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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
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
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
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
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
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.