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November / December 2004

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Trust on the Line


Trust on the Line
When it's on the line, it can undermine social justice and equality

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At a professional conference, a hospital emergency room doctor tells colleagues that he examined a child with head trauma and suspected child abuse because the baby's parents live in a trailer and the father has a tattoo.

In another part of the country, a department store employee calls security when a 17-year-old African-American girl, who was waiting for friends near a cosmetics counter, leaves the store. Despite finding that she did not shoplift as suspected, the store presses charges because the teen sampled a trial-size bottle of lotion, which then spilled. As reported by the Buffalo Evening News, the girl was arrested for "intent to damage," a misdemeanor. She was ordered to pay $22.50, sentenced to six months' probation and required to attend shoplifting school.

A patrolman in Rhode Island tails a car with Missouri license plates for a mile before pulling it over for not having a Rhode Island inspection sticker. When the man of Cape Verdean (West African) descent asks if he was pulled over because of his race, the officer responds by demanding to see his license, registration and proof of insurance. According to the Associated Press, the driver could not immediately find the documents in his sister's car until he called her on his cell phone. The driver showed the officer the requested materials, but was still issued a ticket for not having registration or proof of insurance. The American Civil Liberties Union is representing the driver in his racial profiling lawsuit, now in federal court.

Call it racial profiling. Prejudice. Discrimination. But what's often overlooked in such all-too-common scenarios in today's society is the issue of trust. In this case, it's the extent to which being distrusted by those in power can affect people's lives, says philosopher Jessica Miller, who has spent the past decade studying the value of trust and distrust in interpersonal relationships.

"Being marked as untrustworthy by people who have some control over you is not only morally debilitating, but has real economic, political and social effects," Miller says. Learning that you are so distrusted is likely, in turn, to affect your ability to trust those authorities.

Trust is what humans do every day. You either trust a person or a situation, or you don't. For most of us, it's that simple.

It's when you try to define trust that the complexity and importance of this moral action becomes clearer. One commonly held view among social scientists is that trust is about calculating the probability that a person will cheat you. It is a simple matter of trying to figure out if it will benefit someone more to cooperate with you or cheat. With this definition, you trust when you think it will pay.

But according to Miller, such a "strategic view" is missing a critical criterion the nature of the relationship between or among the trusting and trusted parties. What's needed is recognition of the context and the basis for our attitudes of trust and distrust the many factors that inform our moral attitudes and the way we see people.

"Some look at trust as a behavior or a belief," says the University of Maine assistant professor of philosophy. "My view is that trust is a complex emotional attitude, a kind of a frame for looking at or interpreting a person, situation or event."

By reflecting on frames of trust and distrust, we can question our face value of people. Indeed, with better understanding of the dynamics of trust and distrust by members of different social groups in an inegalitarian setting especially between a subordinate group and one that is controlling societal and cultural underpinnings can be reexamined and reinterpreted to help ensure they don't undercut social justice and equality.

"Trust and distrust are moral categories mediated through complex social arrangements. Thus, they have the power to cement or change those relations," Miller says.

Trust, according to Miller's definition, is an interpersonal, moral phenomenon. When we trust someone, we hope for an absence of ill will and a benevolent response to our expectations. When there is trust, there is a feeling of optimism.

Ironically, we often don't recognize the depth of our subconscious trust and what we explicitly want the trusted someone to do until our trust is betrayed. The very act of trusting disguises our vulnerability to others and makes it possible to cooperate in risky ventures.

"Many of our morally weighty expectations in others are encoded in our trust of them, not in explicit agreements like contracts and promises," she says. "Most people have a pretty good sense that trust is very important in their lives. Without trust, people would have trouble getting out of bed. It's fundamental to human life."

Being the object of distrust can prevent people from realizing their full human potential. When authorities distrust people on the basis of stereotypes and misinformation,they participate in a kind of moral debilitation, says Miller, whose current research project focuses on distrust of drug abusers.

Miller cites the example of the drug addict who goes to his doctor for relief from nonmalignant pain. "To assume at the outset that that person is not telling the truth and is not in pain is to silence him in a way that stunts his ability to do what's needed to become healthier," she says. Another example is distrust of drug-using mothers in prison: "When social workers don't communicate clearly the options for reuniting mothers in prison with their children, the women make choices that don't always reflect their true desires."

On a larger scale, lack of trust has far-reaching societal implications. The enforcement of drug laws in this country reveals a certain distrust of young African-American males, says Miller. Distrust in the form of racial profiling also is clear in the targeting of Arab-Americans under the Patriot Act. Often distrust is rooted in entrenched cultural figurations, such as the "young black man" and the "welfare mother," which both foster and result from distrust of African Americans, the poor and women.

"In the United States in particular, there's a lot of talk about eroding bases of trust. Many researchers are investigating the question of whether trust has declined in our major institutions like church, government and Wall Street. Those social scientists contend that trust is a form of social capital that helps grease the wheels of a capitalist economy.

"My concern is a lack of attention to whether those institutions serve everyone equally well. Trust is a social good that is not always fairly distributed," she says.

Miller asks: What are your expectations of others social workers, friends, lovers, police, physicians? "If you want to know the obligations or virtues somebody is supposed to have, look at whom they're trusted by and with what," says Miller, who is writing a book on the philosophy of trust.

In her research, Miller "follows the thread of trust" in practical, ethical issues. The goal is to be reflective about our current moral understandings, especially the theory of trust and how trust relationships actually work. She is among a group of feminist ethicists reviewing, rehabilitating and revisiting the importance of trust to our moral lives.

Miller also is a clinical bioethicist, who conducts grand rounds (formal presentations) on ethics at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Maine, and at other healthcare facilities in the state.

"The moral goal of bioethics, and of ethics in healthcare more broadly, is to delineate the moral responsibilities of healthcare providers in increasingly complex clinical and research settings," notes Miller in her most recent paper on mutual trust in the physician-patient relationship.

"A physician's view of the reasonableness of trust in a particular patient is affected not just by his or her relationship with that patient, but also by what is going on institutionally, professionally, legally and politically with regard to a given treatment or intervention."

Particularly poignant are end-of-life decisions in healthcare settings, including appropriate treatments and pain management regimes. Whatever the quandaries of trust doctors and nurses face, Miller helps them clarify their lines of reasoning, including any set of assumptions that needs to be questioned. Reflective assessment is key.

"Doctors and patients don't deal with each other in a vacuum," Miller says. "Institutionalized trust and distrust need to be brought to light in order to reflect on and assess healthcare practices."

The same can be said for any of our daily interactions with others. As part of popular culture, the media promotes a climate of distrust in major institutions. At the same time, we live in an era of increased specialization (i.e., the family physician versus specialists) and technological advancements (i.e., e-mail versus face-to-face communication) that decrease opportunities to form intimate, trusting relationships.

The fact is, we increasingly are forced to put our trust in more and more strangers in order to live. "On any given day," Miller says, "dozens of our interactions are facilitated by trust: leaving children at daycare, getting a haircut, giving the housesitter the house keys, sharing gossip or worries about the boss at work, giving the gas attendant a credit card.

"The attitude we take toward unknown others is often not just a matter of individual psychology. Rather, it reflects clear cultural patterns of representation, some of which are morally questionable or even morally malignant."

What's needed, argues Miller, are ways to "re-align the social fault lines" of trust and distrust. Through new, unconventional moral understandings, action can be taken against behaviors, systems and policies that undercut social justice and equality.

by Nick Houtman
November-December, 2004

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