Benjamin Bestgen: Trust and trustworthiness
Benjamin Bestgen explores trust and trustworthiness in his latest jurisprudential primer. See his last post here.
Literature and movies are full of stories that have, either at their core or as a necessary ingredient, the topic of trust and trustworthiness. Recently, Marriage Story (2019) dealt with trust issues between spouses in the process of their divorce and custody dispute (note that matters got way worse once the lawyers became involved). Netflix series You depicts a stalker who painstakingly researches his object of obsession to create an image of trustworthiness designed to ensnare his victim.
More entertainingly, White Collar or Wolf of Wall Street show us trust and trustworthiness from the perspective of people who professionally exploit it: con-artists and shady salespeople. The boardgame Diplomacy arguably has the establishment of trust between players as its core feature for success.
And in times of crisis like the GFC, Brexit or COVID-19, we worry and ask ourselves if we can trust institutions like the government, researchers and media to tell us the truth and steer the ship reasonably well.
What is trust?
As a psychological attitude, trust is an invaluable mental shortcut that allows us to make decisions involving other parties that would otherwise require impossible or unrealistic efforts of research, resources and analysis.
Trusting also makes us vulnerable. When we trust somebody to do or refrain from doing something, we abdicate (voluntarily or forcibly) control over the actions of that party. To trust somebody implies that we must rely on their competence and honesty. We also have to have a degree of optimism about that party’s goodwill towards us – or at least some sense of basic decency (e.g. that a waiter won’t spit in our drink or a producer of beef-lasagne will not supplement horsemeat without telling us).
Philosopher Annette Baier considered that trust inherently implies the risk of betrayal and being let down. Trust is more than mere reliance, which can only be disappointed: we rely on an alarm clock but if that clock fails to work correctly, we probably feel miffed and disappointed but not betrayed and aggrieved. Where people rely on each other in ways where betrayal is impossible (e.g. because of sufficient control mechanisms or supervision), it’s not an issue of trust.
Indeed, the significance of trust and the potential for betrayal is emphasised across cultures and ages: trust is generally referred to as something precious that is hard to build, easily broken and either can never, or only with great difficulty, be repaired or regained.
While trust is a psychological attitude of the trusting person, trustworthiness is a property of a person or institution. Being trustworthy includes being and being perceived to be honest, reasonably transparent, competent and displaying a sense of decency or benevolence towards the trusting party.
Fraudsters are experts in creating the appearance of trustworthiness quickly by exploiting social signals that we use as shortcuts to determine somebody’s competence and position: think of Frank Abagnale’s masterful impersonations of pilots, doctors and lawyers by donning the right uniforms and talking the talk with poise and conviction.
Knowing when to trust
As the price for trusting the wrong people can be steep and sometimes life-threatening, a key practical question is when to trust: how do we know when trust is warranted and when it isn’t? Is it even possible to find solid rational justifications and criteria for it?
We know that trusting too little and being overly suspicious can harm us just as much as trusting too much and being naive. The good news is that while we cannot simply will ourselves to trust more or become more suspicious, we can learn about, reflect on and improve our attitude.
Philosopher Carolyn McLeod rightly notes that our ability to know when trust is warranted contributes to the functioning of a good society. It fosters a sense of safety, community, healthy human cooperation and contributes to making us morally mature beings.
A good start might be to cultivate competence, honesty, transparency and goodwill in ourselves, our workplaces and families: by working actively to be trustworthy, we may find it easier to also recognise trustworthiness in others and as a society enjoy the healthy human cooperation trust enables.
Benjamin Bestgen is a solicitor and notary public (qualified in Scotland). He also holds a Master of Arts degree in philosophy and tutored in practical philosophy and jurisprudence at the Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main and the University of Edinburgh.