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Trust, Precarious Treasure
by Trudy Govier

The human capacity for trust is amazing. When we trust, we move from limited evidence to expectations and actions culminating in a complex web of emotions, beliefs, and attitudes. Those attitudes structure our interpretations of other people, situations, and human nature as such. Despite the vicissitudes of our sometimes fractured social order, most of us maintain considerable trust much of the time. Overall, we have positive expectations about what other people will do; we are open to other people, and feel a basic confidence and security about how the world works. We count on other people fearlessly and confidently; we allow ourselves to depend on other people, often other people whom we know not at all. To a far greater extent than we normally realize, trust is implicit in our daily lives and our social world. Most of the time it does not betray us.

Human institutions are constructed by human beings and founded on human roles, norms, and decisions. Our boundless interdependence and mutual vulnerability in societies is fascinating. To a large extent we cope with complexity, ambiguity, and risk because we trust each other. Life is a boundless set of social interactions made possible by trust between and among people and, because that trust is pre- carious, sometimes made desperately complicated and tense by distrust and a lack of trustworthiness.

As a matter of verbal usage, trust and distrust are not restricted to human beings. We speak of trusting or not trusting many kinds of things: other people, the government, leaders, foreign leaders, other countries, the postal service, our senses, forces of nature, forces of history, pets, cars, computers, brakes, and banking machines. However, this book is not about trusting God, animals, or machines. It is about people trusting other people, whether friends and intimates or strangers, whether as individuals or in groups.


Trust is fundamentally an attitude, based on beliefs and feelings and implying expectations and dispositions. Consider, for instance, what is involved in trusting a friend. When we trust a friend, we believe that she is likely to act kindly and benevolently towards us, that she is unlikely to harm us, certainly would not deliberately harm us, that she is well-disposed toward us. We expect our friend to lend a sym- pathetic ear, to co-operate in making joint arrangements, to help out in time of crisis. There are many terrible things people can do to each other, and when we trust a friend we assume confidently - without thinking of it - that she will not do any of these things. We assume that she will not break confidences, tell our secrets, abuse our children, or try to steal our job. To trust a friend is to believe that her motivations (towards ourselves) emerge from affection, care, and concern, and not from disue, ambition, or egoism.

Trust also involves a sense of the other's competence. If we trust a friend to give advice, or care for our house or pet, we believe that she is capable of doing these tasks. If we trust her to give us comments on an essay, we believe that she is competent to do the job and that she will do it with integrity, with our best interests at heart.

Trust is typically founded on a sense of the sort of person the other is, with regard to motivations and to competence. To trust a friend is to regard her as a person of integrity, one who is sincere, caring, and dependable, both in general and in the context of this particular relationship. Trust implies expectations that have an open-ended character. When we trust a friend, we do not have a list of all the things she is supposed to do; we trust her to do what is fitting and appropriate to the circumstances and to our relationship, as situations change and issues and needs arise. When we trust, we take risks and are vulnerable. There are no guarantees, and it would be an indication of lack of trust to look for them.

Trusting another, we are willing to go ahead without a guarantee. We feel that we can rely or depend on the other, even though there is always some possibility that he or she will act in unexpected ways, or even betray us. Trust affects our interpretations of other people, our sense of what they are doing. For example, if we hear that a trusted friend has been disloyal, callous, or cruel, we will not at first be inclined to take the story at face value. If, however, we hear such things about someone we distrust, we are likely to believe them and to regard them as manifestations of serious flaws of character.

Trust is not an all-or-nothing thing. We may trust or distrust to various degrees (we may trust some people more than others). Furthermore, trust and distrust are often relativized to specific roles or contexts. We will typically trust friends to care for us, to respond in emergencies, to be fairly reliable about arrangements and appointments, and to keep confidences. But even good friends we may not trust in every respect. Suppose, for example, we know that a good friend is somewhat unreliable about money; though trusting her in general, we might not trust her to repay small loans. We are likely to regard her as a good friend, one who is trustworthy overall but not likely to repay us. We should not give her money unless we are prepared to see it as, in effect, a gift. Trust on the whole does not mean trust in every context.

Logically, contexts can be separated, and in practice we sometimes do this, as the previous example shows. Repaying money is different from driving; babysitting is different from giving competent advice about an examination. But often contexts are not fully separate, especially so far as distrust is concerned. Distrust readily seeps from one context to others. If a friend lies about a small matter or lets us down on a holiday arrangement, we may begin to distrust her in other con- texts, wondering whether she has a dishonest streak or does not care enough about us to make sure our plans work. Such seepage of distrust is quite natural, but easily destructive to relationships.

Though the word "trust" is often used vaguely and has a kind of warm, fuzzy aura about it, there is nevertheless a kind of logic or epistemology to trust. It is not entirely a matter of feeling and emotion. Trust presupposes beliefs, and often those beliefs are based on evidence. The case of trusting people 'immediately" or "instinctively" is a special one, and even here we probably have evidence - we just do not reflect on what it is, or articulate it. There are good reasons for deeming people trustworthy or untrustworthy in various respects, and there seems to be considerable agreement on these. People who are honest, reliable, and caring are trustworthy. People who are dishonest, manipulative, and uncaring are untrustworthy. We make ethical and epistemic judgments about trust, saying that we trusted "too much" or 'too little" in given cases, referring to people as too trusting (gullible) or too suspicious (paranoid). Often there are reasonable grounds for such judgments.

As exemplified in the case of trusting a friend, the attitude of trust involves the following features: A expectations of benign, not harmful, behaviour based on beliefs about the trusted person's motivation and competence; B an attribution or assumption of general integrity on the part of the other, a sense that the trusted person is a good person; c a willingness to rely or depend on the trusted person, an acceptance of risk and vulnerability; and D a general disposition to interpret the trusted person's actions favorably.

Trust exists in various degrees: we may, for instance, trust someone only a little, but more than we used to. And trust is often relative to particular contexts and ranges of action: we might trust someone in the role of snow-shoveller but not that of baby-sitter. Sometimes we trust absolutely - but that is not every case.

In trusting another person whom we know, our expectations are typically based on our experience with him or her and what we know from that experience. But when there is trust, our expectations go beyond what evidence proves: in new situations, from trusted agents whom we believe to have a capacity to initiate actions, we expect decent and caring behaviour. We have not encountered these people in such situations before; they could act badly, but we confidently believe that they will not. This kind of trust has been called thick trust.

Trust may exist not only between intimates, lovers, friends, and colleagues who know each other well and share many experiences, feelings, and problems but also between people who we have only a slight personal relationship. This kind of trust has been called thin trust. We trust many people to whom we relate in the context of social roles: the dentist, the hairdresser, the school principal, and so on. And we may implicitly trust people we know not at all - as when we buy and eat meat from a supermarket, take an airplane, or enter a hospital for surgery. Needless to say, trust in such contexts has less emotional depth and richness than trust in contexts of sexual and personal intimacy, friendship, or collegiality. Trust in these more distanced contexts is based on a relatively restricted range of experience with the other person or even - as in the cases of supermarket shop- ping and driving - on no relationship with these particular people at all.

It makes sense to speak of trust (and of distrust) over this variety of contexts. The attitudes called trust in each case are in central ways similar to trust between friends or intimates in involving confident expectations of benign action (competent and well motivated); an overall sense that the other person or party is basically decent and will act decently towards us; acceptance of risk and vulnerability; and dispositions to interpret the actions of the other in a positive way. Although the feelings accompanying trust vary considerably between intimate and less intimate contexts and depending on who the trusted party is, the basic attitudes and beliefs - dare I say the essence, or logical core of trust - remain the same.

We may also trust or fail to trust ourselves. For example, I may trust myself to give a lecture after minimal preparation but not to care for a dangerously ill child when I am tired. Attitudes of trust and distrust can meaningfully be extended to institutions in which various social roles are, as it were, meshed together (the government, the postal service, the university, the United Nations) and to collectivities such as nation-states. We may in some general sense trust the university and distrust the postal service; trust Britain and not trust Germany. Canada's foreign policy may indicate trust of the United Nations, less trust of Libya. We can speak in senses more or less extended of trusting seeing-eye dogs, donkeys on mountain paths, word-processing systems, "technology," or "science." But that is not the focus here.


What we live for is not It, but You. For all his emphasis on interpersonal relations, encounter, and dialogue, Buber says relatively little about issues of trust. But clearly trust is implicitly central to his out- look on the world, according to which what is most important hap- pens in "the between" - between I and You. For honest and open dialogue to occur, You and I must trust each other to speak truthfully and listen genuinely.

The attitude of trust presupposes inductively grounded beliefs and confident expectations that go further than strict induction would warrant. So it presupposes something we well know: we are creatures who reason inductively, and we have a tendency to extend our confidence beyond the evidence. If we know that someone has acted honestly on five occasions, we have a great tendency to infer that she will act honestly on a sixth; we go further to believe that she will act honestly on every occasion similar to the five we have known; many of us even have some inclination to believe that she will act honestly on every occasion, period. And we like to confirm beliefs we already hold, so we build more trust on the trust we have. A parallel phenomenon exists, sometimes counter-productively, for distrust, which also tends to build on itself. Trust is possible because we are inductive creatures who extend induction to provide ourselves with confident expectations about the future. Many of these expectations are about other people.

Trust presupposes that we make value judgments about our situation in the world; we have a sense of what would be good for us and what bad. We have a sense of what we need in the world, of how we could be vulnerable and hurt. Yet, even knowing or sensing our vulnerability, we are not always fearful. We are able to relax enough so that we do not continually struggle to defend and protect ourselves. We have some sense of other people. Who are they? What sorts of people are they? What are they likely to do? We are to a reasonable degree capable of understanding their actions, and we come to have beliefs about the likely motivations behind those actions and what kind of character or what degree of integrity is implied. In some cases our beliefs are based on discrete evidence, in others on a kind of holistic intuition or feeling about what sort of person the other is.

It may sound unattractive to speak of judging and assessing people, summing them up, thinking what they are likely to do, estimating how their attitudes and actions might be beneficial or detrimental to us. But to some degree we do this sort of thing whenever we reflect on whether or not to trust another person. And a sense of the other's character and fundamental intentions is implicit in any case of trust; we have, in some sense and by some means, come to believe or assume that the trusted other is fundamentally a good person who is unlikely to harm us.

Trust of other people is made possible by our inductively extended beliefs, our responses to others, our sense of ourselves, our position in the world, and our values. Trust is possible because we are not only knowing and believing creatures but valuing creatures who relate in a profound and profoundly natural way to others.

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