It’s amazing how much (and how many people) we trust in and how reliant we are on trust. Imagine a world in which you never trusted your doctor to try to do her best for you.

In an emergency such as the present one when things are so uncertain trust matters even more. But you cannot just command trust (‘Trust me I am an expert/Minister/whatever’) and when trust has been built up over time it is very easy for it to be destroyed in an instant. Moreover, as philosophers writing on the subject have noted there is a difference between ‘trust’ which can be described in pretty straightforward factual terms and ‘trustworthiness’ which is a very different matter and has a value component. It is about what or who should be trusted. Unfortunately, we can both trust those who are not trustworthy and not trust those who are.

So, governments cannot just ask for people to trust them; they have to earn trust and do so in the right ways. They should not just be trusted but also be trustworthy. As Hugh Whittall's previous blog rightly says trust and transparency go together: we can only trust in what we are clear is being asked of us. The Government may well have a strategy both for now and for the next few months – and even beyond. But it is not clear – and certainly not always clearly and publicly stated - what it is.

Moreover, whilst the Government might ask us to ‘trust us because we are being led by science and only doing what the evidence supports’, there are two important replies. First, we need to know what that science and evidence is. This is not least because there is not a single scientific truth on each and every matter which lies ready to hand for use by politicians. Indeed, as has become apparent in very many commentaries and academic analyses there are different predictive models of what might happen, different accounts of how COVID-19 might be having the effects it is. (Are there, for instance, important cultural and social variables in its transmission and outcomes of infection?), different assumptions in play (can we really achieve ‘herd immunity’ through a certain level of infection in the population?), and so on. It is a characteristic of science that it needs to be properly analysed, contested and evaluated. We need to scrutinise whether it is accurate, adequate and well founded. We also need to know what we don’t know.

Second, any official strategy to deal with a pandemic rests not just on science but on moral values. Indeed, science and ethics are often inextricably connected. A recent comment in The Lancet noted of the predictive modelling of different possible measures of quarantine and social distancing that, however robust the scientific justification of the relevant predictions, each measure came with different social costs and varying consequences for different social groups. Ethics determines whether a strategy should be chosen because it seeks in simple utilitarian terms to secure the best overall aggregate balance of harms and costs. Or whether it rests on a belief that there are fundamental human rights that should never be sacrificed. Values inform a judgment of what is a proper or proportionate balancing of the loss of individual liberty and privacy for the gain of certain public goods; or whether it is fair to expect some social and age groups to suffer disproportionately in any public health initiative.

Perhaps this Government does not ‘do ethics’ – in the way perhaps that Alastair Campbell famously said on behalf of Tony Blair that ‘We don’t do God’. Which would be astonishing and at odds with the thoughtful, deliberated and explained policies of very many other countries. Or else it does but is not properly explaining how. Which would be an abandonment of its democratic obligations to justify its actions to us; and would in itself provide reason not to trust a Government.

Of course, values and ethical justifications are not – just as scientific claims are not – ready to hand and readily agreed. They can be various and contested. Yet, if we do not know what is in play we cannot challenge or debate them and perhaps find agreement. Of course, we might not agree. Democracies do not reach consensus on everything. Yet we need some degree of moral agreement. It is the responsibility of Government to take the lead in this. Those clinicians I have spoken to at the frontline are bewildered and frustrated by the plethora of ethical guidelines on offer. These were supposed to relieve them of the awful and anguished making of choices in isolation and uncertain of what might be right. Yet what we have are several sets of guidance that do not guide in respect of everything, and which doctors and nurses still have to be choose between.

It is not partisan politics to question or criticise Government policy. It would be reasonable to challenge any Government that asked for trust and failed to show exactly why it was trustworthy. There are instances where Government is right not to reveal everything – the intelligence that underlies its military strategy is a favoured example. Yet this pandemic is not, despite the liking of some for bellicose metaphors, a war. It is a dreadful virus whose containment and eventual cure demands a huge collective effort. The Government can trust us to make the effort, but it needs to more clearly demonstrate its trustworthiness in telling us why we should make it.

Comments (3)

  • Chris Wigley   

    I’d agree that trust can’t be demanded or even meaningfully requested (in that saying “trust me” is an acknowledgement of a lack of trust). Trust has to be earned over time, and this is a new government, dealing with a new situation.

    (Compare and contrast, for example Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, one of the most trusted and admired government leaders in the world - she’s demonstrated trustworthiness on multiple occasions, so comes into this situation with that asset behind her).

    In that sense, transparency is a *substitute for* trust, rather than an *element of* trustworthiness - trust is almost definitionally the belief that someone will do something / behave in a certain way when we can’t see what they’re doing. I now trust my 11 year olds to cross the road sensibly go to the shops without me. But it’s phases - first you have transparency, then that builds trust (which reduces the need for continual holding to account, as per the previous comment).

    Maybe the difference between trust and faith is that faith is eternally unverifiable, whereas trust lies in things that can be verified if necessary.

    All of which is a pretty rambling way of saying: good post thank you. I hope that we see more transparency in this phase, and I also hope that in a subsequent phase that has rebuilt trust a meaningful level.

    • Dave Archard   

      Thanks Chris for this helpful comment. The example of Jacinta Arden is a good one. Her repeated performance of trustworthy actions in several different instances means she is trusted on the next occasion and New Zealanders will do so without feeling the need to check or hold her to rigorous account. But of course one bad or untrustworthy action and everything could change. As you say being trusted is an acquired asset. It takes time to build it up but it can be quickly dissipated.

      I also think we need to distinguish between reliable expectations of what others will do and trusting them. I may expect politicians to speak less than the whole truth. But it sounds odd to say I trust them to be liars. Trustworthiness at least implies good dispositions towards us. We should trust others to do certain things for the right reasons, not because, for instance, they fear the consequence of doing something different.

      So we want to trust those in Government to do the right thing and do so because they want to do the right thing.

  • Vic Larcher   

    This blog raises important points about trust and trustworthiness which have not attracted as much attention in the extensive commentaries on the COVID -19 pandemic as they deserve. Mutual trust and respect are foundations on which personal and professional relationships are built and are prerequisites for the development and acceptance of ethical frameworks. The framework document produced by the Committee on the Ethical Aspects of Pandemic Influenza (CEAPI) on which current Government ethical policies appear to be founded does not mention trust explicitly but it seems clear enough that it is assumed and is necessary if the principles of the document are to be applied.
    It seems surprising that the findings of table top exercises arrived out in the face of the H1N1 threat and again in 2017 were not publicly shared especially as the latter is alleged to have identified issues in the preparedness planning for pandemics that needed attention and arguably should have been addressed or at least debated.
    The response to COVID will doubtless be analysed when the facts necessary to do so emerge and the release of the current lockdown will equally require review and analysis. In the meantime sharing of both information and strategies seems important if the restrictions imposed by the current policies are to be maintained
    Thus far there have been changes in strategy eg the move from fostering of herd immunity by infection to containment by social isolation, the role of testing, which do not seem to have met trustworthiness criteria. Instead there have been repeated mantra such as “Stay home, protect the NHS , save lives” and “guided by science” that are not in themselves substitutes for the active attempt to engender trust.
    Although science will provide facts that are needed to understand the nature of the virus and the management of the Pandemic it will not produce the value judgements necessary to do so. Whilst it may not be possible as O’ Neill has suggested to subject decisions to endless critical analysis a grater degree of transparency and inclusiveness are surely necessary if trust is to be maintained and the public acts of selflessness and altruism that have characterised the response to the pandemic so far are to be maintained.

    • David Archard   

      Thank you for this. The word trust is far too often casually used without care about what it means and entails. Trust can be gained but it is too easily lost - as Onora O'Neill points out - if we do endlessly review the basis upon which it has been gained.
      I also think someone needs to call out the uncritical use of 'science' in 'guided by'. There are good reasons not to trust what one scientist says just because he or she is a scientist; and good reasons not to trust a government which simply says it is guided by science

  • David Mullins   

    Really interesting and useful blog. I remember some years ago listening to an Onora O'Neill lecture about the relationship between ethics and transparency. O'Neill used the analogy of a garden. As I recall it, her concern was that if we are constantly uprooting the flowers,i.e. regularly subjecting every decision to invasive levels of accountability, then the opportunity for trust to flower is actually undermined rather than supported. I do not think O'Neill ultimately subscribed to this view but she raised it as a danger with respect to how we develop trust.

    • David Archard   

      Thank you for this. Onora O'Neill has written extensively and with characteristic intelligence about trust and trustworthiness. She is right that continuing trust and continuous holding to account sit uneasily with one another. But we should certainly hold to account a government that repeatedly says 'trust us' and does so without explaining why we should

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