Mark Vernon
January, 2017

I imagine that most people would say trust is a good idea, even essential. Until they have to trust someone with something that truly matters – their money, their love, their life. Then, all manner of unanticipated hesitations might arise. Do I know this person? Are there other options? Can I have a guarantee, which is to say, I realise I don’t trust as I might? Why do I find it so hard to trust others? And then the big uncertainty comes up: I have been betrayed before, so is trust really trustworthy? ‘Once bitten, twice shy,’ the saying goes.

Little wonder the interplay between trust and betrayal is a staple of literature. ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus,’ retort those who have been hurt in love – though it‘s not just romantic and sexual relationships that turn on trust. The Kite Runner, the international bestseller by Khaled Hosseini, tells the story of a friendship. It is threatened when Amir abandons Hassan to avoid ethnic and political tensions in Afghanistan. ‘What kind of country is this? No one trusts anybody!’ The power of the story revolves around Amir’s subsequent struggle to mend his duplicity and restore mutual trust. ‘It’s easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend,’ William Blake remarked, because with friendship there was trust.

Or think of The Hunger Games franchise. The various plots in this futuristic drama tend to revolve around trust too, and in particular how the seemingly vulnerable characters learn to trust one another. That happens often out of necessity, though the moral side of the story emerges when we realise that they are stronger as a result of being able to trust. But it’s a risky path to take. ‘For there to be betrayal, there would have to have been trust first,’ remarks Katniss, the story’s hero, in no small part because she knows about betrayal and never quite loses the capacity to trust.

"The dynamic animates religious narratives too. From Christianity, phrases like ‘thirty pieces of silver’ and ‘the Judas kiss’ have entered our language."

The central story in Christianity is of trust restored, as Jesus is betrayed first by his companions and then, he feels, even by God: ‘Why have you forsaken me!’ he despairs on the cross.

"The problem of trust has become central to our public life as well. It’s now routine for polls to demonstrate that citizens have lost trust in key civic institutions."

Recent research by Ipsos MORI put politicians, journalists and bankers at the bottom of a veracity index. Doctors, teachers and scientists came at the top.

Now, whether or not we face a particular crisis of trust today, or whether trust has always ebbed and flowed around different institutions in society, is a moot point. After all, you could argue that we live in a culture that simply wouldn’t function without copious quantities of everyday, humdrum trust. Ours is an ethnically mixed culture, though on the whole we don’t distrust but trust the strangers we pass on the street. It’s a culture driven by commerce, which is to say that its background hum is comprised of countless financial transactions, all based on trust.

But wherever you stand on that, it’s clear that trust is important. It matters because without it there can be no human relationships, personal or political. Here, then, we’ll explore it across three interconnected aspects. First, we’ll think about trust in its usual sense of the ways in which we rely on somebody or something. But we’ll see that we need more than that to pursue its workings, because even if, as Samuel Johnson put it, it is ‘happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust’, we need some grounds or basis for our trust. This thought will take us to the issue of trustworthiness – the qualities that make placing trust in someone or something rational and sensible. Though even then, we’ll see that this is not enough because trustworthiness must be valued for its own sake. This is to say that it must be held as an intrinsic virtue – something that is good not only for what it makes possible but because with it we can regard ourselves as better human beings. It’s the virtue of trustworthiness which, we’ll discover, certain thinkers have felt needs to be celebrated in a society that desires the freedoms and relationships which trust affords.

Social Trust

One way in which trust has been discussed in recent years is as social capital. The phrase was created by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and seeks to capture the intuition that networks of people carry a store of trust that increases or decreases as those individuals become acquainted with one another.

"Positive interactions build trust; negative experiences undermine it."

In fact, Bourdieu was rather suspicious of social capital. He felt it tended to favour ‘the old boy network’, which is to say that social capital is a conservative force, apt to keep the powerful in power because intangible qualities like shared trust make the barriers to entry high.

Note too that financial capital – the way the word was originally used – and social capital are different in that it is relatively easy to put a figure on financial capital, and to track its movement; it’s hard to do the same with social capital. If you asked your partner how much they trusted you, you would probably be put out if they answered, ‘Oh, I’d say about $1 million.’ In fact, you’d probably be put out if they answered $10 million or $100 million. So that tells us something about trust: part of its trickiness is its subtlety. It’s felt rather than weighed; nurtured rather than grown. There is something intrinsically personal about trust.

That has not stopped sociologists trying to measure it. A leading figure in this domain is Robert Putnam. He has tried to study the quantity and quality of social capital by measuring levels of civic participation. He looks at the numbers of people voting or the rates at which individuals join organisations such as churches or common interest groups.

"He argues that the social relationships fostered by such involvements are a reflection of embedded levels of trust, as well as being crucial for democracy because they mean that people will do things for each other out of reciprocity and trust, rather than legal obligation or the threat of sanction."

Whether or not Putnam’s work is really a measure of trust, or something else, is debated amongst his peers. If, say, you researched definitions of trust, trust seems more like an act of faith than akin to credit in the bank. ‘A firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something,’ offers the Oxford English Dictionary.
It’s also striking to think about how trust is linked to freedom. The more freedom we have, the more trust is at play, because with freedom comes the possibility of betrayal. It’s an insight that makes sense in personal relationships: if you trust someone, you’ll let them be, but also expose yourself to the possibility of your trust being deceived. In her novel entitled Trust, Mary Flanagan explores these tensions. Her main character, Eleanor, enjoys lots of material freedom by virtue of having substantial amounts of money. She is an heiress. Then, though, she has an affair with Jason. Her attraction to him is that he is free in a different way – namely, creatively, by virtue of being an artist.

The plot thickens when she decides to set up a trust fund for her lover’s daughter, Clover. It’s as if she wants somehow to stay in Jason’s life after the affair is over, and uses her wealth to do so. But it’s a substitute for what she can’t take from the affair; a creative freedom that she saw in Jason but can’t find in herself. To do that, Eleanor would have to trust her own creative capacities more profoundly. The trust fund is a proxy – nicely introducing a second meaning of the word, the kind of trust that takes what she has, money, and holds it in trust for another. But her gesture leaves her longing for what she really wants: personal freedom.

The tension between trust and freedom can thwart and constrain life at a social level too. Think of the various ‘experiments’ in setting up democracies now unfolding across the Middle East and North Africa following the so-called Arab Spring.

"One thing has become clear: in societies that lacked trust in the past, because of the presence of a brutal dictator, democracy now struggles to take hold." 

A freer political order depends upon citizens trusting one another, and that takes time to grow. To live in a free society is to live in one in which trust has a chance to shape relationships, not corruption or coercion or fraud.

For societies to develop economically seems to require trust too. The economist Francis Fukuyama has studied such trust and rather than social capital prefers to call it ‘spontaneous sociability’. At one level, it allows everyday business to be done: ‘If people … trust one another because they are all operating according to a common set of ethical norms, doing business costs less.’ But the advantages do not stop there. Fukuyama continues: ‘Such a society will be better able to innovate organisationally since the high degree of trust will permit a wide variety of social relationships to emerge.’ He is saying that trust allows innovation, growth and enterprise. They all depend on it. It would seem likely that the difficulty some parts of the world have in developing economically is, at least in part, closely associated with a lack of trust embedded in those societies.

Trust and trustworthiness

"Or perhaps we can put things more precisely. Because it is not just that there is a lack of trust. Rather, there is a dearth of trustworthiness – the qualities that people and institutions should embody to make trusting them a good bet. It’s an important distinction because trust turns fragile, and can prove misplaced, when placed in someone or something that is not trustworthy."

The Cold War is a case in point. It produced a kind of peace but with international relationships based not on trustworthiness but the threat of mutual annihilation. In retrospect, that seemed to ensure that no one pulled the nuclear trigger. But both sides would also agree that international relations based on trustworthiness are infinitely preferable. This is why, in peace negotiations, confidence-building measures are such a crucial prerequisite.

The difference emerges in another way if we examine what happens when individuals turn to the law. This often happens because trustworthiness has been undermined: when relationships of various kinds break down – personal, professional, commercial, political – the law might be called upon to decide matters on alternative principles, those of justice. What’s striking is that the law can only pick up the pieces, not rebuild trustworthiness. It can manage your divorce but not save the marriage, perhaps leaving the couple less trusting. This is also to say that we need trust to deepen our relationships. There’s a vital informality that trustworthiness allows, and the law stymies, and also

keeps social life humane. Life without it, turned rigid, is nicely caught in the catchphrase from the satirical show Little Britain: ‘Computer says no.’

Or again, think about the demands for more transparency on standards in public life. There’s something good about that, of course, because individuals who hold office and power can be held to account. But there’s a downside, namely the implicit message that we need transparency because key figures in public life are not trustworthy. The risk is of a downward spiral.

"It can be summarised this way, as Aristotle noted. Justice is failed friendship – which is not to say that justice is bad, only that friendship is better because in friendship, trustworthiness is alive." 

It’s why it’s so basic. Only it provides the atmosphere in which relationships can enjoy deep, life-giving breath. ‘You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible,’ observed the playwright Anton Chekhov.

(Incidentally, it is possible that some animals need trustworthiness to thrive too. An experiment in the 1970s subjected dogs to random and unpredictable electric shocks of relatively low intensity. It taught them that their environment was not trustworthy and, interestingly, the poor creatures seemed far less able to cope with this predicament than higher intensity shocks that came at regular intervals. At least then, they knew what to expect.)

So what does this tell us about trust? If trustworthiness is the crucial issue, than trust itself is based in a relationship, a quality, a practice. This means that trustworthiness is itself supported by the virtue of trustworthiness – the habits or characteristics a person has that make them trustworthy. Adam Smith realised this. The great economist of capitalism wrote extensively about trust in his less-well-known volume, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. For him, this work was equally as important as The Wealth of Nations, in part because it described the value of trust in a functioning, happy society.

It’s worth noting that, on the whole, Smith was optimistic about the impact that modern commerce has on trustworthiness, valued as a virtue, partly because commercial life provides countless opportunities in which it can be practised; but more profoundly because individuals in societies based on such economic exchange will come to realise that their way of life cannot be sustained without trustworthiness. They will, therefore, value it as an intrinsic good, he hoped.

‘Colleagues in office, partners in trade, call one another brothers; and frequently feel towards one another as if they really were so,’ Smith writes. ‘Their good agreement is an advantage to all; and, if they are tolerably reasonable people, they are naturally disposed to agree.’

Writing in the eighteenth century, he felt that he lived in a time in which a kind of fellow trustworthiness, akin to empathy, would come to dominate the darker sides of human nature. It’s a similar argument to the one that free market democracies tend to be less marked by animosity, corruption, and social unrest. It is as if we know that we need to trust one another and, moreover, our way of life enables us to experience the benefits of that trust day by day. (I suspect that this is part of the reason why TV dramas such as Game of Thrones are so popular. Set in a fantasy medieval world, in which there is no trust but rampant relationships based on greed and violence, it reminds us what our world might be like if we weren’t so courteous. Watching an episode leaves you grateful that we shake hands when we meet, not raise swords.)

That said, Smith had a realistic appreciation of human nature. For example, he looked at the coffee houses that were springing up in the London of his day.

"He saw that at one level they were good for commerce, because in them businessmen could meet convivially and nurture entrepreneurial ideas in an atmosphere of trust. But at another level, he also realised such meeting places pose a risk. Coffee house friendships might exclude newcomers who had not yet entered the charmed circle." 

They could support the old boy network. ‘Better the devil you know,’ is an ancient principle in business too, and devils aren’t known for their trustworthiness. So, Smith added a further twist to his understanding of the virtue of trust. He became convinced that human beings must not just want to feel others are trustworthy. They must want to feel they are valued as being trustworthy themselves. Then they will seek to cultivate the virtue for its own sake.

Put it this way. If we were in a relationship, it would be important not only that I can trust you, and you me. After all, I can feel such trust in my car, my comfy chair, my computer. With other persons, we want more. It is not just to feel that they will probably go the extra mile for us but that they really will, unless they really can’t. This is to say that for a personal relationship truly to flourish, the shared trust is not just based on a calculation that the trust will not be misplaced, as in the case of my car, chair or computer. But because I believe the other person values the virtue of trustworthiness.

This is one reason why companies invest so heavily in ensuring their brands are trustworthy. They want to project the virtue as a quality they really embody, not just play lip-service to when they must. Similarly, after the crash of 2008 and the exposure of illegal activity in a number of big brand banks, it was reported that part of the problem those banks now faced was employees feeling ashamed to work for them. By association, staff felt their own virtue was compromised, and they did not like it.

Celebrating Trustworthiness

Smith wrote about the virtue aspect in a striking way. He posited that, as human beings, it is as if we feel we are being observed by an ‘impartial spectator’. It’s a kind of fictional presence that sees everything that we do. Sensing that we are not only being watched by others, but that we are watching ourselves, we are encouraged to act in the best way that we can – not least in a trustworthy manner. As he put it, ‘Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely’. The impartial spectator sees us as we truly are and so can truly love or discomfort us. It does not filter out the bad and admit only the good. It perceives with a clarity of vision that should be quite enough to nudge us into trustworthy habits and discourage us from lying, deceit and betrayal, Smith hoped. And again, not so much because lying, deceit and betrayal are bad. After all, we might get away with them. But because we will feel bad doing them. Smith continues:

‘A great part, perhaps the greatest part, of human happiness and misery arises from the view of our past conduct, and from the degree of approbation or disapprobation which we feel from the consideration of it.’

There’s a bonus to actually being trustworthy too. It is not just that you can feel good about yourself but that, further, others will know it, and reward you with their friendship. A virtuous circle is created.
There’s another way that we all know the difference: the massive difference between being useful to your friends, which on the whole we are glad to be, and feeling used by your friends. As soon as you feel used, their trustworthiness as a friend – the virtue – is called into question. You can put it this way: although trust is highly useful in personal and social relationships, we cannot demand someone or something is trustworthy only because that will make them or it reliable for us. That is to instrumentalise the quality, and thereby undo it.

More recent psychology backs Smith up. There is evidence that the degree to which an individual is willing to trust others correlates closely with the degree to which they are themselves trustworthy. If you lie, cheat or steal, you are more likely to suspect others of lying, cheating and stealing. You are also more likely to be unhappy because you will be left with so-called friends who are liars, cheats and thieves too.

Or does Smith sound too optimistic? In a way, yes. He is an optimist – an optimist about what human individuals and society can achieve.

"He believed that we need constantly to monitor ourselves, to ensure that we are ascending this virtuous circle of trust, not descending into a vicious spiral of mass wariness and cynicism."

That is hard to halt and so far better is to ensure that trustworthiness is routinely celebrated as praiseworthy. That way, we are more likely to desire trustworthiness as part of our character. And when we are tempted to dodge it, our impartial spectators will require it.

Such wisdom is built into our social institutions, in fact. Ask yourself why everyone loves a wedding? It’s a lifelong commitment to mutual trust and helps everyone who attends to renew their aspiration to be capable of the same. Alternatively, the institution of paper money might be thought of not only as a means of exchange but as a celebration of trust too. The paper itself is worth almost nothing, of course. But when we take cash, we not only presume that we will be able to exchange it again, to pay for goods we ourselves want, but we enact a little ritual that celebrates our trustworthy environment and holds us to the virtue of trustworthiness too. It’s one of the reasons hyperinflation is so damaging: trust rapidly breaks down when money becomes worthless because a fundamental practice of trust in modern societies is undermined.

There is, then, a choice we can make about trustworthiness, namely whether we – individually and collectively – want to cultivate the virtue. ‘Trust is something we do, something we make,’ observes the philosopher Robert C. Solomon. ‘Our mutual choices of trust determine nothing less than the kinds of beings we are and the kinds of lives we will live together. [Conversely] the worst enemies of trust are cynicism, selfishness, and a naïve conception of life in which one expects more than one is willing to give. Resentment, distrust, and inauthenticity are the result.’

It’s built steadily, slowly, eye-to-eye, moment by moment. You could saythat trustworthiness is one of those qualities that is created over generations and can, tragically, be destroyed almost in an instance.

"You cannot simply decide to trust someone, without it seeming a foolhardy act. Similarly, it is difficult deliberately to impress your trustworthiness on someone else: the minute someone says, ‘You can trust me,’ is the minute you wonder. They are telling you they have the virtue rather than showing it."

You must become familiar first. You come to see that the relationship is characterised by goodwill, like a friendship. Trust emerges because you realise that your exchanges are shaped by a desire to behave ethically, or out of honesty and mutual concern, or love. By trustworthiness.

So, we have three aspects: trust, the assessment of the trustworthiness of another, and the desire to be known as trustworthy oneself. Trust of itself is not enough because although, on the whole, it is better to trust and occasionally be betrayed than never to trust at all – a bit like it is better to have loved and lost – naïve trust is foolhardy. This is where trustworthiness comes in. We need to know something about who or what we are trusting. Sociologists have tried to measure it, in the study of so-called social capital. The law can try to make amends when things do go wrong. But best is the virtue of trustworthiness itself. It seems to be a largely intangible quality, implicit in ourselves and others – or not. And it’s also why the celebration of trustworthiness as desirable for its own sake is so important.

Trust and trustworthiness can be practised in our habits, relationships, hellos, exchanges. In often unspoken ways, we then hold it as praiseworthy. Not naïvely, but in a way that feeds our ability to use our freedoms for our own development and the growing good of others, and to regard our fellows with friendship.

"If ours is an age with particular problems when it comes to trusting politicians, journalists and bankers, maybe a call to praise trustworthiness can help remedy it."