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Can ignorance ever be an excuse?

Trust: A Very Short Introduction

By Katherine Hawley


We have developed quite a taste for chastising the mighty in public. In place of rotten fruit and stocks, we now have Leveson, Chilcot, and the parliamentary select committees which have cross-examined Bob Diamond of Barclays and Nick Buckles of G4S.

Diamond and Buckles, Tony Blair and James Murdoch: all have been asked to account for acknowledged mistakes and wrong-doing in their organisations, from rate-fixing to phone-hacking, via the mysterious dearth of both Olympic security guards and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. All have professed themselves shocked – shocked! – when the problems came to light. Murdoch notoriously does not recall crucial meetings and communications, Diamond was “physically ill” when he discovered along with the rest of us that his underlings had been fiddling the Libor, whilst for Buckles it was a “complete and utter shock” to discover only three weeks before the Olympics that his company had failed to recruit enough guards, despite signing the security contract years earlier.

Are these professions of ignorance genuine? It’s hard to be sure, though both Chilcot and Leveson have laboured to establish who knew what, and when; who saw which email or unredacted report; who attended which unminuted meeting.

It matters who knew what, and when. But does it really matter?

These are all powerful men, extravagantly well-paid (though Blair has reaped his primary financial rewards only since leaving office). Never mind whether they actually knew what was going on. It was their job to know!

At the heart of these enquiries, cross-examinations, and chastisements lies issues of trust and distrust, trustworthiness and untrustworthiness. When we trust, we take risks along two different dimensions. We trust in the sincerity and honesty of others, and we also trust in their skills, knowledge and competence. Failure along either of these dimensions is enough to trigger distrust: you cannot trust someone you take to be dishonest, but nor can you trust someone you take to be incompetent.

Just as trust has two dimensions, so does trustworthiness.  Trustworthy people are sincere, for sure.  But sincerity isn’t enough. We all have friends or colleagues who are ready to volunteer help or opinions at the drop of a hat, all with the very best intentions, yet rarely seem capable of following through on these offers, or coming up with genuinely reliable information.  Along with sincerity, trustworthy people also need the skills and knowledge to make good on their promises.

Too harsh? Trustworthiness is a prized moral virtue. Is it really achievable only by those who have developed complex skills, studied for higher degrees, or memorised the Oxford English Dictionary? No. You can be trustworthy without doing all this, so long as you have a decent idea of your own limitations, and don’t make commitments which take you wildly beyond those limitations.  Self-knowledge is crucial.

In our personal relationships, we often find it easier to forgive those who let us down through error and incompetence, than to forgive those who deliberately mislead us or make promises they have no intention of keeping. Still, we are wary of those well-meaning people who repeatedly let us down, and become reluctant to trust them, even if we are inclined to understand a little more and condemn a little less than we do with blatant liars.

But matters are different for Murdoch, Diamond and their ilk. They did not simply find themselves in charge of complex organisations; they volunteered for these jobs, knowing the demands of these roles. In offering themselves up for these positions, they took responsibility for their own trustworthiness in carrying them out: sincerity and good intentions are not enough, if competence and knowledge are missing. Again, frank self-knowledge is crucial.

Is it reasonable to expect one man to know the details of every corner of the organisation he leads? No. But it is reasonable to expect structures of reporting and review designed to bring systematic problems to the attention of those at the top. And it is reasonable to expect huge corporate salaries to buy some accountability from those who receive them. Ignorance is not an excuse.

Katherine Hawley is Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and Head of the School of Philosophical, Anthropological and Film Studies. She is the author of How Things Persist (OUP, 2001) and co-editor of Philosophy of Science Today (with Peter Clark, OUP, 2003). Her most recent work, Trust: A Very Short Introduction publishes this month.

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  1. [...] You may also like: Can Ignorance Ever Be An Excuse?  [...]

  2. Fredric Dennis Williams

    An excellent observation which might well be applied to a great many others. Obama comes to mind, but so does Romney. He is confident of his ability to do many things, but has no experience in Washington, DC, and appears to have no specific plan that can be judged by those who do.

    But looking more widely, the board of directors and the voters who select leaders might well be considered untrustworthy. Do they have the skills and knowledge necessary to the task of hiring the right person? I would say the answer is no. Boards are chosen for their name value, not their ability, and they take the positions as sinecures, not responsibilities.

    Thus it is that we have a socialized state — owners of public (“people’s”) corporations are stockholders who have little interest in who runs the business and little ability to affect the choice of its management, a large portion of the economy is financed or regulated by a government chosen by and run by many people — and the many take no responsibility — a phenomenon known as the “tragedy of the commons.”

    Finally, one might observe that one element of the current problem is that no leader can either know or control everything in an immense organization. Should the head of state be responsible for a murder committed by one of his citizens? What about deaths from a mistaken bombing by his military? Drawing the line is not so simple. Thus Ronald Reagan’s cohorts came up with “plausible deniability” — an excuse for not knowing what is going on.

  3. [...] each. London hosted the Queen’s Jubilee and the Summer Olympics, as well as the Libor scandal and Leveson Inquiry. The Arab Spring has spread across the Middle East and North Africa, but after the toppling of [...]

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