Tuesday, April 16, 2013


I'm not much of a proponent of virtue-based ethics, but lately I've been warming up to it it...One virtue I've been thinking about is "Trust."

First, let's agree that we use the word in a bewildering variety of contexts. We say that we "trust" or "distrust" both living and non-living entities. I "trust" my wife, my dogs, and the brakes on my Toyota. I would "distrust" my wife to perform brain surgery. I certainly wouldn't "trust" my dogs to drive my Toyota. We also "trust" or "distrust" organizations, leaders, and or followers. For now, let's focus on individual and organizational trust.

In virtue ethics, I'm a big fan of Aristotle's emphasis on context. He certainly would NOT argue that it is virtuous to completely trust all persons, leaders, followers, or organizations, at all times, in all places. To be trusted one must be ... or trustworthy. Let's break this down a bit. Aristotle thought that trust (and distrust) are virtues, and that virtuous behavior is habitual. Therefore, the decision of whether to trust a person or organization is contingent upon access to information about habitual behavior. If John Doe has a history of drinking all of your most expensive beer when you're not home, then you probably wouldn't want to leave an unguarded case of Heineken in your refrigerator. You might, however, trust that John will not steal your wife, Toyota, or your dogs. Hence, trust really is contextual. Moreover, if you habitually trust persons or organizations that, obviously, are untrustworthy, you are not virtuous. You're a "sucker." If you habitually "distrust" persons or organizations that are demonstrably trustworthy you are not virtuous either. You are a "cynic." In short, Aristotelian virtue requires that we trust the right person, at the right time, in the right place, to the right degree. We must be discerning.

As a general rule we trust family and friends, at least in part, because we know their "track record." On the other hand, we generally, distrust "strangers;" that is persons and organizations whose track record is unknown. However, if we're virtuous we naturally seek out "information" that might indicate trustworthiness or untrustworthiness.  Of course, that leaves us open to the criticism that we're biased or discriminatory; especially when we distrust classes of strangers based on limited information. So here is the basic question! When we are deciding whether to trust or distrust strangers, what should be the default position? Should we trust strangers until we possess reliable information that warrants distrust; or should we distrust strangers until we possess reliable information that warrants trust? Unfortunately, some individuals and organizations are opportunistic, and are highly skilled at disguising their untrustworthiness. Hence, many positions of trust are invaded by untrustworthy opportunists. At least in recent years, politicians have probably been the most opportunistic. Here, the basic problem is that politicians have almost unlimited ability to disguise their opportunism by manipulating the machinery of government to their advantage. Transparency, therefore, is a necessary condition for guarding against opportunism. But transparency undermines opportunism, and therefore persons and organizations often manipulate language to make it difficult for the rest of us to decode their track record. Hence, the rise of "private languages," that serve to undermine our ability to know who to trust. Most professions that serve as "agents" for the rest of us, employ private languages: lawyers, priests, ministers, physicians, politicians, used car salesmen, insurance brokers etc. I call it "private language fraud."

I've been rightfully identified as a cynic; that is, I am not readily predisposed to blindly trust strangers, especially those that expect me to trust them to decode a private language. In fact, I always deploy my philosophical skills to "deconstruct" those private languages on my own, or at least find someone that I trust to do it for me. The most conspicuous example of private language fraud on earth is the U.S. tax code. Until that mess is translated into "public language" that the rest of us can understand, I'll continue to distrust politicians.                           


Andrea Elchynski said...

The idea of trust is something complex that entails several different components. I agree with your statement when you wrote, "Some individuals and organizations are opportunistic, and are highly skilled at disguising their untrustworthiness". I think this statement shapes a lot of what we see in society not only with politicians but advertising agencies, magazines, and other print media we see everyday.It is hard to trust the actual facts they claim are true and even harder to decide what or what not we want to believe.

Lynn Miller said...

The answer to the question you pose "When we are deciding whether to trust or distrust strangers, what should be the default policy?" is very complex, something everybody seems to struggle with at some point in their life, even in business. The hierarchy in which businesses are set up tends to make people question motives not just from one level to the next, but even among peers at the same level of work. I think there are many factors that affects the value of trust we place in others, factors such as past experiences, fears, perceptions, associations, etc. I believe when we meet strangers, we cannot truly trust; we make observations and analysis, and strangers either earn our trust or our distrust.

Morgan Vincent said...

Is it necessary that we either trust or distrust one? I can't quite seem to figure it out because it seems like there should be some sort of middle ground. For example I wouldn't leave my wallet with a stranger, but if I accidentally left it sitting next to them and went somewhere else I wouldn't assume they were going to take it either. Is it possible to start out neither trusting nor distrusting someone?