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On Trusting: is it naïve or wise to trust?

Trusting can be a balancing act.

Trusting in others, in institutions and even in oneself can be scary. Trusting necessarily involves opening ourselves up to being vulnerable and possibly tricked. However, it is better to trust than to be cynical. Trust is an important quality, a virtue even, that we should aim at cultivating.

While we would not want to trust someone against our better judgement, trusting is necessary for society to work well and for people to feel safe and secure in their community. This means that we should practice being trustworthy as well as trusting others.

What is Trust?

Although the meaning of the word ‘trust’ is often assumed, trust is a difficult quality to define. A good example of this may be in your own personal experience. People have different expectations of a relationship, and when these are not met a feeling of betrayal may result. The other party may or may not agree that they have let you down. This indicates that trust is a relational attitude. An important aspect of the concept is determining when trust is warranted or justified.

In their 2003 book Building Trust, Robert Solomon and Fernando Flores ask:

Why talk about trust? Not only because trust has long been neglected as an essential philosophical and ethical concept, but also because talking about trust is essential to building trust. Even if talking about trust can be awkward or uncomfortable, it is only by talking about trust, and trusting, that trust can be created, maintained and restored.

We have all heard people say after having being hurt, “I’ll never trust anyone ever again!” This passionate declaration is often understandable if one has felt betrayed. Yet we often want to tell that person that this feeling will alter and they will, we hope, be able to trust again.

Imagine what life would be like if we never trusted anyone. We are social creatures and need to trust others in order to be able to walk down the street or drive a car while feeling safe and secure. We also need to trust institutions such as the bank where I place my money and the restaurant from which I purchase food to eat. Simply put, I need to trust in order to live my life without being a self-sufficient hermit.

Being Trustworthy

We may ask whether being trustworthy is simply a matter of fulfilling one’s obligations. Russell Hardin is a theorist who uses a social contract theory to define trusting as a rational process whereby we trust those with strong reasons to act in our interest. This means that if the trustee is committed to the social contract, then trust in them has been warranted.

On this social contract view, if the postal system delivers my mail then I am justified in trusting in it. Likewise, if my friend does what they say they will, then they too have been trustworthy.

Yet Hardin’s social contract account of trust seems to miss out the nuanced and emotional aspect of trust. Annette Baier rightly points out that when my trust is let down I rightly feel betrayed, not just disappointed.

For example, if my alarm clock doesn’t work I may be disappointed (and late to work). However, if a friend fails to show up to meet me when we make a social arrangement, I feel differently. I may feel let down or even betrayed by this person, which I don’t feel about an inanimate object. What also becomes important to me is the intention my friend may have had for standing me up.

There seems to be a personal or emotional aspect to trust. An explanation of trust as meeting commitments doesn’t fully account for why trustworthiness is a sensitive topic. Ultimately, if we rely on others but do not ever feel betrayed when they let us down, then we haven’t trusted them in the first place.

Trust can be a delicate virtue.

Trust in today’s society

Based on research done by social scientist Robert Putnam, it appears that fewer and fewer people think that others can be trusted. In the 1960s in the USA, 55% thought that you could trust others, yet by 1999 that figure had dropped to 34%. Putnam attributes some of this declining trust to media sources such as the 24 hour news cycle that generates fear and feelings of mistrust.

Despite the evidence that we trust people less today than ever before, there is reason to be optimistic.

Pamela Paxton and Jeremy Adam Smith explain that we can build trust in various ways and this leads to an increase in happiness. For instance, social interactions at work as well as in the community help to generate a feeling of belonging and wellbeing.

Policies that can facilitate feelings of trust within societies include those that protect the rights of minorities. By encouraging democratic rights, various voices are heard and respected. This corresponds to increased unity within multicultural countries, resulting in happier and more trusting citizens.

In their 2012 article, Nishikawa and Stolle note that role modelling done by parents has a big impact on general attitudes of offspring. They highlight the need to raise children to be trusting citizens. This is because, “trust is one of the most fundamental prosocial attitudes that is believed to be developed early in one’s childhood.”

Children receive the message early in life that the world is a dangerous place. This message may be a result of parents’ fear. Yet not trusting others makes it difficult to function in a community. Provided trust is reasonable or warranted, a trusting attitude has an important role to play in helping individuals flourish in society. Trust allows individuals to connect with and support others, by engaging and communicating with others who may be different from themselves.

In fact, as Nishikawa and Stolle argue:

Generalized trust has been regarded as an important ingredient for social and political life. In the political sphere, generalized trust allows citizens to join forces in social and political groups […] In the social sphere, generalized trust facilitates life in diverse societies, fosters acts of tolerance, and promotes acceptance of others.

Trusting does have an aspect of making oneself vulnerable to being laughed at or taken advantage of or being tricked. Yet, it is still better to trust than to not, even though we should practice discernment and not trust blindly. Knowing who and when to trust is a matter of practical wisdom. These things, like trust itself, should be cultivated in order for us to live well in a community.

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