in the fullest of their potential” (McGeer 2008: 252). That is, our trust inspires confidence in the trustee, who begins to believe in herself.

This picture of trust as agency-enhancing interests me for 3 reasons, which I’ll elaborate briefly here.

  1. Epistemic confidence: the mediating variable between trust and responsible agency

McGeer’s account helps to explain how epistemic confidence is related to responsible agency: substantial trust (when assimilated to Fricker’s moral epistemology) inspires epistemic confidence, which (in the right degree) facilitates responsible agency. The right degree, as per my last post, is midway between between epistemic insecurity and epistemic arrogance; it’s neither too much nor too little self-regard. Epistemic confidence, then, is the mediating variable between trust and responsible agency. McGeer doesn’t explicitly mention ‘epistemic confidence,’ but she’s interested in elucidating the psychological mechanism whereby trust enhances responsibility. She rejects Pettit’s theory (1995) that trust incites a desire for approval, as this isn’t a ‘morally decent’ motive, befitting of the trust relationship (2008: 252). Instead, McGeer proposes that trust ‘galvanizes’ the trustee to see herself in a more positive light—through the trustor’s eyes. The resultant state—let’s call it positive self-regard—motivates the trustee to aspire to a higher standard of conduct.

Positive self-regard can be seen as a weak form of epistemic confidence—an aspirational kind. Whereas epistemic confidence is a positive belief in one’s merit or abilities, self-regard (in McGeer’s sense) appears to be faith in one’s (as yet unproven) merits and abilities. But self-esteem and epistemic confidence are of a kind: one is just firmer than the other. So, we can see positive self-regard as a weak form of epistemic confidence, and both states as intermediary between two epistemic defects: epistemic insecurity and epistemic arrogance. These epistemic virtues—self-esteem and epistemic confidence—are positively correlated with responsible agency, in the following sense: they enhance the trustee’s confidence in herself, and thus her ability to have firm beliefs and values (or convictions) about herself, and to act on those states. Having convictions prevents people from being ‘wantons,’ akratics, and irresolute people—paradigms of irresponsibility or weak responsibility. Responsibility is enhanced by belief in oneself, and this belief tends to confer self-control, willpower, and resilience—competencies implicated in or constitutive of fully responsible agency.

These related virtues—positive self-regard and epistemic confidence—might serve slightly different purposes; specifically, self-esteem might be particularly adaptive in adverse circumstances where a positive outcome is unlikely (but possible), whereas epistemic confidence might be more fitting when success is reasonably probable; but both states facilitate responsibility. Trust is fitting, therefore, when it’s likely to enhance responsibility by either of these means. In other words, we’re rational to trust someone when our trusting attitude reliably confers agency-conducive epistemic virtues. This allows us to say (consistent with McGeer’s view) that trust is a ‘rational’ attitude even if it goes against the evidence, insofar as it tends to foster agency in the trustee. Trusting in someone ‘irrationally’ would mean trusting in someone who can’t reasonably be expected to live up to our ideal; in that case, we’re merely wishing (not trusting) that the person could be better. Trust is also irrational if the trustee is overconfident, since in that case, our trust is either wasted or positively harmful: it’s likely to increase the person’s epistemic narcissism.

On this (basically functionalist) account of trust, epistemic confidence is counterfactually dependent on trust in the following sense: it wouldn’t exist without some initial investment of trust, but it can become increasingly self-sustaining and self-perpetuating over time. That is, people who never receive trust probably (as a matter of statistical probability) won’t develop epistemic confidence, but people who do receive trust may become increasingly self-trusting and self-sufficient. This claim is based in part on facts about ordinary human psychology: As a matter of fact, trust tends to confer epistemic confidence in psychologically normal humans, which enhances responsibility as a measure of resoluteness, willpower, and resilience. This psychological picture is suggested (though not explicitly articulated) by McGeer and Fricker, who cite developmental and child education studies showing that trust from an adult inspires confidence and competency in children. (This is sometimes called ‘Pygmalion effect’). Fricker cites the famous teacher expectation study (Rosenthal & Jacobson 1996), and McGeer cites research in developmental psychology showing that children who receive support from parents—‘parental scaffolding,’ as she calls it (2007: 249)—develop stronger powers of agency than deprived and neglected children. This research suggests that agency typically, in ordinary humans, depends on positive self-regard, which depends on a non-trivial investment of trust, especially during a person’s formative years. Subsequent trusting relationships, however, can compensate for deficits in childhood, as other research indicates—for example, research on therapy showing how positive therapeutic relationships can remediate symptoms of childhood trauma (Pearlman & Saakvitne 1995). This is how I suggest we perceive the trust-epistemic confidence relationship: epistemic confidence is counterfactually dependent on a non-trivial investment of trust in psychologically normal people, but can eventually become relatively (though not completely) self-sustaining; epistemic virtues inculcated by trust typically confer strong(er) agency.

This discussion suggests a particular taxonomy of epistemic states related to trust and agency. Specifically, I’ve said that trust catalyses three closely-related epistemic virtues: positive self-regard, epistemic confidence, and epistemic courage. These states are increasingly robust epistemic virtues, which support our ability to form resolutions, exercise willpower, and act resiliently. At either end of thus spectrum is an epistemic defect: on one side, epistemic insecurity (a paucity of epistemic confidence), and on the other side, epistemic arrogance (a superabundance of epistemic confidence). These defects undermine agency for different reasons: epistemic insecurity undermines our ability to form and act on convictions, and epistemic arrogance undermines our ability to adequately consider evidence for and against our beliefs, inciting us to favour our prior assumptions come what may. (That is, it spurs self-serving bias and confirmation bias). These vices thus undermine our ability to have a deep self and to exercise moderate control over our deep self, respectively.

This is one possible epistemic framework for responsible agency—the one that I’ve settled on. I think that more work can be done here, viz., at the intersection of responsibility and epistemology (especially social/feminist epistemology, which is relational in nature). We can call this intersection ‘the epistemology of moral responsibility’. This is promising area for future research, I think, and it may be of interest to neuroscientifically-inclined philosophers, inasmuch as these epistemic states are amenable to neuroscientific description.

  1. Responsibility as ‘external’ or ‘distributed.’ 

I’m also interested in McGeer’s account because (I think) it poses a challenge to classic theories of responsible agency that are relatively ‘atomistic’ (Vargas 2013) or ‘internalist’ (Hurley 2011). Classic accounts include Frankfurt’s (1971), on which responsibility is a matter of being able to form higher-order volitions consistent with one’s lower-order desires, and Fischer’s (2006, 2011), on which responsibility is a matter of being moderately responsive to reasons. These are different types of theory (one is character-based and the other is control-based, as typically construed), but they both emphasize the internal properties of agents to a greater extent than McGeer’s theory of trust, and so they can be regarded as comparatively ‘internalistic.’ (I’ve adopted aspect of these theories here—the idea that responsible agency is a function of deep-selfhood and reasons-responsiveness—but I’m going to to suggest that these capacities are more ‘extended’ than classic accounts imply).

Internalism should be seen as a matter of degree: most theories of responsibility treat some background factors as responsibility-relevant—for example, neuroscientific intervention (Mele 1995). But classic theorists usually think that exogenous factors are only relevant insofar as they intervene on the ‘actual sequence’ of the agent’s deliberation. For example, Fischer holds that clandestine brainwashing impairs responsibility because it operates on the agent’s actual motivational profile, dramatically altering it; but a ‘counterfactual device,’ that would have intervened had the agent deliberated differently is ‘bracketed’ as irrelevant (for more on this, see Levy 2008). Frankfurt, too, sees these counterfactual conditions as irrelevant.

McGeer’s theory is comparatively ‘externalistic’ in that it (implicitly, at least) construes counterfactual interveners as relevant to responsibility (qua trust-fittingness). We can’t, on her view, ‘bracket’ these counterfactual conditions when considering whether someone is trustworthy. This is because when we substantially trust someone, we (implicity) judge the person by what she could be in a nearby possible world—one in which she’s better than she is. This is implied by the hopeful optimism intrinsic to substantial trust—we don’t see the trustee as she is (at least, in paradigm cases), but rather as she would be if she succeeded in translating our trust into ideal self-regard. Moreover, when someone fails to live up to our optimistic expectations, we don’t immediately withdraw our trust, since substantial trust is inherently resilient. Trust, then, doesn’t always track a person’s real-world capacity for control or real-world quality of will; it sometmes tracks the person’s potential to improve, not based on evidence but on hopeful optimism. Trust, then, is a form of responsibility (a reactive attitude) that isn’t constrained by considerations about a person’s real-world or actual-sequence capacities at the time of action—when the trustee did something good or bad. It considers the person as she is in a nearby possible world or as she may become in the future.

This sets McGeer’s account apart from classic ‘actual-world’ or ‘actual sequence’ theories, because substantial trust treats counterfactual possibilities—in which the agent has a different kind of self-regard—as morally relevant. The trust relationship itself can be seen as a ‘counterfactual enabler’ in Levy’s terms (2008), in that it enables the trustee to gain a capacity, if the person succeeds in internalizing the proffered trust. But these transformative effects aren’t countenanced as legitimate considerations on classic views of responsibility. Also importantly, the trust relationship is distributed between two people, not intrinsic to the trustee; if it’s withdrawn at a critical stage of development, it undermines the cultivation of positive self-regard and agency. This is another ‘externalist’ aspect to trust: it implicates two or more people’s agencies. So trust is ‘externalistic’ in at least these two aspects: it depends upon counterfactual scenarios and it implicates two agents.

  1. Responsibility as care-based (non-retributive) and forward-looking

Substantial trust also challenges two other familiar approaches to responsibility: the retributive view and the backward-looking view.

Retributivism is, in very simple terms, the view that those who commit a wrongful action deserve punitive attitudes (blame, disapprobation, resentment) and those who perform an excellent action deserve rewards (praise, approbation). (I won’t consider more complex versions of retributivism: this one will be my only target). This is a very natural way of thinking about the reactive attitudes, and it seems to be Strawson’s understanding. He implies that those who fail to conform to reasonable social expectations deserve punitive attitudes, unless there’s an excusing or exempting condition (e.g., hypnosis, severe psychosis).

Substantial trust challenges this neat binary by holding that a person who falls short of our aspirational norms still ‘deserves’ trust, if trust is likely to instil positive self-regard across a reasonable time scale. That is, continuance of trust is fitting when someone makes a “one-off” mistake, as substantial trust is an “on-going activity” that’s resilient in the face of moderate set-backs (McGeer 2008: 247). Hence, we can’t simply say that someone who surpasses our expectations thereby warrants praise and someone who breaches our trust thereby warrants blame, as per the standard desert-based picture. This doesn’t capture the essence of trust. Rather, we withdraw or modify our trusting disposition only when someone repeatedly or catastrophically disappoints us, rendering trust pointless and irrational. Since substantial trust is aspirational at its core, substandard conduct on the trustee’s part doesn’t compel us to automatically withdraw our trust and assume a retributive stance: we’re licensed to suspend blame in the hope that the person will improve.

This is related to the fact that substantial trust is a forward-looking attitude. Most theories of responsibility are backward-looking, meaning that they attribute responsibility (praise/blame) on the basis of an agent’s capacities at the time of action, i.e., some time in the past. Frankfurt’s and Fischer’s views are like this: if someone had (a) a certain motivational structure, or (b) reasons-responsiveness when performing a certain action A, the person is thereby responsible for A. Trust, however, isn’t deployed solely on the basis of someone’s past motivational psychology and conduct; it’s also deployed on the basis of the trustee’s ongoing and fluid potential: we can trust someone who doesn’t (presently) have the capacity to improve. Trust, that is, outstrips the trustee’s current capacities at any given time.

As McGeer points out, we don’t (paradigmatically) invest trust in someone on a calculated judgment that the person will ‘earn’ our trust (as Pettit thinks), as this would be perverse and ‘manipulative’ (2008: 252). Rather, we trust someone as a way of empowering the person. Another way of putting this, I think, is to say that we trust someone for that person’s own sake. This interpretation of trust has affinities with Claudia Card’s (1996) care-based approach to responsibility, on which responsibility serves the function of expressing care to the target agent. It also resembles Vargas’ agency-cultivation model (2013), which reflects a concern for the target’s wellbeing (at least, it’s amenable to this reading). This care-based orientation is very different from the retributive rationale, and it’s also not backward-looking: responsibility attributions are meant to enhance or empower the recipient, not to punish her for past misdeeds. McGeer’s account of trust thus fits better with consequentialist theories rather than retributive ones, and it seems to embody a care ethos—trust is an essentially caring attitude. It seems to be essential to trust that it be care-based—or at least forward-looking; any other interpretation is simply conceptually mistaken.

I think that this is the correct way to think about responsibility in general (i.e., as consequentialist); but even if this isn’t the whole story (arguably there are many incommensurable but correct theories of responsibility—see Doris 2015 on ‘pluralism’), this seems to be a necessary way of seeing at least one facet of responsibility: trust. This means (at a minimum) that not all of our responsibility-constitutive reactive attitudes are retributive.

 

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[1] McGeer says that substantial trust fosters ‘more responsible and responsive trustworthy behaviour’ (2008). I’m just going to say that it fosters ‘responsible agency,’ and I’ll make a case for this more general claim in this post. It’s not hard to see how trust can enhance responsible agency: if we trust in our potential to achieve a desired outcome, we’re better able to achieve that outcome (under success-conducive circumstances, which I’ll leave vague).

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