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How Can I Be Trusted?Review - How Can I Be Trusted?
A Virtue Theory of Trustworthiness
by Nancy Nyquist Potter
Rowman & Littlefield, 2002
Review by Diane J. Klein, J.D.
Feb 11th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 7)

In How Can I Be Trusted? A Virtue Theory of Trustworthiness, Nancy Nyquist Potter combines her reflections on the moral dimensions of her life as a feminist, a crisis counselor, a college teacher, and a friend, with a more technical philosophical examination of trustworthiness and certain other closely related virtues. Potter has thought carefully and well about a number of institutional and personal settings in which issues of trust are paramount, and her book contains a cogent critique of how dominant ways of thinking about our obligations to one another, particularly in certain important professional roles like counselor and teacher, have paid inadequate attention to issues of trust and trustworthiness, and are too reliant on internal institutional norms of conduct which immunize practitioners from serious challenges.

As philosophy for a "lay" audience, particularly for members of the professions she analyzes so closely, the book is an excellent demonstration of why philosophy, ancient and modern, is always "relevant" -- how it can help us to think better about the actual problems real people face, and how it can contribute to ongoing discussions about personal choices and institutional policies.

From a philosophical point of view, the book's greatest contribution is Potter's identification of what might well qualify as a "new" virtue, "giving uptake," and her analysis of how it relates to other virtues like honesty and trustworthiness. As she explains in Chapter 6, certain intimate relationships that are a central part of human flourishing turn out to depend on persons having this cluster of virtues.

The book's greatest weakness, for some, may be its greatest strength for others -- its thoroughgoing political agenda. Every issue, however apparently abstract, is refracted through a lens that sees our culture as one "where sexism, racism, homophobia, poverty, and violence against women are so entrenched in our legal and social systems that most women cannot get redress or relief there... (p.44); in which "current norms of rationality...reflect deeply embedded biases toward all women, men and women of color, sexual minorities, abuse survivors, and other socially marked groups" (p.49)).

From this point of view, which Potter embraces, those who belong to dominant groups have a greater obligation to be and become trustworthy, and to "give uptake," than do others. Ironically, like Aristotle, Potter directs her advice about virtuous character primarily to the elite -- what most distinguishes her from Aristotle is how much her conception of virtuous character, and justice, has to do with nondominating, nonexploitative relations between members of dominant and nondominant groups.

Equally problematic, from a philosophical point of view, is her use of current psychotherapeutic concepts without reference to contemporary philosophy of mind. For example, she states uncritically that the subject of one case study "is an incest survivor whose childhood experiences of sexual abuse resulted in a splitting of the self at an early age" (p. 98), as if "splitting of the self" were as philosophically unproblematic a notion as breaking a leg. In her discussion of intimacy, she relies heavily on feminist Episcopalian theologian Carter Heyward, without considering whether Heyward's religiously-based moral judgments about good and bad relationships are consistent with the nonjudgmentalism Potter defends in crisis counseling.

The book combines two disparate undertakings. The more explicitly "philosophical" part of the book consists of Chapters 1, 5, and 6, comprising the account of trustworthiness and its relation to honesty and "giving uptake" in relationships.

Chapter 1, "A Virtue Theory of Trustworthiness," introduces a number of ideas about virtues in general, and trust and trustworthiness in particular. As an introduction to virtue theory, it may be helpful to some readers, but is unlikely to satisfy those with any philosophical background. Potter's attempt to define trust and trustworthiness, and to situate them within a basically Aristotelian theory of virtue (including the Doctrine of the Mean) is little more than a pastiche of the work of (often eminent) others, such as Annette Baier, Bernard Williams, and J. L. Austin, whom she cites as if they had authored empirical works of social science. Her broad claims are frequently asserted rather than argued for, yet it is hard to know what is at stake in any of them.

Chapter 5, "Trustworthy Relations among Intimates," is much stronger. Potter argues "that intimacy requires a quality of relation captured by the concept of connection and that being connected in intimate relations requires that we be trustworthy" (p. 121). She spells out this relatively uncontroversial position clearly and persuasively, and her arguments here help make much more plausible her prior claims about the centrality of trustworthiness. Potter wisely regards intimate relationships as an arena for the development and expression of virtue, and hence a site of moral struggle rather than retreat from it. Her assertion that "sustained connected close relations" are one class of the goods that constitutes human flourishing is surely plausible, if not self-evidently and universally true, and her explanation of why such relations, if they are to contribute to and support human flourishing, require that each partner be trustworthy is one of the best-argued parts of the book. Her account of the moral challenges of relationship is enhanced by its non-perfectionism; she sees as an important part of virtuous character not just how to act rightly or well, but what we do when we have failed to do so. Potter gives needed attention to this often-overlooked aspect of virtue.

Although Chapter 5 is primarily about female friendship, Potter takes care not to develop too "feminized" a conception of friendship, de-emphasizing "intimate talk" and holding open the possibility of genuine "closeness" based on shared activities, as long as it is "genuine and meaningful to the participants" (p. 145). Her discussion of male wartime friends (mostly found in a footnote to Chapter 5) is one of the few flattering, sympathetic, or even inclusive sections about men.

The most significant weakness in Potter's discussion of intimacy is her exclusion of family relationships and particularly parent-child relationships. Chapter 4's discussion of the devastating consequences of incest makes the absence of any positive account of familial intimacy especially noticeable. Leaving families out of the story makes it too easy for her to conclude, without moral qualification, that "Sometimes nonmutual, chronically disconnected relationships need to be ended, because they derail our development" (p. 133).

The richest philosophical content in the book comes in Chapter 6, "Giving Uptake and Its Relation to Trustworthiness." Potter begins with an idea drawn from J. L. Austin's philosophy of language. As Potter ably glosses it, "When the listener receives another's speech act -- especially an illocutionary act -- with the conventional understanding [for example, a warning, or a promise], the listener has given the speaker uptake" (p. 150). Potter then imbues "giving uptake" with moral and political weight, as an explicitly voluntary, virtuous, and valuable way of relating to others. One who "gives uptake" does more than simply "listen," "understand," or respond conventionally -- Potter's giver of "uptake" really "gets it," in a way closely related to what we might call "empathy," or "taking someone seriously."

As a virtue of character, it is an interestingly relational notion, not an implausible addition to a list of contemporary virtues -- that is, traits we have reason to want in ourselves and our fellows, for moral as well as pragmatic reasons -- and not obviously reducible to other familiar virtues. Potter argues that consistent failure to give uptake is a feature of oppression, and a cause of rage and violence -- a vice. She analyzes how giving uptake can be seen as a "corrective" (Philippa Foot's notion of virtue); she also tries (with less success) to situate it as an Aristotelian mean between "silencing" others and being too deferential or indecisive, based on giving, not too much uptake, but something like in the wrong way or to the detriment of other values.

Equally important, Potter carefully explains how "[t]he virtues of trustworthiness, honesty, and giving uptake work together to assist us in maintaining reciprocal and rewarding intimate relationships" (p. 138), a closely-observed conceptual analysis and virtue theory argument that is far more valuable than the large sweeping claims made in Chapter 1. Her discussion of "giving uptake" and "silencing" is one of the strongest parts of the book. Potter's philosophically-enriched discussion of the "silencing" of women in general, women of color, victims of sexual assault, and so on, connects this novel virtue with feminist concerns in a way that is organic, natural, and necessary.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 are best described as applied professional ethics, in two rather disparate settings that implicate relations of trust and problems of broken trust: "crisis counseling" and teaching college students who are survivors of long-term incest.

Chapters 2 and 3 present a powerful, deep, and wide-ranging critique of prevailing norms and practices of crisis counseling from an ethically-informed point of view, and demonstrate skillfully how policies of "active intervention" may conflict at a deep level with respect and empathy for clients. Her philosophical analysis engages with the ideology of crisis counseling on its own terms, and provides strong arguments for those seeking to bring about change in policies that govern such counseling.

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 are also a significant contribution to the genre of "survivor literature," or better, "survivor theory," in which the distinctive experiences of persons (typically women) who have suffered various forms of abuse (typically sexual) are explored for their political or, in this case, philosophical value (rather than reductively, as symptoms or expressions of other social or psychological pathologies).

Chapter 2, "Justified Lies and Broken Trust," addresses a familiar issue in medical ethics: whether it is morally justified (or even sometimes obligatory) to lie to patients. Her "case study" is a lie she told to a suicidal caller to a crisis hotline. She offers her experience as an example of a phenomenon identified by Bernard Williams, of a "moral residue" that remains after a morally questionable action has been justified, and explores how an overemphasis on "right action" rather than character misses something significant in how we assess our conduct. The case study gives support to the virtue-theoretic claim "that questions of trustworthiness do not reduce to questions of justification for what one has done" (p. 50).

Chapter 3, "When Relations of Trust Pull Us in Different Directions," takes up another familiar problem, the moral conflict between one's obligations "up," toward an institution or profession, versus obligations "down," toward an individual client, patient, or student. Potter's virtue-theoretic focus here is on the significance of "whom one betrays and whom one stands by" (p. 74), and that such choices should be understood as constitutive of character. She explicates, quite sensitively, the numerous conflicting loyalties and relations of trust experienced by persons in "midlevel positions of power."

Chapter 4, "The Trustworthy Teacher," focuses on the college humanities teacher's role in rebuilding trust in students who are survivors of long-term, chronic incest. While her handling of this difficult pedagogical subject is sensitive and deep, like the crisis-counseling example, it seems more personal and idiosyncratic than typical. The connection between creating "a space in which it is possible for student survivors to consciously, if privately, acknowledge and have confirmed the truths of institutionalized sexual abuse and its legacy" (p. 106), and the virtue of trustworthiness, is unconvincing (though perhaps unnecessary).

This chapter includes a number of quite practical, detailed suggestions teachers can take to make the classroom a better environment for the incest survivor, from finding where it belongs in the curriculum, to educating oneself about it both sociologically and psychologically, to showing the proper sort of attention and sensitivity to students. As a matter of pedagogy, I found Potter persuasive enough that I altered my teaching of a famous case in Trusts & Estates law -- a middle-aged "spinster" apparently inexplicably becomes a radical feminist after the death of her parents, and is treated by the courts as insane -- to encourage students to draw out of the case the facts that suggest this testatrix might have experienced sexual abuse by her father.

The primary problem with the professional contexts Potter selects -- their personal, idiosyncratic, and non-representative character -- is unfortunately only aggravated by the professions she ignores -- for example, the legal profession and the clergy, in which relations of trust and trustworthiness are absolutely central to the profession and practitioners' self-understandings.

Potter's close attention to issues of trust in crisis-counseling and teaching incest survivors makes her book most useful to persons who work in those settings. For philosophers interested in the theory of the virtues, by far the most valuable part of the work is Chapter 6, with its explanation of the virtue of "giving uptake" and its careful exploration of that virtues importance in relationship and relation to other virtues and valued traits like honesty, respect, dignity, empathy, and, of course, trustworthiness. While its largest theoretical aspirations may not be met, it succeeds admirably at the more modest projects of offering a philosophically-grounded critique of crisis counseling, a meaningful pedagogical intervention for incest survivors, and an argument for "giving uptake" as a virtue -- all in less than 180 pages.

 

Diane J. Kein

 

Diane J. Klein, J.D. (UCLA School of Law), Ph.D. candidate (philosophy) (U.C. Berkeley), is Associate Professor of Law at Albany Law School, Union University, Albany, New York. Her philosophical areas of interest include virtue ethics and moral theory; her areas of legal scholarship include professional responsibility, race and gender, and trusts and estates.


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Welcome to MHN's unique book review site Metapsychology. We feature over 7700 in-depth reviews of a wide range of books and DVDs written by our reviewers from many backgrounds and perspectives. We update our front page weekly and add more than thirty new reviews each month. Our editor is Christian Perring, PhD. To contact him, use one of the forms available here.

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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716