Thursday, September 30, 2004



What is trust, and what does it mean? Trust breaks down into several other concepts - most obviously responsibility, reliability, honesty, love and faith. It can be used in the context of a statement - I trust you, in the context of an relationship - I am trusting you, or as an action - to trust. Linked with trust is betrayal - the destruction of trust.

A man was offered a job verbally, but had no contract. The job was later withdrawn without notice. Was this an unfair betrayal of trust, or the consequence of foolishness? Both are probably true.

Our understanding of trust starts at the primitive level. We love and trust our parents, and it is from this behaviourist mechanism that we first begin to understand trust. The first time that someone lies to us, we start to learn that there is a difference between what someone claims and what they will do. Trust is what we feel when we comfortably rely on people to act in a particular way. To trust someone is ambiguous - it can mean putting ourselves in a position of reliance, hence the phrase "an uneasy trust". Yet it can also mean to become comfortable with relying on someone - as in "I used to worry about person X, but then I began to trust them."

In philosophy, trust is usually presented as a virtue, but not always. Ayn Rand puts forward the view that the best society has no need to rely on trust - if everything is based on contracts and payment, the breaking of an agreement has its costs fully incorporated into the system - that is to say one cannot betray without cost. Arguably, the same thing is said by all philosophies - however cost ceases to be a financial one and becomes a moral cost. Ayn Rand advances her position because she believes that financial transactions can transcend the difficulties of moral relativism. If you and I have different ideals of trust, it is likely that one of us will end up being disappointed even if we are true to ourselves. (I am interpreting her philosophy here, not simply paraphrasing)

The major difficulty with this position is that is pays no respect to the emotive nature of trust. Trust is a useful mechanism for social efficiency - if we can rely on someone we make a saving because we do not need to establish terms and conditions every time we interact. The presentation of trust as a virtue is usually concerned with the idea that being trustworthy is a virtue. Putting yourself in the position of trusting someone, however, can be either wise or unwise.

A Western Judeo-Christian philosophy would say that one must first trust in God, and then be faithful to oneself. Many non-Christian religious philosophies also put forward this view - it is a recurring theme in Buddhism and Toltec beliefs, for example. The Christian ideal could be seen as resulting from the ultimate faith placed in humanity by God, to which we all owe a duty of faith. To their belief, simply living comes with the right to God's word, and the responsibility to try to live faithfully. A feeling of trust towards ones fellow man is then the happy consequence of being trustworthy. We must also forgive betrayals of trust, because all men are capable of sin, and later we ourselves may also require forgiveness. The Bible tells us "Love always trusts".

The current Dalai Lama has written several books, all of which emphasise the practical benefits of being trustworthy oneself. He advances the idea that we are happier when we are trustworthy, because trustworthyness engenders feelings of love in others, and allows us to respect ourselves. These sentiments are echoed in the Toltec belief system also.

Practically, we find in our relations with others that trust must be earned. We don't precisely fear the betrayal of all we meet, but it is only after a period of time that be become truly comfortable relying on the behaviour of others - perhaps as we come to love them. Inextricably, issues of trust are tied to issues of power and its abuse. One may love unconditionally, but it is usually those who we have a relationship who are the target of our bitter feelings. I will follow up this entry with a later discussion on the forms which trusting relationships take in our society.

All the best,


Blogger infidelchick said...

Hey, buddy.

This is in no way intended to be rude, but what is this piece about? I'm curious, but I can't pick a point.


9/30/2004 04:04:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

I'm not flogging a particular viewpoint, just trying to outline what trust means, and how we could think about it in various contexts. I posted it because trust is dealth with inconsistenly - i.e. different people (or the same person at different times) will react to a trust issue in different ways.

I'm just promoting some different viewpoints for considering what trust might mean to you, and what it might mean to other people.

9/30/2004 04:20:00 PM  
Blogger ccr said...

Very nice post MP, I look forward to more.

9/30/2004 08:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a few random thoughts...

WRT To Ayn Rand:
Some people (eg me) doubt that morality can be simplified to a single quantity -- whether that be money or another quality.

Related to the "Paradox of Choice", trust is a good rule-of-thumb that guide people in their day-to-day lives so that they don't have to form contracts for every single thing they do. There's a point in which red tape becomes too erroneous.


This discussion of trust also reminds me of the definitions used in computer science (especially security field) which I believe has some relevance.

Trust is considered to mean a position of reliance.

Someone is trustworthy if they are deserving of your trust.

trusted doesn't mean that they are trustworthy, but that you nonetheless place them in a position of trust (eg governments). It means that if they betray you, that you suffer harm.

These concepts have also been analysed further with things like the PGP "web-of-trust" which is a model that tries to determine how trust is propagated between a group of people, who may or may not know each other.

A interesting thing about trust is that it doesn't imply someone is honest or ethical and nor is it one-dimensional. Someone could be a complete arsehole and bastard who is nonetheless trusted. Whether that is because the person is completely predictable (eg in their selfishness) or whether it is because their trusted status only extends to certain areas of life (eg sports, but not relationships).

10/01/2004 12:56:00 PM  
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