Trust, Mistrust, and Autonomy

In Mark Alfano & David Collins (eds.), The Moral Psychology of Trust. Lexington Books. pp. 105-121 (2023)
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Is autonomy – governing yourself – compatible with letting yourself be governed by trust? This paper argues that autonomy is not only compatible with appropriate trust but actually requires it. Autonomy requires appropriate trust because it is undermined by inappropriate mistrust. An autonomous agent treats herself as answerable for her action-guiding commitments, where answerability requires openness to the rational influence of external, critical perspectives on those commitments. This openness to correction makes one vulnerable to manipulation and can be exploited in ways that undermine autonomy instead of supporting it. We argue that autonomy is undermined by inappropriate trust, and that the inappropriateness lies in the agent’s failure to manifest appropriate responsiveness to evidence of untrustworthiness in the one trusted. The problem isn’t that autonomy requires dispensing with trust but that trust must itself be governed by appropriate responsiveness to evidence of untrustworthiness. Our view confronts two challenges. One challenge lies in explaining why you shouldn’t treat your vulnerability to manipulation as a general reason to let your trusting disposition lapse into an untrusting one. We argue that there is no such general reason to let your responsiveness to evidence of untrustworthiness be supplanted by a suspicious disposition to seek and require positive evidence of trustworthiness. A second, and deeper, challenge arises from the fact that in some especially sophisticated cases of manipulation there is no evidence of untrustworthiness to which you could respond. We argue that you cannot rationally cope with even this unresolvable risk of exploited trust by trusting only yourself.

Author Profiles

Edward Hinchman
Florida State University
Andrea Westlund
Florida State University


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