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'Without Trust We Cannot Stand': Excerpts from the Reith Lectures, 2002

Baroness Onora O’Neill, Faculty of Philosophy

Republished with permission; full lectures available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2002

Confucius told his disciple Tsze-kung that three things are needed for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler can't hold on to all three, he should give up the weapons first and the food next. Trust should be guarded to the end: "without trust we cannot stand". Confucius' thought still convinces. Weapons did not help the Taliban when their foot soldiers lost trust and deserted. Food shortages need not topple governments when they and their rationing systems are trusted, as we know from WWII. 

It isn't only rulers and governments who prize and need trust. Each of us and every profession and every institution needs trust. We need it because we have to be able to rely on others acting as they say that they will, and because we need others to accept that we will act as we say we will. The sociologist Niklas Luhman was right that 'A complete absence of trust would prevent [one] even getting up in the morning.' 

The Crisis of Trust

We may need trust, but trusting often seems hard and risky. Every day we read of untrustworthy action by politicians and officials, by hospitals and exam boards, by companies and schools. We supposedly face a deepening crisis of trust. Everyday we also read of aspirations and attempts to make business and professionals, public servants and politicians more accountable in more ways to more stakeholders. But can a revolution in accountability remedy our crisis of trust? 

The experts and exponents of the crisis of trust are mainly sociologists and journalists: they've tried to find out whom we do and don't trust, in particular whom we say we do and don't trust. They have produced a lot of dispiriting evidence. Remedies are proposed on all sides: politicians and campaigning groups, academics and journalists advocate greater respect for human rights, higher standards of accountability and greater transparency. If these are really the remedies for the crisis of trust, we should surely be seeing some results by now. On the contrary, the accusations mount. 

I shall look at trust from a more philosophical but also (I hope) more practical standpoint: these (I believe) go together quite naturally. What does it take for us to place trust in others? What evidence do we need to place it well? Does the revolution in accountability support or possibly undermine trust? 

The common ground from which I begin is that we cannot have guarantees that everyone will keep trust. Elaborate measures to ensure that people keep agreements and do not betray trust must, in the end, be backed by --trust. At some point we just have to trust. There is, I think, no complete answer to the old question: 'who will guard the guardians?'. On the contrary, trust is needed precisely because all guarantees are incomplete.

Where we have guarantees or proofs, we don't need to trust. 

Since trust has to be placed without guarantees, it is inevitably sometimes misplaced: others let us down and we let others down. When this happens trust and relationships based on trust are both damaged. Trust, it is constantly observed, is hard earned and easily dissipated. It is valuable social capital and not to be squandered. 

If there are no guarantees to be had, we need to place trust with care. This can be hard. The little shepherd boy who shouted 'Wolf! Wolf!' eventually lost his sheep, but we note not before his false alarms had deceived others time and again. Deception and betrayal often work. Traitors and terrorists, embezzlers and con artists, forgers and plagiarists, false promisers and free riders cultivate then breach others' trust. They often get away with it.

We take elaborate steps to deter and prevent deception and fraud: we set and enforce high standards. Human rights requirements are imposed on the law, on institutions, on all of us. Contracts clarify and formalise agreements and undertakings with ever-greater precision. Professional codes define professional responsibilities with ever-greater accuracy. 

Huge efforts also go into ensuring trustworthy performance. Auditors scrutinise accounts (but are they trustworthy?). Examiners control and mark examinees (but are they trustworthy?). The police investigate crimes (but are they trustworthy?). Increasingly sophisticated technologies are deployed to prevent and detect breaches of trust, ranging from locks and safes, passwords and identity cards, to CCTV cameras and onto the most elaborate encryption. The efforts to prevent abuse of trust are gigantic, relentless and expensive; and inevitably their results are always less than perfect. 

Have these countermeasures begun to restore trust, or to reduce suspicion? Sociologists and journalists report few signs. They claim that we are in the grip of a deepening crisis of public trust directed even at our most familiar institutions and office-holders. Mistrust, it seems is now directed not just at those clearly in breach of law and accepted standards, not just at crooks and wide boys. Mistrust and suspicion have spread across all areas of life, and supposedly with good reason. Citizens, it is said, no longer trust governments, or politicians, or ministers, or the police, or the courts, or the prison service. Consumers, it is said, no longer trust business, especially big business, or their products. None of us, it is said, trusts banks, or insurers, or pension providers. Patients, it is said, no longer trust doctors (think of Dr Shipman!), and in particular no longer trust hospitals or hospital consultants. 'Loss of trust' is in short, a cliché of our times. 

How good is the evidence for this crisis of trust? A lot of the most systematic evidence for the UK can be found in public opinion polls and similar academic research. The pollsters ask carefully controlled cross-sections of the public whether they trust certain professions or office-holders. The questions aren't easy to answer. Most of us would want to say that we trust some but not other professionals, some but not other office-holders, in some matters but not in others. I might trust a schoolteacher to teach my child arithmetic but not citizenship. I might trust my GP to diagnose and prescribe for a sore throat, but not for a heart attack. I might trust my bank with my current account, but not with my life savings. In answering the pollsters we suppress the complexity of our real judgements, smooth out the careful distinctions we draw between different individuals and institutions, and average our judgements about their trustworthiness in different activities. 

We depend on journalists for our knowledge of the results of these polls and the levels of reported public trust. There is some irony in this, since these polls repeatedly show that no profession is less trusted in the UK than journalism. Often newspaper reports of public opinion highlight the most dramatic statistic, typically the one that suggests the most extreme distrust. They seldom comment on the ambiguities of the questions or the categories, or linger on cases where trust is average or above average or high. 

Active Trust

The polls supposedly show that in the UK public trust in office-holders and professionals of many sorts is low and declining. They certainly reveal a mood of suspicion. But do they show anything more? Are the opinions we divulge to pollsters backed up by the ways in which we actively place our trust in others, and specifically by the way that we place it, or refuse to place it, in public servants, or professionals and institutions? 

Much of the evidence of the way we actively place our trust seems to me to point in quite different directions. We constantly place trust in others, in members of professions and in institutions. Nearly all of us drink water provided by water companies and eat food sold in supermarkets and produced by ordinary farming practices. Nearly all of us use the roads (and, even more rationally, the trains!). Even if we have some misgivings, we go on placing trust in medicines produced by the pharmaceutical industry, in operations performed in NHS hospitals, in the delivery of letters by the post office, and in roads that we share with many notably imperfect drivers. We constantly place active trust in many others. 

Does action speak louder than words? Are the ways we actually place our trust a more accurate gauge of trust than our comments to pollsters? If we were really as mistrusting as some of us tell the pollsters, would we behave like this? We might do so if we had no options. Perhaps the fact of the matter is that we simply have to rely on institutions and persons although we don't really trust them. In many of these examples, it may seem, we have little choice. How can we avoid tap water, even if we mistrust the water companies, since it is the only ready source of supply? How can we avoid conventional medicines, even if we mistrust the pharmaceutical industry, since there are no effective and available alternatives? 

But are these thoughts really convincing? Those who seriously mistrust producers and suppliers of consumer goods can and do refuse to rely on them. Those who really mistrust the tap water drink bottled water, or boil it, or use water purification tablets: where water supplies are seriously questionable people do so. Those who really mistrust the pharmaceutical industry and its products can refuse them and choose to rely on alternative, more natural, remedies and some people do so, but not many. Those who really mistrust the standards of food safety of conventional agriculture, food processing, shops and restaurants can eat organically grown food: it may cost more, but is less expensive than convenience foods and eating out. Where people have options we can tell whether they really mistrust by seeing whether they put their money where they put their mouths. The evidence suggests that we still constantly place trust in many of the institutions and professions that we profess to not to trust. 

Evidence for trust or mistrust is less clear when opting out is hard or impossible. There is no way of opting out of public goods-or public harms. It seems to me that where people have no choice, their action provides poor evidence that they trust-and poor evidence that they mistrust. 

Where we have no choice, the only evidence of mistrust is what people say. But we know from cases where they have choice that this can be unreliable evidence. If what we say is unreliable evidence when we have choices, why should we think it reliable evidence when we have no choices? Expressions of mistrust that are divorced from action come cheap: we can assert and rescind, flaunt or change, defend or drop attitudes and expressions of mistrust without changing the way we live. This may show something about indeed rather a lot attitudes of suspicion, but little or nothing about where we actually place our trust. 
 

Is trust failing?

A standard account of the supposed 'crisis of public trust' is that the public rightly no longer trusts professionals and public servants because they are less trustworthy. But is this true? A look at past news reports would show that there has always been some failure and some abuse of trust; other cases may never have seen the light of day. Since we never know how much untrustworthy action is undetected, we can hardly generalise. Growing mistrust would be a reasonable response to growing untrustworthiness: but the evidence that people or institutions are less trustworthy is elusive. 

In fact I think there isn't even very good evidence that we trust less. There is good evidence that we say we trust less: we tell the pollsters, they tell the media, and the news that we say we do not trust is then put into circulation. But saying repeatedly that we don't trust no more shows that we trust less, than an echo shows the truth of the echoed words; still less does it show that others are less trustworthy. 

Could our actions provide better evidence than our words and show that we do indeed trust less than we used to? Curiously I think that our action often provides evidence that we still trust. We may say we don't trust hospital consultants, and yet apparently we want operations -- and we are pretty cross if they get delayed. We may say that we don't trust the police, but then we call them when trouble threatens. We may say that we don't trust scientists and engineers, but then we rely on hi-tech clinical tests and medical devices. The supposed 'crisis of trust' may be more a matter of what we tell inquisitive pollsters than of any active refusal of trust, let alone of conclusive evidence of reduced trustworthiness. The supposed 'crisis of trust' is, I think, first and foremost a culture of suspicion. 

More Perfect Accountability? 

The diagnosis of a crisis of trust may be obscure: we are not sure whether there is a crisis of trust. But we are all agreed about the remedy. It lies in prevention and sanctions. Government, institutions and professionals should be made more accountable. And in the last two decades, the quest for greater accountability has penetrated all our lives, like great draughts of Heineken's, reaching parts that supposedly less developed forms of accountability did not reach. 

For those of us in the public sector the new accountability takes the form of detailed control. An unending stream of new legislation and regulation, memoranda and instructions, guidance and advice floods into public sector institutions. Central planning may have failed in the former Soviet Union but it is alive and well in Britain today. The new accountability culture aims at ever more perfect administrative control of institutional and professional life. 

The new legislation, regulation and controls are more than fine rhetoric. They require detailed conformity to procedures and protocols, detailed record keeping and provision of information in specified formats and success in reaching targets. Detailed instructions regulate and prescribe the work and performance of health trusts and schools, of universities and research councils, of the police force and of social workers. And beyond the public sector, increasingly detailed legislative and regulatory requirements also bear on companies and the voluntary sector, on self-employed professionals and tradesmen. All institutions face new standards of recommended accounting practice, more detailed health and safety requirements, increasingly complex employment and pensions legislation, more exacting provisions for ensuring non-discrimination and, of course, proliferating complaint procedures. 

The new accountability has quite sharp teeth. Performance is monitored and subjected to quality control and quality assurance. The idea of audit has been exported from its original financial context to cover ever more detailed scrutiny of non-financial processes and systems. Performance indicators are used to measure adequate and inadequate performance with supposed precision. This audit explosion, as Michael Power has so aptly called it, has often displaced or marginalised older systems of accountability. In the universities external examiners lost influence as centrally planned teaching quality assessment was imposed; in the health services professional judgement is constrained in many ways; in schools curriculum and assessment of pupils is controlled in pretty minute detail. Schools, hospitals and universities are then all judged and funded by their rankings in league tables of performance indicators. 

Managerial accountability for achieving targets is also imposed on institutions although they are given little institutional freedom. Hospital Trusts may be self-governing, but they do not choose which patients to admit or what standards of care to provide. School governors and head teachers have few discretionary powers: they may not select their pupils or expel those whose exam performance will damage their rankings. Universities are supposedly still autonomous, but they have little choice but to cut or close departments with lower research ratings who lose their funding. We are supposedly on the high road towards ever more perfect accountability. Well, I wonder. 
 

Accountability and Mistrust

Have these instruments for control, regulation, monitoring and enforcement worked? Their effects are certainly pretty evident in the daily lives of conscientious professionals and administrators. Professionals have to work to ever more exacting-if changing-standards of good practice and due process, to meet relentless demands to record and report, and they are subject to regular ranking and restructuring. I think that many public sector professionals find that the new demands damage their real work. Teachers aim to teach their pupils; nurses to care for their patients; university lecturers to do research and to teach; police officers to deter and apprehend those whose activities harm the community; social workers to help those whose lives are for various reasons unmanageable or very difficult. Each profession has its proper aim, and this aim is not reducible to meeting set targets following prescribed procedures and requirements. 

If the new methods and requirements supported and didn't obstruct the real purposes of each of these professions and institutions, the accountability revolution might achieve its aims. Unfortunately I think it often obstructs the proper aims of professional practice. Police procedures for preparing cases are so demanding that fewer cases can be prepared, and fewer criminals brought to court. Doctors speak of the inroads that required record-keeping makes into the time that they can spend finding out what is wrong with their patients and listening to their patients. Even children are not exempt from the new accountability: exams are more frequent and time for learning shrinks. We are heading towards defensive medicine, defensive teaching and defensive policing. 

The new accountability is widely experienced not just as changing but I think as distorting the proper aims of professional practice and indeed as damaging professional pride and integrity. Much professional practice used to centre on interaction with those whom professionals serve: patients and pupils, students and families in need. Now there is less time to do this because everyone has to record the details of what they do and compile the evidence to protect themselves against the possibility not only of plausible, but of far-fetched complaints. Professionals and public servants understandably end up responding to requirements and targets and not only to those whom they are supposed to serve. 

But I'd like to suggest that the revolution in accountability be judged by the standards that it proposes. If it is working we might expect to see indications -- performance indicators!-- that public trust is reviving. But we don't. In the very years in which the accountability revolution has made striking advances, in which increased demands for control and performance, scrutiny and audit have been imposed, and in which the performance of professionals and institutions has been more and more controlled, we find in fact growing reports of mistrust. In my view these expressions of mistrust suggest that just possibly we are imposing the wrong sorts of accountability. The new systems of control may have aims and effects that are quite distinct from the higher standards of performance, monitoring and accountability that are their ostensible, publicly celebrated aims. We can see this by asking to whom the new audit culture makes professionals and institutions accountable, and for what it makes them accountable. 

In theory the new culture of accountability and audit makes professionals and institutions more accountable to the public. This is supposedly done by publishing targets and levels of attainment in league tables, and by establishing complaint procedures by which members of the public can seek redress for any professional or institutional failures. But underlying this ostensible aim of accountability to the public the real requirements are for accountability to regulators, to departments of government, to funders, to legal standards. The new forms of accountability impose forms of central control-quite often indeed a range of different and mutually inconsistent forms of central control. 

Some of the new modes of public accountability are in fact internally incoherent. Some of them set targets that cannot be combined without fudging: for example, universities are soon to be told to admit 50% of the age group, but also to maintain current standards. Others are incoherent because they require that targets be achieved by following processes that do not dovetail with targets and can't be made to dovetail with those targets. Again, universities are to treat each applicant fairly on the basis of ability and promise: but they are supposed also to admit a socially more representative intake. There's no guarantee that the process meets the target. Hospitals are to treat each patient on a basis of need and prioritise emergencies, but they are going to be criticised if they postpone non-urgent operations. That might be legitimate grounds for criticism if they could build in spare capacity and do the non-urgent as well as the urgent operations. But the NHS has been made tightly efficient in its use of resources, so it cannot build in spare capacity on the necessary scale. Incompatible or barely compatible requirements invite compromises and evasions; they undermine both professional judgement and institutional autonomy. 

In theory again the new culture of accountability and audit makes professionals and institutions more accountable for good performance. This is manifest in the rhetoric of improvement and rising standards, of efficiency gains and best practice, of respect for patients and pupils and employees. But beneath this admirable rhetoric the real focus is on performance indicators chosen for ease of measurement and control rather than because they measure accurately what the quality of performance is. Most people working in the public service have a reasonable sense not only of the specific clinical, educational, policing or other goals for which they work, but also of central ethical standards that must meet. They know that these complex sets of goals may have to be relegated if they are required to run in a race to improve performance indicators. Even those who devise the indicators know that they are at very best surrogates for the real objectives. Nobody after all seriously thinks that numbers of exam pass levels are the only evidence of good teaching, or that crime clear up rates the only evidence of good policing. Some exams are easier, others are harder, some crimes are easier to clear up, others are harder. However the performance indicators have a deep effect on professional and institutional behaviour. If a certain 'A' level board offers easier examinations in a subject, schools have reason to choose that syllabus even if it is educationally inferior. If waiting lists can be reduced faster by concentrating on certain medical procedures, hospitals have reason so to do, even if medical priorities differ. Perverse incentives are real incentives. I think we all know that from our daily lives. Much of the mistrust and criticism now directed at professionals and public institutions complains about their diligence in responding to incentives to which they have been required to respond rather than pursuing the intrinsic requirements for being good nurses and teachers, good doctors and police officers, good lecturers and social workers. But what else are they do under present regimes of accountability? 

In the end, the new culture of accountability provides incentives for arbitrary and unprofessional choices. Lecturers may publish prematurely because their department's research rating and its funding requires it. Schools may promote certain subjects in which it is easier to get 'As' in public examinations in those subjects. Hospital trusts have to focus on waiting lists even where these are not the most significant measures of medical quality. To add to their grief, the Sisyphean task of pushing institutional performance up the league tables is made harder by constantly redefining and adding targets and introducing initiatives, and of course with no account taken of the costs of competing for initiative funding. 

In the New World of accountability, conscientious professionals often find that the public claim to mistrust them-but the public still demand their services. Claims of mistrust are poor reward for meeting requirements that allegedly embody higher standards of public accountability. In ancient Troy the prophetess Cassandra told the truth, but she wasn't believed. Like Cassandra, professionals and institutions doing trustworthy work today may find that the public say that they do not trust them-- but (unlike Cassandra) their services are still demanded. The pursuit of ever more perfect accountability provides citizens and consumers, patients and parents with more information, more comparisons more complaints systems; but it also builds a culture of suspicion, low morale and may ultimately lead to professional cynicism, and then we would have grounds for public mistrust. 
 

Real Accountability?

Perhaps the present revolution in accountability will make us all trustworthier. Perhaps we shall be trusted once again. But I think that this is a vain hope -- not because accountability is undesirable or unnecessary, but because currently fashionable methods of accountability damage rather than repair trust. If we want greater accountability without damaging professional performance we need intelligent accountability. What might this include? 

Let me share my sense of some of the possibilities. Intelligent accountability, I suspect, requires more attention to good governance and fewer fantasies about total control. Good governance is possible only if institutions are allowed some margin for self-governance of a form appropriate to their particular tasks, within a framework of financial and other reporting. Such reporting, I believe, is not improved by being wholly standardised or relentlessly detailed, and since much that has to be accounted for is not easily measured it cannot be boiled down to a set of stock performance indicators. Those who are called to account should give an account of what they have done and of their successes or failures to others who have sufficient time and experience to assess the evidence and report on it. Real accountability provides substantive and knowledgeable independent judgement of an institution's or professional's work. 

Serious and effective accountability, I believe, needs to concentrate on good governance, on obligations to tell the truth and needs to seek intelligent accountability. I think it has to fantasise much less about Herculean micro-management by means of performance indicators or total transparency. If we want a culture of public service, professionals and public servants must in the end be free to serve the public rather than their paymasters. 

Trust and Information

Socrates did not want his words to go fatherless into the world, transcribed onto tablets or into books that could circulate without their author, to travel beyond the reach of discussion and questions, revision and authentication. So he talked and chatted and argued with others on the streets of Athens, but he wrote and published nothing. (Plato disregarded his teacher's worry and published Socrates' thoughts and conversations anyhow - to our benefit). The problems to which Socrates pointed are acute in an age of recirculated 'news', public relations, global gossip and Internet publication. How can we tell which claims and counterclaims, reports and supposed facts are trustworthy when so much information swirls around us. It is hard to distinguish rumour from report, fact from fiction, reliable source from disinformant, truth-teller from deceiver? 

A crisis of trust cannot be overcome by a blind rush to place more trust. Our ambition is not to place trust blindly, as small children do, but with good judgement. In judging whether to place our trust in others' words or undertakings, or to refuse that trust, we need information and we need the means to judge that information. To place trust reasonably we need to discover not only which claims or undertakings we are invited to trust, but what we might reasonably think about them. 

Reasonably placed trust requires not only information about the proposals or undertakings that others put forward, but also information about those who put them forward. Gullible people who put their trust eagerly in blind dates, or pyramid selling schemes, or snake oil merchants and other unlikely purveyors of sure-fire magic do so on the basis of patently inadequate evidence about those who make the proposals they accept; they get our pity or derision but hardly our sympathy. We reserve that sympathy for people who cannot judge those who deceived them. If we are to place trust with assurance we need to know what we are asked be believe or accept, and who is soliciting our trust. Here, it may seem, we are in plenty of luck. 

There has never been more abundant information about the individuals and institutions whose claims we have to judge. Openness and transparency are now possible on a scale of which past ages could barely dream. We are flooded with information about government departments and government policies, about public opinion and public debate, about school, hospital and university league tables. We can read facts and figures that supposedly demonstrate financial and professional accountability, cascades of rebarbative semi-technical detail about products and services on the market, and lavish quantities of information about the companies that produce them. At the click of a mouse those with insatiable appetites for information can find out who runs major institutions, look at the home pages and research records of individual scientists, inspect the grants policies of research councils and major charities, down-load the annual reports and the least thrilling press releases of countless minor public, professional and charitable organisations, not to mention peruse the agenda and the minutes of increasing numbers of public bodies. It seems no information about institutions and professions is too boring or too routine to remain unpublished. So if making more information about more public policies, institutions and professionals more widely and freely available is the key to building trust, we must be well on the high road towards an ever more trusting society. 

This high road is built on new technologies that are ideal for achieving transparency and openness. It has become cheap and easy to spread information, indeed extraordinarily hard to prevent its spread. Secrecy was technically feasible in the days of words on paper. But it is undermined by easy, instantaneous, multiple replication-and endless possibilities for subtle or less-than-subtle revision. We may still speak quaintly of 'leaks' of sensitive information, as if information could be sealed in watertight compartments and archives. But in fact we live amid electronic networks through which information travels with ease, at almost no cost in time, skill or money. Special regimes for data protection and for penalising breaches of commercial or other specific sorts of confidentiality are needed to retain even limited areas of secrecy. Openness or transparency is now all too easy: if they can produce or restore trust, trust should surely be within our grasp. 

Yet this high enthusiasm forever more complete openness and transparency has done little to build or restore public trust. On the contrary, trust seemingly has receded as transparency has advanced. Perhaps on reflection we should not be wholly surprised. It is quite clear that the very technologies that spread information so easily and efficiently are every bit as good at spreading misinformation and disinformation. Some sorts of openness and transparency may be bad for trust. 

In fact, our clearest images of trust do not link it to with openness or transparency at all. Family life is often based on high and reciprocal trust, but close relatives do not always burden one another with full disclosure of their financial or professional dealings, let alone with comprehensive information about their love lives or health problems; and they certainly do not disclose family information promiscuously to all the world. Similarly, in trusting doctor-patient relationships (that's the sort we supposedly no longer enjoy) medically relevant information was disclosed under conditions of confidence. Mutual respect precludes rather than requires across-the-board openness between doctor and patient, and disclosure of confidential information beyond the relationship is wholly unacceptable. I may trust my friends, colleagues and neighbours whole-heartedly, without any wish, or need, to know everything about their private lives - or to have them know everything about mine. 

Perhaps it is not then surprising that public distrust has grown in the very years in which openness and transparency have been so avidly pursued. Transparency certainly destroys secrecy: but it may not limit the deception and deliberate misinformation that undermine relations of trust. If we want to restore trust we need to reduce deception and lies rather than secrecy. Some sorts of secrecy indeed support deception, others do not. Transparency and openness may not be the unconditional goods that they are fashionably supposed to be. By the same token, secrecy and lack of transparency may not be the enemies of trust. 
 

Deception and Misinformation 

I think that deception is the real enemy of trust. Deception is not just a matter of getting things wrong. It can be pretty irritating to be misled by somebody's honest mistake, but it is not nearly as bad as being their dupe. The passer-by who in all honesty provides a stranger with inaccurate directions for reaching a destination or the club secretary who in all honesty sends out notices for a meeting on the wrong date are not deceivers. Nor, irritating as they may be, are those who in all honesty undertake to perform tasks that are beyond their competence. Deceivers by contrast mislead intentionally, and it is because their falsehood is deliberate, and because it implies a deliberate intention to undermine, damage or distort others' plans and their capacities to act, that it damages trust and future relationships. 

Deception is not a minor or a marginal moral failure. Deceivers do not treat others as moral equals; they exempt themselves from obligations that they rely on others to live up to. Deception lies at the heart of many serious crimes, including fraud and embezzlement, impersonation and obtaining goods by false pretences, forgery and counterfeiting, perjury and spying, smuggling and false accounting, slander and libel. Deception is also part of nearly all theft and most crimes of violence and coercion: burglars enter houses surreptitiously; spies and terrorists establish bogus credentials, live under assumed names, conduct spurious businesses and form deceptive friendships; murderers often lull their victims into false security and lure them to their deaths. Deceptions may amount to treachery or betrayal. Soviet historians lyingly misrepresented the massacre of Polish officers at Katyn as a German rather than a Soviet war crime; Judas Iscariot falsely played the part of the faithful disciple; Macbeth falsely acted the part of Duncan's faithful vassal. Wolves who wear sheep's (or grandmothers') clothing are not just making mistakes. Nor are card cheats and plagiarists, those who promote false history or scientific fraud, those who write false references for friends (or for colleagues whom they want to shed) or those who corruptly swing contracts, jobs or other favours in the direction of their cronies. Nor are those who hide their conflicts of interest, who promise commitments they have no intention of honouring, or who two-time their partners. 

If we want to increase trust we need to avoid deception rather than secrecy. Although some ways of increasing transparency may indirectly reduce deception, many do not. Unless there has been prior deception, transparency does nothing to reduce deception; and even if there has been deception, openness is not a sure-fire remedy. Increasing transparency can produce a flood of unsorted information and misinformation that provides little but confusion unless it can be sorted and assessed. It may add to uncertainty rather than to trust. And unless the individuals and institutions who sort, process and assess information are themselves already trusted, there is little reason to think that transparency and openness are going to increase trust. Transparency can encourage people to be less honest, so increasing deception and reducing reasons for trust: those who know that everything they say or write is to be made public may massage the truth. Public reports may underplay sensitive information; head teachers and employers may write blandly uninformative reports and references; evasive and uninformative statements may substitute for truth-telling.

There are deeper and more systematic reasons for thinking that transparency damages trust. We can only judge whether there is deception, hence reason not to place trust, when we can tell whether we have been fed deliberate falsehoods. But how can we do this when we cannot even tell who has asserted, compiled or endorsed the supposed information? In a world in which information and misinformation are 'generated', in which good drafting is a vanishing art, in which so-called information 'products' can be transmitted, reformatted and adjusted, embroidered and elaborated, shaped and spun, repeated and respun, it can be quite hard to assess truth or falsehood. 

Paradoxically then, in the new information order, those who choose to make up information or to pass it on without checking its accuracy, have rather an easy time. Positions are often maintained in the face of widely available and well-authenticated contrary evidence. Supposed sources proliferate, leaving many of us unsure where and whether there is adequate evidence for or against contested claims. In spite of ample sources we may be left uncertain about the supposed evidence that certain drugs are risky, or that fluoride in the water harms, or that standards for environmental pollutants in water or air have been set too high (or too low or at the right level), that professional training of doctors or teachers are adequate or inadequate, that waste disposal by incineration or by landfill is safer. Proponents of views on these and countless other points may not heed available evidence and can mount loud and assertive campaigns for or against one or another position whether the available evidence goes for or against their views. As the quantity of (mis)information available rises, as the number of bodies with self-conferred credentials and missions and active publicity machines increases, as the difficulty of knowing whether a well-publicised claim is a credible claim increases, it is simply harder to place trust reasonably. Milton asked rhetorically "Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?". Today the very prospect of a 'free and open encounter' is drowning in the supposedly transparent world of the new information order. 

Information and Informed Consent 

Global transparency and complete openness are not the best ways to build or restore trust. We place and refuse trust not because we have torrents of information (more is not always better), but because we can trace specific bits of information and specific undertakings to particular sources on whose veracity and reliability we can run some checks. Well-placed trust grows out of active inquiry rather than blind acceptance. In traditional relations of trust, active inquiry was usually extended over time by talking and asking questions, by listening and seeing how well claims to know and undertakings to act held up. That was the world in which Socrates placed his trust-and his reservations about publishing. Where we can check the information we receive, and when we can go back to those who put it into circulation, we may gain confidence about placing or refusing trust. 

But where we can do nothing to check or investigate sources of information and their credentials we often, and reasonably, withhold trust and suspend both belief and disbelief in favour of cynicism and half-belief. We may end up claiming not to trust, and yet for practical purposes place trust in the very sources we claim not to trust. Where possibilities for checking and questioning supposed information are fragmented, trust too may fragment. Even if we do not end up with a crisis of trust we end up with a culture of suspicion. 

So if we want a society in which placing trust is feasible we need to look for ways in which we can actively check one another's claims. Active checking has to be more than a matter of checking that many sources of information concur: reading extra copies of a newspaper or extra newspapers lends no extra credibility. Nor can active checking reduce to citing sources such as well-frequented or favourite websites and channels: arguments from authority, to use the old term, however deliciously congruent with favourite beliefs, establish nothing. In an information order in which 'sources' borrow promiscuously from one another, in which statistics are cited and regurgitated because they look striking or convenient for those pursuing some agenda, in which rumour can readily be reprocessed as news, active checking of information is pretty hard for many of us. Unqualified trust is then understandably rather scarce. 

Ought we then to conclude that unqualified trust belongs only in face-to-face relationships, where information is provided directly by people we know, whom we can question and monitor? Certainly direct relationships between individuals-intimate or not-can be good for establishing trust, but they are not enough. We need to place or refuse trust far more widely. 

We can place trust beyond face-to-face relationships when we can check the information and undertakings others offer. This is after all the function of informed consent requirements, where consent is given or refused in the light of information that should be checkable. Informed consent procedures have a place all the way from choosing socks to choosing university courses, from getting an inoculation to getting married, from choosing a video to choosing a career. Of course, even if all informed consent were given in the light of good and trustworthy information, those who consent can get things wrong. They may choose flimsy socks and boring videos, they may marry philanderers and embark on university courses with which they cannot cope. There are no guarantees. But informed consent can provide a basis for trust provided that those who are to consent are not offered a flood of uncheckable information, but rather information whose accuracy they can check and assess for themselves. This is demanding. 

Capacities for testing others' credibility and reliability often fail and falter. Sometimes they falter because the information provided is too arcane and obscure. But sometimes they fail because those asked to consent cannot check and test the information they are offered, so can't work out whether they are being deceived, or whether they can reasonably place their trust. So Socrates' misgivings are not obsolete today. It is very easy to imagine that in a world in which information travels like quicksilver, trust can do the same. It cannot. Placing trust is, I suggest, as demanding today as ever it was in Athens. 

A brief exchange of words, a few questions, a short meeting and we begin to place some trust, which we then revise, extend or reduce as we observe and check performance. But how are we to test strangers and institutions? How can we judge claims and undertakings when we can't talk with others, or observe them, let alone send them on lengthy quests? How can we tell that they are not deceiving us? 

Perhaps we are in luck. We live in an age of communication technologies. It should be easier than it used to be to check out strangers and institutions, to test credentials, to authenticate sources, and to place trust with discrimination. But unfortunately many of the new ways of communicating don't offer adequate, let alone easy, ways of doing so. The new information technologies are ideal for spreading reliable information, but they dislocate our ordinary ways of judging one another's claims and deciding where to place our trust. 

Socrates worried about the written word, because it travelled beyond the possibility of question and revision, and so beyond trust. We may reasonably worry not only about the written word, but also about broadcast speech, film and television. These technologies are designed for one-way communication with minimal interaction. Those who control and use them may or may not be trustworthy. How are we to check what they tell us? 

 

Informed Consent and Trust 

Informed consent is one hallmark of trust between strangers. For example, when I understand a pension plan, a mortgage, or complex medical procedures, and am free to choose or refuse, I express my trust by giving informed consent. We give informed consent in face-to-face transactions too, though we barely notice it. We buy apples in the market, we exchange addresses with acquaintances, we sit down for a haircut. It sounds pompous to speak of these daily transactions as based on informed consent: yet in each we assume that the other party is neither deceiving nor coercing. We withdraw our trust very fast if we are sold rotten apples, or deliberately given a false address, or forcibly subjected to a Mohican haircut. So everyday trust is utterly undermined by coercion and deception. 

Informed consent is supposed to guarantee individual autonomy or independence. But I think this popular thought is pretty obscure, because so many views of autonomy are in play. Some people identify individual autonomy with spontaneous choosing.  Other people identify individual autonomy not with spontaneous, but with deliberate choosing. But deliberate choosing doesn't guarantee that much either. The real importance of informed consent, I think, has little to do with how we choose. Informed consent is every bit as important when we make conventional and timid choices, or thoughtless and unreflective choices, as it is when we choose deliberately and independently. Informed consent matters simply because it shows that a transaction was not based on deception or coercion. 

Informed consent is therefore always important, but it isn't the basis of trust. On the contrary, it presupposes and expresses trust, which we must already place to assess the information we're given. Should I have a proposed operation? Should I buy this car or that computer? Is this Internet bargain genuine? In each case I need to assess what is offered, but may be unable to judge the information for myself. Others' expert judgement may fill the gap: I may rely on the surgeon who explains the operation, or on a colleague who knows about cars or computers or Internet shopping. But in relying on others I already place trust in my adviser: as Francis Bacon noted, "the greatest trust between man and man is the trust of giving counsel" 1. When we draw on friendly-- or on expert-- help we ultimately have to judge for ourselves where to place our trust. To do this we need to find trustworthy information. This can be dauntingly hard in a world of one-way communication. 
 

Trust and the Media 

Today information is abundant, but it's often mixed with misinformation and a little spice of disinformation. It can be hard to check and test what we read and hear. There are easy cases: we can check weather forecasts for their accuracy by waiting for tomorrow; we can rumble supermarkets that don't sell goods at advertised prices. But there are hard cases: how can parents judge whether to have a child vaccinated or to refuse a vaccination? How can we tell whether a product or a service will live up to its billing? Yet for daily and practical purposes we need to place our trust in some strangers and some institutions, and to refuse it to others. How can we do this well? 

We know what we need. We need ways of telling trustworthy from untrustworthy informants. And we have tried to make this possible by promoting a revolution in accountability and requirements for transparency in public life. I have argued in previous lectures that we need more intelligent forms of accountability, and that we need to focus less on grandiose ideals of transparency and rather more on limiting deception. Do we really gain from heavy-handed forms of accountability? Do we really benefit from indiscriminate demands for transparency? I am unconvinced. I think we may undermine professional performance and standards in public life by excessive regulation, and that we may condone and even encourage deception in our zeal for transparency. 

Meanwhile, some powerful institutions and professions have managed to avoid not only the excessive but the sensible aspects of the revolutions in accountability and transparency. Most evidently, the media, in particular the print media-while deeply preoccupied with others' untrustworthiness-have escaped demands for accountability (that is, apart from the financial disciplines set by company law and accounting practices). This is less true of the terrestrial broadcasting media, which are subject to legislation and regulation.

Newspaper editors and journalists are not held accountable in these ways. Outstanding reporting and accurate writing mingle with editing and reporting that smears, sneers and jeers, names, shames and blames. Some reporting 'covers' (or should I say 'uncovers'?) dementing amounts of trivia, some misrepresents, some denigrates, some teeters on the brink of defamation. In this curious world, commitments to trustworthy reporting are erratic: there is no shame in writing on matters beyond a reporter's competence, in coining misleading headlines, in omitting matters of public interest or importance, or in recirculating others' speculations as supposed 'news'. Above all there is no requirement to make evidence accessible to readers. 

For all of us who have to place trust with care in a complex world, reporting that we cannot assess is a disaster. If we can't trust what the press report, how can we tell whether to trust those on whom they report? An erratically reliable or unassessable press might not matter for privileged people with other sources of information. They can tell which stories are near the mark and which are confused, vicious or simply false; but for most citizens it matters. How can we tell whether newspapers, web sites and publications that claim to be 'independent' are not, in fact, promoting some agenda? How can we tell whether and when we are on the receiving end of hype and spin, of misinformation and disinformation? There is plenty of more or less accurate reporting, but this is very small comfort if readers who can't tell which are the reliable bits. What we need is reporting that we can assess and check: what we get often can't be assessed or checked by non-experts. If the media mislead, or if readers cannot assess their reporting, the wells of public discourse and public life are poisoned. The new information technologies may be anti-authoritarian, but curiously they are often used in ways that are also anti-democratic. They undermine our capacities to judge others' claims and to place our trust. 

Less about trust, more about trustworthiness

We say that we want to end the supposed crisis of public trust, and we've tried to do so in part by making many professions and institutions more accountable so that they are trustworthier. In these lectures I have queried both diagnosis and remedy. We may constantly express suspicion, but it is not at all clear to me that we have stopped placing our trust in others: indeed that may be an impossible form of life. We may constantly seek to make others trustworthy, but some of the regimes of accountability and transparency developed across the last 15 years may damage rather than reinforce trustworthiness. The intrusive methods that we have taken to stem a supposed crisis of trust may even, if things go badly, lead to a genuine crisis of trust. 

If we want to avoid this unfortunate spiral we need to think less about accountability through micro-management and central control, and more about good governance, less about transparency and more about limiting deception.

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