Critical Thinking Note 27: Trust and Identity

We are living through a period of deep mistrust. This is most obvious at the level of national politics where tens of millions of Americans distrust the results of our recent presidential election. But this national failure of trust is recapitulated at the level of communities and relationships as well. We have crises of distrust at BC. I personally have crises of distrust in my own family. The dynamics of trust and distrust are worth examining and I’ll take a preliminary pass at this here. In particular, I’ll look into the dynamics of trust through the lens of an analysis of identity offered by Christine Korsgaard.

Members of a religious community are likely to trust each other on the basis of a shared system of beliefs and values. These are commonly beliefs that define a system of shared values and norms of behavior. Fellow members of the religious community are then trustworthy because each knows what to expect from the others due to their shared beliefs, values and resulting norms of behavior. So, we may find a basis for trust in shared beliefs and values.

Membership in a religious community is an identity. The example of the religious community generalizes to many other identities we have; identities that, to a substantial degree, constitute who we are as individuals. To get clear on this idea, I’d dwell for a moment on what an identity is. An identity is not just some property that marks membership in a group. I am a member of the group of men who are over six foot tall. But this property of being a six foot plus male doesn’t define an identity in any interesting sense, much less so a basis for trust.

We talk a good deal about identity, but seldom lean on the notion enough to spill its contents. Christine Korsgaard, though, offers a developed account of identity that will be illuminating for our purposes here. In Self Constitution, Korsgaard proposes that an identity is a “role with a point,” defined by a package of normative standards. Identities are teleological, that is, oriented towards ends or goals. A specific identity consists of an arrangement of normative standards that guide us in how to think, act, and feel in accordance with the telos of that identity. This is not hard to illustrate in terms of, say, professional identities. The point of a doctor’s professional identity is to preserve life and heal. The ethical and procedural standards of the doctor’s profession work together in furthering the professional ends of doctors to preserve life and heal. Or more trivially, I’ll take the point of being a cyclist to be to ride fast, efficiently, and joyfully. For the sake of these ends, cyclists adopt a rather complex array of normative standards covering everything from seat height, to etiquette concerning when it’s acceptable, expected or forbidden to draft behind another rider, to how to signal your intentions to drivers, and so forth.

We can discern a practical connection to trust in the idea of an identity as a package of normative standards. Normative standards guide our actions. When we share an identity with another, we share some normative standards that can provide us with a good idea how we can expect each other to act, what intentions we are liable to endorse, and what results we will be happy with or disapproving of.

Korsgaard’s central thesis in Self Constitution, as the title would suggest, is that we constitute ourselves through the identities we adopt and the actions and attitudes that manifest these identities. A corollary of this thesis is that identities are always contingent upon our own endorsement of the associated normative standards. So, for instance, I am not really a doctor unless I endorse and guide my activity by the normative standards aimed at preserving life and healing. But then what, we should ask, about identities we are born into and can’t simply change. We are born into our race and biological sex, for instance. And surely these are identities.

Korsgaard doesn’t pursue this topic, but I have a few suggestions as to how she might. In both the case of race and gender, I think we have contested identities, cases where oppression consists in attempting to foist an identity on a person without their ascent. What I’m suggesting here is that oppression consists not just in controlling the behavior of another. That may be the fruit of oppression, but the root consists in imposing an unwanted identity on another, one that disrupts their integrity as persons. Oppressive power, of course, presents a significant obstacle to trust.

So, Blackness, in the context of anti-Black racism, gets defined in ways that are demeaning to Black people. A package of normative standards is foisted on people who would not choose them, given the option. Black identity is up to Black people. And in overcoming racism, it will be incumbent on the rest of us to recognize and honor Blackness as conceived by Black people.

The story is similar in the case of gender. Our society has long been one where certain normative standards of behavior and attitude are foisted on people purely in virtue of what sorts of reproductive organs they were born with. In this context homophobia and transphobia are tools of social control aimed at foisting cisgender behavioral norms on people regardless of their will. Movements for gay rights and transgender rights are aimed at redefining gender identities by changing their associated packages of behavioral norms in ways that respect the autonomy of individuals to constitute their own gender identities. Detaching behavioral norms in sex and love from biological endowment is central to advancing human autonomy in this realm.

So, if my suggested elaboration works, then perhaps Korsgaard provides us with a helpful way to think about identity and how identity can provide a basis for trust in particular. I can trust fellow cyclists to the degree that they adhere to the normative standards of cycling. We can trust our doctors to the degree that they adhere to the normative standards of the profession and its goal of preserving life and healing. Members of the religious community share trust on the basis of their shared belief system and the norms and values defined therein. Other identities, like racial and gender identities, are substantially more diverse, so high levels of trust may not be as easily assumed. But trust may be more easily established thanks to a shared identity, even those that encompass broad ranges of diversity. So I am taking trust as a basis for identity to provide us with sometimes a stronger and sometimes a weaker reason to trust. Reasons, in any case, that may be overridden by other considerations.

Trust in the case of personal love and friendship might seem different, but Korsgaard’s view of identity can be readily extended to models of personal love that involve identification with the beloved, as several do. Here, identification with the other is not based on membership in an identity group, it is constituted by caring about a particular whole person. When we care for another, we adopt the good of that person as a good or our own. Friends and lovers have a shared conception of the good that includes the interests, values and happiness of each other. In line with Korsgaard, friends and lovers create a shared identity through the appreciation and bestowal of value in each other.

But now for the dark side of identity. It can be part of the point of an identity to foster trust exclusively between in-group members. This is typically how cults work. It is not enough to trust the charismatic leader. Members must trust their leader to the exclusion of all outsiders. The cult community is defined by its elevation of and loyalty to the leader. This is the point of identity as a cult member. And this entails distrust of those who don’t follow the cult leader.

Slightly less extreme, the beliefs and norms that define some identities can be incomprehensible to those with other identities. A political ideology can make adherents of some other political ideologies seem incomprehensible, even evil. Trust will be hard to establish between people whose world views are so alien to each other as to make them incomprehensible. The critical ingredients for trust include some measure of mutual understanding. Traditionally, the main competing political perspectives in the US have been close cousins and grounds for shared understanding and trust have been substantial. It appears to many that prevalent political ideologies in the US have grown more extreme in recent years and room for mutual understanding has narrowed. But this could be an artifact of rhetoric that misrepresents the opposition as holding more extreme views than they do. Straw men abound in contemporary political discourse.

More generally, but still problematic, trust based on a shared identity has a natural limit in others who share that identity. Trust beyond members of the identity group must be built on some other foundation. Fortunately we have multiple identities. Where I can’t identify with another as a philosopher, I may yet find a basis for trust in our shared identities as cyclists. Our multiple and variously overlapping identities can, to varying degrees, extend networks of trust among a variety of people.

But then what about people with whom I share few if any of the sorts of specific practical identities we’ve discussed so far. Can there be some basis for trust even with people I have very little in common with? Well, at a minimum, I do share one identity with all people and that is personhood. Is this alone a basis for trust? I think so, and Korsgaard, who works in the broadly Kantian ethical tradition, would concur. I don’t need to assume any ambitious theory of human nature to get this idea off the ground. A very minimal one will do. As persons, we are all conscious, self aware, deliberative, valuers in the world. As such, we have our own will. Whether that will is free and what it might mean to have free will are further matters we needn’t settle here. Merely having a will of my own, one I can determine in accordance with my values and desires through my own deliberation, carries with it a recognition of my own importance. As conscious self aware beings, we identify with things that matter to us, and so my mattering comes along with things mattering to me. This is one way of formulating the basic Kantian insight that we have a kind of inherent moral worth that is grounded in our nature as persons. I may only have immediate awareness of my own own value as a person. But since this value attaches to personhood, mere logical consistency demands that I recognize all persons as having similar and equal moral worth.

Just this much, Kant thinks, is enough to ground his moral imperative that we must treat others as ends in themselves, never merely as means to our own ends. This can serve as a basis for trust, at least among others who recognize their own worth as persons and recognize us as fellow persons.

Regardless of what basis we have for trust, trust can be betrayed. This is not an argument for distrust. We have a basic human need for trusting relationships. But the specter of betrayed trust reminds us that that trust calls for a measure of courage. We can extend a measure of trust even when we lack strong bases for doing so. When that goes well, our basis for trust is bolstered. When things go badly, we may lose our courage and withdraw into suspicion. Trust on the basis of shared identities is just the starting point. From there we may weave the fabric of social bonds, or tear them apart.

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