Sunday, September 21, 2014


164. Trust as virtue

 Trust yields a good illustration of virtue ethics. Trust is not a moral obligation but a virtue. It requires character. It is contingent, not universal: one should not always trust, blindly or unconditionally, but depending on experience, customs and conditions. Trust can be both emotional and rational. It can yield dilemmas. It requires actions that are appropriate to specific circumstances. It requires practical wisdom to perceive and judge what is salient in those circumstances.

Here I pick up elements from the earlier analysis of trust in this blog (in items 68-73).

As I discussed there, trust is a matter not only of intentions but also of competences. One must not only have good intentions but also the ability to act upon them.

Trust is emotional since it is accompanied by risk, fear, hope and doubt. It is rational in the analysis of reasons why the trustee, the trusted person, organization or system, may or may not be trustworthy.

Trustworthiness requires virtues of character, such as being reasonable, forbearance, commitment, endurance, consistency, empathy, openness, courage, and the right amount of self-confidence.  

A shortage of self-confidence breeds suspicion, out of an excessive sense of vulnerability. Too much self-confidence blinds one to risks or overestimates ability to deal with them.

Trust requires courage because it presupposes acceptance of uncertainty. If one were certain about what will happen and what people will do, there would be no talk of trust.

Trust requires reasonableness, forbearance, and reciprocity, give and take, in taking appropriate action. When something goes wrong one should not immediately conclude foul play. One should extend benefit of the doubt and give an opportunity to explain what happened. Disappointment of expectations may be due to a mishap that is no one’s fault, a shortfall of competence, or lack of attention or commitment, rather than bad intent. Then one must have endurance and commitment to help improvements. In other words, one should not immediately go for ‘exit’, but give ‘voice’ a chance.

Conversely, when one makes an error, one should own up to it, explain, help to redress damage, and show how one aims to prevent similar errors in future. One should also be open concerning one’s fears. That gives the other side an opportunity to take action to mitigate them. In other words: trust requires openness.

Empathy is needed to understand the motives and position of others, including threats they suffer, in order to take them into account in forbearance, and to judge risks and reliability.

Trust is not ‘being nice’. Precisely because there is trust one can afford to be critical.

More trust can allow for less control, but trust is not boundless and where it ends control must start. Trust is not unconditional. In case of persistent error or cheating, controls are tightened, or voice turns into exit.

Trust is imperfect. It breaks under pressures of survival, as in times of crisis. Then self-interest is likely to prevail, and relations may break. The challenge then is to end a relationship in as trustworthy a fashion as possible, helping to limit the damage it causes, and helping the other side in the exit.

One may also face different, conflicting obligations, to family, job, community, and conscience, and one may have to choose.

Finally, apart from trust as a means to govern relationships, it also has intrinsic value: for many people, for virtuous people, dealing on the basis of trust is more agreeable and is part of humane relationships.

In sum, trust requires virtues of courage, self-confidence, forbearance, openness, reasonableness, endurance, and voice. One should analyze specific events in specific conditions, with an open mind, to arrive at appropriate action. One can encounter conflicting obligations. One should seek a balance between trust and control, between self-interest and altruism. And trust also has intrinsic value.

The capability of trust is a good example of what Aristotle called ‘practical reason’.