Should we trust in trust

Should we trust in trust

Trust may very well prove to be the buzzword of the 1990s.

Pundits lament the lack of it in citizen-government relations. The political theorist Francis Fukuyama has written a bestseller discussing the importance of trust for a healthy economy.(1) Philosophers such as Annette Baier and Trudy Govier(2) have argued for a whole new approach to ethics centered less on legalistic contractual relations and more on trusting relations such as those existing between parents and their children or among friends.(3) It has begun to sound as if trust were the Rosetta stone of all human relations.

While trust clearly is an important human, and maybe even animal,(4) phenomenon, I think that our discussions of trust need to be much more nuanced than they have been to date. Before we place too much of our trust in trust, we should ask a number of questions concerning 1) the definition of trust


There are two popular definitions of trust, definitions that have gone largely unchallenged. Annette Baier, in her widely-cited article “Trust and Anti-Trust,” defines trust as the trustor’s expectation of being the recipient of the trusted party’s good will.(5) Francis Fukuyama characterizes trust as “the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behavior, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of that community.”(6) Three features of these definitions are especially noteworthy. First, both definitions treat trust as an exclusively interpersonal phenomenon. Such a definition is unduly restrictive. Persons appear, for example, to trust themselves as well as others. Indeed, it might be argued that self-trust is the basis for interpersonal trust. Individuals who are totally lacking in self-confidence may be too afraid or insecure to form any relations with others, much less stable and “regular” relations.(7) Conversely, individuals may trust too much in their own character and opinions (including their opinion of the correct definition of trust). Unwarranted self-trust may lead these persons to make self-righteous or even racist condemnations of others who have different beliefs or expectations, a point to which I will return in Part Three.

Second, the definitions of trust favored by Baier and Fukuyama tend toward cronyism. We are to trust people in the community who have the same values, the same norms, as we do. Thus Baier argues that a wife will place her child in the care of her spouse only if she thinks her spouse shares her view of good parenting and nurture.(8) While this description may capture the way many persons do think, it does not follow that trust must be or should be based on shared norms. We might, for example, trust persons because they are willing to disagree with us when they think we are in error. Their disagreement may aid us in refining our own thinking and perhaps enable us to avoid some fatal error. In this case, our trustees might be said to display good will toward us and to show themselves trustworthy even though our initial outlook diverged from theirs. If the trustor is the type of person to recognize that disagreement has value, then she may trust the person with different norms on the ground that it may benefit her in the long run to have this person as her friend.(9)

Third, neither of the definitions sheds any light on the many normative issues involved in trusting. They tell us only that the trustor expects the good will of the trusted party. But who is to judge what qualifies as good will? If party A “trusts” B to do whatever he tells her to do, then trustor A’s expectation may look to B more like manipulation than good faith or one of Fukuyama’s social virtues. B’s perception may lead her to break off the relation because she never expected that she would be used in this fashion when she first accepted A’s trust. Or the trustor A may grow frustrated when B fails to conform to his expectations. A may judge that B is not showing him good will, accuse her of betrayal, and terminate the relation.

It may be doubted whether the trustor’s expectation qualifies as genuine trust in a case like the above. It might be better to define trust as the trustor’s expectation of being the recipient of the trustee’s continuing good will. When we trust others, we do not look for their good will in the next nanosecond. Rather, we expect this good will for the foreseeable future. In this sense, authentic trust, like genuine love, might be said to be an intimation of immortality. The revised definition helps to force the crucial normative issue of whether the trustor has some responsibility or obligation to behave in such a way as to continue to merit the good will of the trustee for the foreseeable future. To put the same point slightly differently: We need to examine whether the trustor has some responsibility for ensuring that the expectations she projects onto the trustee are appropriately formed. Professionals know all too well how often clients accuse them of betrayal when it is the client’s expectation, not the professional’s performance, that needs further scrutiny. Jane Austen’s novels are filled with characters who misjudge one another’s intentions and actions and who consequently dismiss as untrustworthy the very persons whom they arguably should be trusting. These characters’ virtue does not lie in the fact that they think of themselves as trusting or in the mere fact that they have trusted someone. Rather, their virtue resides in their willingness to reconsider their expectations and to admit that they were the ones in error, the ones who had not trusted as they should. Perhaps authentic trust — i.e., trust that expects ongoing good will — presupposes trustors who are self-critical, who value disagreement, and who are willing to consider whether they are acting in a manner consistent with continuing relations.


A second issue concerns the value of trust. Fukuyama contends that trust is a social virtue that creates social capital.(10) It does so by allowing persons to organize and spontaneously associate with others.(11) This ability, in turn, permits the formation of large-scale cooperative enterprises such as multinational corporations governed by professional managers. Fukuyama contends that in “high trust” societies such as Germany, Japan, and the United States, we find thriving economies organized around large corporations. In “low trust” societies such as Latin America, by contrast, businesses are family-owned. These family-owned businesses do not trust outsiders and choose family members instead of professional managers to run the enterprise. This lack of trust results, Fukuyama contends, in a less vital economy in Latin American countries.(12)

In addition to economic value, trust is thought to have psychological worth. It seems to be a necessary requirement for human development. If children do not bond with and trust in their mothers, development is arrested and the child may become autistic. Trust between friends allows for increasing intimacy. Those who trust may be more inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt to others. Such generosity breeds further trust as the friends come to realize that they will not be judged constantly and will not be held to some strict system of rigid accountability.

In more general terms, cooperation and the good life become difficult, if not impossible, without trust.(13) We could try to elicit and enforce cooperation through contracts or surveillance. These measures, though, implicitly rely upon trust. We are willing to employ contracts in our business dealings and other relations because we believe that the legal system and other institutional apparatus can be trusted to interpret and enforce these contracts in a way that will not harm us. We can subject these mechanisms to legal regulation, but then we will need regulators to regulate the regulators. If we are to avoid an endless regress, we will have to trust persons at some point to look after our interests. Even if we were to place people under surveillance, we would still have to trust the technicians who maintain and use the surveillance equipment not to betray us.(14) Moreover, we cannot specify every relevant circumstance or condition of every human interaction even if we wanted to do so. At some point we are simply driven to trust other persons. As Baier jokes, even Hobbes, a staunch defender of a social contract and a “born twin to fear,”(15) had to trust his mother to feed him.(16)

Trust becomes a particularly important concept when we look beyond the traditional focus on voluntary relations among persons who are more or less equals. Traditionally, ethical theorists have searched for the norms of well-regulated social living in the “cool distanced relations between more or less free and equal adult strangers, say, the members of an all-male club with members’ rules and rules for dealing with rule breakers and where the form of cooperation was restricted to ensuring that each member could read his Times in peace and have no one step on his gouty toes.”(17) As this quote from Baier makes clear, the typical contractual approach to ethics emphasizes relations of non-interference and minimal rules for securing them. This perspective glosses over questions “concerning our proper attitude to our children, to the ill, to our relatives, friends and lovers.”(18) It tends to ignore the hungry infant, the aging father, the sick patient, and the desperate defendant who need positive help and substantial intervention in their lives. In these cases, the requisite help for such vulnerable parties may be long-term and involve a considerable commitment of emotional energy, time, and resources. This commitment frequently is not a matter of right. A father may donate a kidney to save his beloved dying son. The father’s gesture is one of beneficence or caring

Furthermore, when there is a substantial difference in two parties’ relative power, trust functions as an important alternative to “a code of ethics which is designed for those equal in power [and which offers] an offensive pretense of equality as a substitute for its actuality.”(19) These unequal relations are not well-modelled by traditional contract theory because the trust is maximal, rather than minimal, and because the vulnerable party has very little punitive power.(20) In these relations, trust substitutes for punitive power. We do and should trust precisely in those cases where we cannot control the other’s response.

While I would not disagree with many of these points, these arguments are less straightforward than they initially appear. Sometimes individuals and corporations pursue their private ambitions at public expense by hiding behind claims that they are acting in the public trust.(21) Even if we accept that trust creates social capital, this does not make it a virtue. The shared norm that forms the basis of trust might be a mutual dislike of outsiders or of some other racial group. Consider Fukuyama’s example of “high-trust” behavior by the Germans: When Daimler-Benz was hit by declining sales and faced bankruptcy, a coalition of companies with which they were accustomed to doing business joined with Deutsche Bank to bail out the manufacturer of luxury autos. Fukuyama wants us to conclude that “economic actors supported one another because they believed that they formed a community based on mutual trust.”(22) However, on the preceding page, we learn that Daimler-Benz was saved “to prevent it from being bought out by a group of Arab investors.”(23) My earlier point about trust as cronyism is relevant here: The players seem less united by an ethically exemplary trust and more by fear and prejudice against non-Germans. We should recall, in this connection, that the Mafia and Bonnie and Clyde could also be cited as examples of high trust arrangements allowing for cooperative endeavors. Yet the chosen endeavors in these cases (extortion

Moreover, a trusting relation (or at least what commonly passes for one) may not respect individuals. When one of my students told me, “I trust my mother because she taught me everything I need to know,” I found myself wondering about the goodness of this parent-child relationship. This student was nurtured into adulthood, yet the bond in this case — the shared norm — appears to be pathological. The child is so dependent upon the mother’s good will that he has come to think he does not need to listen to or learn from others. Perhaps the reason why the Greeks did not treat trust as a virtue was because they saw that uncritical reliance on another is at best morally neutral and frequently quite pernicious.(24)

Racist cronyism and pathological dependence are not the only morally suspect forms of what passes for trust. Even in its more apparently innocuous forms, trust (understood as the expectation of another’s good will) can be quite controlling and may lead persons to dismiss peremptorily others whose only sin is that they have a different perspective or alternate mores than the trustor. We need to remember that, when we trust people, we do not and cannot fully specify with what exactly we have entrusted them. Those who accept our trust inevitably put themselves at some risk because they do not know exactly to which expectations they are consenting to conform. A mother cannot tell a trusted babysitter everything this babysitter should do in every emergency nor what she should not do while she is in the mother’s house. According to Baier, the mother must rely upon the babysitter’s discretion.(25) This reliance introduces a problem, however. Even if the mother and babysitter have a verbal agreement as to what is to be done, the two still may disagree radically in practice. To the mother, “the children are to be put down to sleep at nine” may mean “they are to stay in bed from nine o’clock onwards.” To the babysitter, these instructions may mean “at nine o’clock begin the arduous process of getting the children to go to sleep and then prepare for an hour’s worth of drinks, story reading, bathroom trips, and so on.” If the mother regards firmness in enforcing bedtimes as one of the centerpieces in teaching children to conform their behavior to limits, the babysitter’s more “laid-back” caring will not count as an appropriate use of discretion. However, note that now we are saying that the trustee’s discretion is appropriate if and only if it exactly mirrors the use the trustor would make of his or her own discretion. But, the trustee cannot read the trustor’s mind. Even if the trustee could read the trustor’s mind, the trustee might exercise discretion quite differently (assume, for example, that the trustor is vicious, the trustee virtuous). Therefore, current versions of ethics of trust risk converting the trustee into a sacrificial lamb. The trustee is condemned to learn, ex post facto, that, in the eyes of the trustor, she has committed some horrible sin. She stands accused and convicted of being a betrayer of trust on account of some offense that other reasonable parties might not find all that blameworthy.

Defining trust as the expectation by the trustor that the trustee will use his or her discretion in the manner that the trustor thinks good or appropriate seems plausible only as long as the theorists concentrate on relations in which expectations are relatively clearly defined in advance of the interaction and where discretion is limited. I can trust my mailman to deliver the mail daily because I know, and he has accepted, that he is bound by civil service regulations to do so.(26) The case is considerably more complicated when we extend our horizons and consider cross-cultural interactions. Persons who have lived abroad know how easy it is to violate another’s expectations. The individual senses that she has committed afaua’ pas. She perceives that it would be a further misstep to ask for an explanation as to which unwritten norms have been violated. In the ethics of trust offered by Fukuyama and Baier, the trustee — the foreigner — is responsible for a breach of trust. The foreigner failed to use her discretion as the trustor would. Therefore, according to the trustor, a betrayal has occurred, and the trustee should seek the other’s forgiveness in an effort to preserve the relation.(27)

It is unclear, however, whether forgiveness is called for. Forgiveness presupposes that another is responsible for having given injury. Is the uncouth foreigner guilty of injury, given her total absence of malice and given the fact that what is perceived as injury may, in fact, not be such? Her ignorance here seems inevitable, not blameworthy, given that no human being has full knowledge of others’ expectations. At worst, she may be guilty of a kind of bad luck in happening to say something that diverged greatly from what the trustor found socially acceptable. Furthermore, how can she ask for forgiveness if she does not even know in what way she has offended? If trust does indeed require that trustees always ask for the “betrayed’s” forgiveness, then I think something is seriously wrong with our definition of trust. As the above example shows, this demand frequently must appear absurd, and imposing such a requirement on the trustee is, I think, the result of theorists insufficiently attending to the individuality and perspective of the trustee.

For all of these reasons, then, we should question the rather extravagant claims being made on behalf of the value of trust by many philosophers and social and legal theorists. While there certainly are limitations to the extent to which we can rely on contracts and rules to regulate successfully human interactions and to inspire cooperation, merely shifting from a contract paradigm to a trust paradigm will not necessarily usher in a golden age of caring, cooperative relations. Discussions of trust almost always gloss over the perspectival problem sketched above.(28) As long as this problem is not addressed, relations are likely to disintegrate and become acrimonious as persons accuse one another of betrayal. In Part Four, I will describe two strategies for engendering trust that do try to grapple with this perspectival issue. First I want to identify another major problem with current theorizing on the subject of trust.


A third area of concern centers on how we identify who qualifies as a trustor, trustee, or object of trust and how we determine when we are justified in saying that someone is or is not “trusting.” The problem of identifying a trustor is somewhat analogous to the vexing issue in professional ethics of identifying who the client is. If an attorney is representing a father in a child custody case, it would seem obvious that the father is the attorney’s client and that it is he and he alone who is trusting the attorney to look after his welfare. However, if the attorney comes to believe on good grounds that this father has molested the child, the attorney may begin to wonder whether she does not owe some loyalty to the child as well. It could be plausibly argued that the child implicitly has reposed his or her trust in the attorney.

I do not here presume to resolve the issue of whether or not the child should be viewed as the attorney’s client. I cite the case only to show that the precise nature and extent of our trusting relations often are not clear. It is somewhat misleading, therefore, for theorists to talk as if trust involves persons with well-formed expectations entering into interpersonal relations in order to reap mutual benefits. We need to take care to try and identify those less obvious, and frequently nonvoluntary, trusting relations created by our actions (e.g., the lawyer’s decision to represent the possibly abusive father) lest, in forming a trusting relation with one person, we unsuspectingly betray the trust of an unknown third party. This problem of identifying just who the parties to trusting relations are seems destined to become more complex and pressing. Consider this typical case in modern medicine: Suppose my mother is diagnosed by her physician as carrying the gene for diabetes. Because our genotypes by definition belong to us as members of a gene pool, when my mother trusted her physician to run these genetic tests, she implicated me as well in a trusting relation with this physician. I may not know this physician. Or I may know her and dislike her for what I take to be good reasons. Yet suddenly I find myself dependent upon her good will. The physician almost certainly will consider the possibility that I, like my mother, have a genetic predisposition towards diabetes. I have little choice but to rely on the physician’s good will and to trust that she will not indiscriminately share her suspicions and test results with my insurance company, my employer, etc.

Identification of the trustor, the trustee, and the object of trust is further complicated by the fact that these identifications are so highly theory-dependent. (I will illustrate this theory- dependence by using several examples from Fukuyama’s analysis, but the points could be easily generalized to apply to biases of other theories of trust.) Assume a theorist has a monocausal theory of human relations and believes, as Fukuyama does, that trust is the key to thriving economies and worker cooperation. It then begins to look as if those groups or nationalities who experience labor unrest must be “low trust” agents. Hence, if the French have labor difficulties, it is because the workers on the floor do not trust their managers and look instead to state ministries to protect their interests.(29) However, this example does not prove that the French lack trust. It shows rather that the French trust persons in the ministry rather than the local management. From their perspective (which happens to diverge from Fukuyama’s), the ministry is more trustworthy. Similarly, even if it is true that African-Americans have looked to political power instead of economic associations to promote their economic interests,(30) it does not follow that African-Americans are low-trust persons. Blacks historically have been rebuffed in their efforts to form alliances with whites

Furthermore, if we assume we know exactly what forms trust always takes, then we may make unsympathetic, and maybe even racist, claims about other persons. For example, Fukuyama concludes that the French and Italians are low-trust, non-cooperative people because they do not enter readily into a whole host of voluntary associations

Finally, I would note that there clearly is a close relation between 1) what the theorist takes to be the value of trust and 2) the degree of trust the theorist imputes to persons. If trust is seen as the major determinant of economic success, it becomes tempting to argue that persons who have not enjoyed high economic prosperity must be low trust people. Hence, Fukuyama contends that American blacks have had ample access to capital in the form of minority-owned banks, but these banks have failed because there has been little demand by blacks for investment capital. The African-American community “has a lower-than-average rate of self-employment and small-business ownership.”(32) On Fukuyama’s theory of trust, this dearth of ownership is attributable to the lack of trust within this ethnicity, resulting in a low degree of spontaneous sociability, few cooperative business ventures, and little demand for capital.

Why is there less trust among members of this racial group? Fukuyama supposes it is because blacks were “decultured” during the period of slavery.(33) This account of a group’s degree of trust raises more questions about the nature of trust and its value than it answers. In the first place, who “decultured” the blacks if not the “high-trust” well-organized, profit-maximizing white slave owners? If so, what is so praiseworthy about being a spontaneously organizing group of people? Furthermore, the argument in support of the claim that African-Americans lack trust is circular. The evidence for the alleged lack of trust is poor economic performance, but the cause of the poor performance is the lack of trust! Finally, any lack of economic success surely could be due to a number of factors–e.g., prejudice against buying goods produced by African-Americans


This last comment points to a fourth area of concern: How is trust best engendered? This question has been touched on in theories of negotiation(34) and discussed at some length by professionals concerned with the role client confidentiality plays in establishing doctor-patient or lawyer-client trust.(35) Less has been written on the larger question of how trust, particularly ethically good trust (i.e., what I am calling “genuine” trust), can be fostered among human beings in general. I will begin by trying to group and summarize the various strategies that have been advocated. There are at least five such strategies, three of which I do not think are likely to succeed in engendering ethically good trust and two which hold more promise.

Avoidance Strategy

The first strategy might be termed the “avoidance strategy.” If trust is the trustor’s expectation of the trustee’s good will, then parties who want to be trusted must avoid actions and character traits that call into question their good will toward the would-be trustor. On this view, distrust is “warranted when people lie or deliberately deceive, break promises, are hypocritical or insincere, seek to manipulate us, are corrupt and dishonest, cannot be counted on to follow moral norms, are incompetent, [or] have no concern for us or deliberately seek to harm us.”(36) Persons who wish to avoid being betrayed should not place any confidence in persons exhibiting one or more of these traits and behaviors. Those desiring to be trusted by others equally must avoid these traits and behaviors. Yet this list is so sweeping that almost no one will be worthy of trust. Each of us is incompetent in some fields. Are we to distrust a lawyer just because she is not a brain surgeon? Maybe we should trust people in some realms with some tasks and some information and not with other tasks in other realms. Or maybe it is we, the trustors, who need to reappraise our expectations. After all, we are all sometimes incompetent even in our own fields of expertise. A doctor seeing a patient with a new disease will not know exactly what to do. To say that his ignorance in such a case makes him untrustworthy seems too harsh a judgment.

This checklist approach to establishing trust is suspect because not all of the traits or practices are categorically bad.(37) The trust theorist Govier would have us condemn everyone who lacks concern for us.(38) Yet there are many persons who have no concern for us simply because they do not know we even exist. Such obliviousness can hardly be construed as a sign of ill will on their part. Furthermore, those who care for us may sometimes lie to us out of a good faith belief that they are helping us. Sometimes they may break their promises to us. For example, my friend may have promised to help me jumpstart my car. On the way over, he comes across an accident. He breaks his promise to me in order to help the other person to the hospital. However, he does not thereby automatically become untrustworthy. On the contrary, I may see him as a conscientious, sensitive person of good judgment who deserves even more of my trust in the future because he broke his promise to me in this case.(39)

In still other cases, we may find that some fault (e.g., nonperformance) lies not in the party we have trusted but in our bad judgment as trustors. My niece fails to bring back all of the groceries on the list. I trusted her to buy these groceries

Whether we are entitled to assert that betrayal has occurred in cases of broken promises, deceit, conflicts of interest, etc. will depend upon how we assess the context in which these actions (allegedly) have occurred. I accept that there may be times when we should distrust some party. I am also aware that some of our society’s most prominent trustees (corporate directors, public officials, professionals) have relied heavily upon a variant of this avoidance strategy, trying to assure their trustworthiness by eschewing practices or commitments that would involve them in a potential or actual conflict of interest. Nevertheless, I worry about the habit of mind we are instilling in our citizenry when we encourage them to distrust anyone who has a conflict of interest, broken a promise, told a lie, been incompetent, and so on. To mistrust one another on the basis of some list of allegedly categorical wrongs short-circuits the very process of communication and dialogue we need if we are to determine collectively the conditions under which distrust might be warranted. We need arguments to establish whether mistrust is justified in some case or not. Simply to assume that it is justified is unwarranted and reflects an arrogance on the part of the trustor.

Disclosure Strategy

A second strategy for engendering trust could be termed the “disclosure strategy.” This strategy aims at eliciting trust by having the trustor inform others about her actions and plans and then seek their consent to these activities. Thus, we see doctors and lawyers attempting to build trust by seeking the informed consent of clients concerning the medical procedure or legal strategy they wish to pursue on the client’s behalf. By showing such respect for the other’s point of view and autonomy, the professional attempts to demonstrate her good will toward the would-be trustee. This strategy, too, is ridden with difficulty. Clients may not understand what they are told regarding the desirability of some legal strategy. As medical procedures become ever more complex, informed consent looks more and more like a sham. If the client has not grasped what is at stake in some legal strategy or medical operation, he probably still will feel betrayed if things go badly in his eyes, even if he has given his “informed” consent to the procedure in question. In fact, the client or patient may feel more betrayed having supposedly given his consent than he would have if he had not been led by the professional into thinking that he understood exactly to what he was consenting. Furthermore, with informed consent, context once again matters a great deal. By seeking my consent to surgery after they had given me the anaesthetic, my eye doctors vitiated the whole purpose of informed consent. It seems dubious whether some mechanical procedure — e.g., obtaining the other’s consent — will do much to encourage moral trust. Reliance on the disclosure strategy may simply produce a class of trustees who go through the motions of obtaining people’s consent.

Experiential Strategy

A third strategy is the experiential one advocated by Baier.(40) She, too, questions whether there are or can be any rules (e.g., avoid these fifteen behaviors) or procedures capable of guaranteeing an agent’s trustworthiness. Instead, we should look for institutions that have shown themselves reliable in the past. We should place our trust exclusively in these institutions or others resembling them in structure. While there is no guarantee of absolute trustworthiness of any human institution, our experience has shown us, Baier thinks, that the Supreme Court elected for life has proven more trustworthy than our allegedly more accountable elected Congressional offices.(41) However, we are once more up against the problem of perspective: Who is making this assessment of “our” experience? Liberal academics may trust the Court, but, by and large, conservatives do not. Recent initiatives in Congress suggest that many ordinary citizens also do not trust court-mandated affirmative action plans and would rather work for change through the House of Representatives. What is more, humans are fallible

Strategy of Office-Based Trust

A fourth mode of engendering trust employs the idea of an “office” or “profession.” The patient or defendant comes to expect the good will of a doctor or lawyer on the strength of a covenant (in Latin, professio) made by the professional or office holder. The latter promises to promote some specific good (e.g., health, legal justice) of some particular clientele (the sick, the accused or victimized). Over time the public comes to associate particular promises (e.g., the Hippocratic oath) to promote specific client goods (health) with specific professions (medicine). When the good to be promoted is a genuine one (and we generally do think of health and justice as genuine goods(42)), the publicly known promise or covenant eventually becomes the basis for a working relationship between two strangers. Such relationships become especially viable if and when the party desiring to be trusted promises not only to promote the client’s good but also to be available to assist the vulnerable client-trustor as long as and whenever the client needs help. Hence, we see professionals who want to be trusted voluntarily binding themselves to be “on call

Of course, occupying an office does not guarantee that the office-holder will prove trustworthy. We know of many ministers, doctors, and lawyers who have abused their positions and lost the trust of their parishioners, patients, and clients. Nevertheless, rooting trust in an office or profession has numerous advantages as a trust-engendering strategy. Insofar as the office or profession is grounded in a promise to help a vulnerable party secure a genuine good, the trust it encourages will be moral, and the trusted party will be worthy of ongoing or genuine trust. It thus contrasts favorably with the experiential strategy, which considers only the question of whom people happen to have trusted, for whatever reason, in the past. Because the past shows us that there has been plenty of trust among members of the militia and Ku Klux Klan, the experiential strategy is a less ethically sound means of fostering trust than the office-based one.

The generality of the promises made by professionals (e.g., the doctor pledges “to come for the benefit of the sick”(44)) is also a plus because it grants the trustee a large degree of discretion. While it is tempting to think that people become more trustworthy if we impose many rules upon them, the opposite may be true for four reasons. First, discretion is inevitable despite such fictions as informed consent. Pretending that discretion is limited when it in fact is not amounts to deceiving clients and encourages them in the illusion that they have more control over the trustee than they actually do. Trustor and trustee both are likely to wind up frustrated and mistrustful of one another. Second, subjecting those who would help us to a host of rules may lead them to feel paralyzed, afraid to do anything for fear of being sued. Third, if we hem in our trustees with rules, we run the risk of lessening their sense of moral responsibility. They may settle for doing the bare minimum the law requires and may cease to think critically about what they are doing. They may come to think of themselves as morally “covered” as long as they abide by the letter of the law.(45) Fourth, we may so limit the discretion of our trustees that we render them incapable of setting appropriate priorities.(46) In the case of emergencies or other unforeseen developments, we might be better off if our trustees were free to use their judgment instead of being bound to follow some set of rules. As we have seen, whether some procedure or practice is good often depends upon the conditions under which the action is performed. The office-based strategy, unlike that of disclosure, copes with this context-dependency by maximizing the scope for trustee discretion while still giving would-be trustors a good reason to repose trust in the office-holder.

Someone might object that the office-based strategy is subject to the flip-side of the objection I levelled at the avoidance strategy. Earlier in this article I contended that whether an action such as breaking a promise renders someone truly untrustworthy is open to debate and that, consequently, it is invalid to claim that every promise-breaker must be deemed untrustworthy. Will not persons from different backgrounds and with different training disagree over what constitutes legal justice and whether some procedure is consistent with it? If so, how then can the lawyer’s devoted pursuit of legal justice make her trustworthy in the eyes of a client who has a different understanding of the term? This objection has merit. However, I still would argue that basing our trust on the historically evolving idea of a profession or office is superior to simply adopting some checklist of untrustworthy traits. At least the professions have acknowledged the contestability of their ends and their procedures. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals have an extended history of encouraging debate over such matters as part of their efforts at self-regulation. By fostering debate, they have gone some way toward establishing the trustworthiness of their members. These members merit our trust because, and to the extent that, they have shown themselves willing to subject their actions and positions to scrutiny and debate. The person who adopts the avoidance strategy and privately draws up a list of objectionable behaviors has not done even this much.

Strategy of Trusting As a Matter of Policy

What, though, engenders trust in those cases where the relation does not involve any profession or office? This problem brings me to a fifth strategy: trusting as a matter of policy. Mahatma Gandhi and William James(47) are two well-known proponents of this strategy. Because human relations are extremely nuanced, involving risks we cannot calculate and conditions of action we cannot predict, and because descriptions of actions are open to dispute, we are, in this view, better off simply proceeding on the assumption that others mean well and will respond generously to our trust in them. While we may not be able to prove that this approach benefits us in the long run, adopting a policy of “willed trust” is not irrational. We can adduce a number of arguments in its favor. First, as I have been at pains to point out, when we judge someone else untrustworthy, our judgment may be mistaken. If we are wise, we will treat our judgments of others’ character as suspect. This insight takes the form of a practical maxim to treat others as though they were capable of honorable actions. We may disagree with others’ opinions or actions. However, we will be more inclined to try to persuade them of their error if we see them as self-interested persons like us who are acting on their understanding of what is good rather than as “bad people pursuing immoral ends through illegitimate means.”(48) This cynical view can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I distrust you. You, in turn, feel justified in treating me dishonestly because, by doing so, you place yourself on the same moral footing as I am on. We are then caught in a mutually reinforcing cycle of cynicism and distrust.(49) By contrast, a policy of refraining from demonizing others has the advantage of keeping us in conversation with them and in keeping our own opinions in play. Who knows? We may discover that it is we, rather than our “betrayers,” who have erred or acted less than honorably.

Second, adopting a reasoned policy of trust inclines us to listen to others. If we are not afraid of others and try to avoid seeing them as bad people, we will make friends with them more easily. In addition, we will be more likely to preserve our friendships if we try to understand why our friends have acted as they have instead of immediately condemning them as evil. Friendship looks beyond justice. If we keep score of perceived hurts and joys, we will be inclined to do no more than the bare minimum for our friends and perhaps even begrudge them this. Attributing good will to them — or at least, seeing them as relevantly like ourselves and giving them the opportunity to explain their actions to us — encourages our friends to remain such. These friends, in turn, can help us make better choices and perceive ourselves more accurately.

Third, if our “willed trust” enables us to establish and maintain friendships with persons who, like us, are willing to explain and critically scrutinize both their and our behavior, then we can jointly evolve a process for keeping ourselves worthy of genuine trust. I argued earlier that trust has the idea of ongoingness built into itself. Because future circumstances may arise that call into question your good will toward me, what justifies my trust in you now? A reasoned policy of willed trust goes some way toward answering that question: I trust you now for exactly the same reason I will trust you in the future — namely, that you, like me, have shown yourself to be willing to subject your position to the test of critical argument.

This fifth strategy has difficulties of its own. Does not such trusting come close to foolish faith? The client who trusts an attorney to heal him or a doctor to write his will is likely to get badly hurt. I am not advocating, therefore, that persons go around naively trusting any old Tom, Dick, or Harry or that we substitute a policy of willed trust for a strategy of trusting in an office. I do think, though, that these two strategies could be profitably viewed as complementary. Rooting trust in the idea of an office or profession seems effective when two parties who do not know one another 1) want to work together to pursue a specific, genuine good (e.g., health of the patient) and 2) have no particular reason actively to distrust one another. In such a case, the professional’s apparent conformity to the conditions for office (e.g., being on call, maintaining confidentiality, keeping appointments, etc.) helps to overcome a thoughtful person’s hesitation to rely on and become vulnerable to a total stranger. However, when the relation involves no office or when there is a long history of distrust (think of the case of the colonizer and colonized or the labor union and management who have been involved in a five-year strike), a choice on the part of one party to trust the other as a matter of policy may be the only way to begin a friendly relation. The trustor hopes her own generous gesture will be met by a similar one on the part of the other party, thereby creating an opportunity for the two parties to transform their history of shared distrust.


In my beginning is my end. To the question — Should we trust in trust? — I would answer that it depends on what we mean by “trust.” A trust based on shared values is frequently, at best, a form of cronyism and, at worst, a cover for racism, sexism, and nationalism. I have argued that we need to challenge much of what commonly passes for trust. It may be that genuine, ethically good trust is less a matter of identical substantive positions (i.e., A trusts B because B, like A, abhors abortions, hates Asians, and is dedicated to capitalism) and more a matter of the trustor and trustee being committed to conversing with one another in an effort to avoid error, self-righteousness, and bigotry. It may be that each of us needs to make such a commitment in order to become worthy of one another’s trust. Perhaps we need to be focused more on our own trustworthiness and less on the question of whether some other party has honored or betrayed our trust.

If each of us struggles to become worthy of trust, does this mean that we can get rid of the law entirely and rely simply on all our mutual efforts to be trustworthy? We likely will always need the law for some purposes. Nothing in my argument suggests that we can or should eliminate the law entirely from human relations. It does suggest, however, that we should consider modifying our thinking about regulation. The law has tended to specify purely formal requirements trustees (e.g., lawyers and corporate management) should meet. If our judgments of whether breaches of promises, conflicts of interest, etc. have occurred and of whether they are blameworthy is highly contextual, then perhaps laws should be written to give more scope for taking context into account. Furthermore, if a large degree of trustee discretion is inevitable and maybe even morally desirable, then it might be better if laws were to concentrate less on limiting discretion and more on providing for processes that enable trustors and trustees to talk with one another and to work out differences in their expectations. Without such processes, trustors likely will continue to feel betrayed by even those trustees who have been heavily regulated. (1) Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity (New York: Macmillan, 1995).

(2) Annette Baier, “Trust and Anti-Trust,” Ethics 96 (January 1986): 231-60

(3) Some of these philosophers’ concerns are now making their way into legal theorizing. Legal theorist Mitchell takes up some of Baier’s concerns and develops them in Lawrence E. Mitchell, “Trust, Contract, Process,” in Lawrence E. Mitchell ed., Progressive Corporate Law (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995), 185-217.

(4) George Santayana explores what he calls an “animal faith,” a form of trust shared by animals and human infants. Santayana is quoted in James Hillman, Loose Ends (Dallas: Spring Publications, 1975), 64.

(5) Baier,”Trust,” 233-35.

(6) Fukuyama, 26.

(7) See Trudy Govier, “Self-Trust, Autonomy, and Self-Esteem,” Hypatia 8 (Winter 1993), no. 1: 99-120.

(8) Baier, “Trust,” 253.

(9) It might be argued that, in this case, the trustor trusts the trustee’s judgment rather than in any shared norms. This line of thought has merit and is one I pursue at length in a forthcoming book. However, the trust literature, including the works by Baier and Fukuyama, grounds trust in shared, substantive norms.

(10) Fukuyama, passim.

(11) The “social virtues … encourage spontaneous sociability and organizational innovation….” Fukuyama, 48.

(12) Fukuyama. 1-57.

(13) “Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.” Sissela Bok, Lying (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 31n. “A society in which the trust principle is relegated to relative unimportance or, more to the point, to areas of life such as familial relations which, while important, have been treated as peripheral to the public life of our society, is a society which contains within itself the seeds of disintegration.” Lawrence E. Mitchell, “Trust, Contract, Process” in Lawrence E. Mitchell, ed., Progressive Corporate Law (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995) 209.

(14) Govier, “Distrust,” 54.

(15) Baier, “Trust,” 241.

(16) Baier, “Trust,” 241-42.

(17) Baier, “Trust,” 248.

(18) Annette Baier, “What Do Women Want in a Moral Theory,” Nous 19 (March 1985) no. 1: 55.

(19) Baier,”Trust,” 247.

(20) Baier, “Women,” 59.

(21) Deborah A. Stone, “Promises and Public Trust: Rethinking Insurance Law Through Stories,” Texas Law Review 72 (May 1994) no. 6: 1435-46.

(22) Fukuyama, 8.

(23) Fukuyama, 7.

(24) Mitchell asserts that “trust [is] a virtue in the Aristotelian sense.” Mitchell, “Trust,” 199. This claim is highly suspect. Aristotle himself does not include trust in his list of virtues. See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, especially books 3-5. I would contend that Aristotle understood that trust can never be a freestanding virtue. Our expectations need to be well-formed if trust is to avoid slipping into manipulation and projection.

(25) Baier, “Trust,” 236.

(26) This example is drawn from Baier, “Trust,” 239.

(27) Baier, “Trust,” 238.

(28) For a sustained and nuanced argument in favor of greater trust within corporations and greater co-operation, see Lawrence E. Mitchell, “Co-operation and Constraint in the modern Corporation: An Inquiry into the Causes of Corporate Immorality,” Texas Law Review 73 (January 1995) no. 3: 477-537 and his “Trust” article, previously cited. One major difficulty with Mitchell’s analysis is that he treats all trust and cooperation as ethically good. They obviously are not so. As I noted, one easily can find many counterexamples to this thesis. Furthermore, he seems to think that there is a set of rules for trust-based systems. See Mitchell, “Trust,” 205. I offer arguments against this approach in Part Four. There is no universal spectator point of view from which to describe actions, much less judge them. In order to apply a rule to some action, we will need to characterize the action under some description. These descriptions are notoriously contestable, a point Mitchell ignores. Until this problem of contestability is addressed, we have little basis on which to think that a trust paradigm is going to lead to extensive cooperation among persons.

(29) Fukuyama, 9. (30) Fukuyama, 304.

(31) Fukuyama, 49-57.

(32) Fukuyama, 297.

(33) The language of “deculturation” is Fukuyama’s, not mine. Fukuyama, 296. I do not accept the implication that African-Americans are without a culture.

(34) Roger Fisher and Scott Brown, Getting Together (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), especially chapter 7

(35) I summarize and analyze various arguments for client confidentiality in Koehn, The Ground of Professional Ethics (London: Routledge, 1994), chapter 8.

(36) Govier, “Distrust,” 53.

(37) Nor is it obvious that we even need some of these practices in order to get along with one another. Baier does an interesting thought experiment in which she imagines a community without the institution of promising. She argues rather persuasively that such a community could still be trusting. Annette Baier, Tanner Lectures, Lecture #2, unpublished version, 22-32.

(38) Govier, “Distrust,” 53.

(39) Similar cases abound in the professions. Does my lawyer become untrustworthy if he breaks a promise to meet with me to discuss a pending divorce case in order to file a last minute death row appeal? I would say no. Professionals are entitled to revisit continually their priorities in light of their core mission.

(40) Mitchell, too, would have us rely on our past experience of persons and institutions as the basis for our judgments of trustworthiness. Mitchell, “Trust,” 204.

(41) Baier, Tanner Lectures, Lecture #2, unpublished version, 15-17.

(42) I argue that the ends of the learned professions of medicine, law, and the ministry are genuine goods in Koehn, 69-116. This argument is too long and complex to reproduce here.

(43) Koehn, passim.

(44) An English version of the Hippocratic oath appears in Leon Kass, Toward A More Natural Science (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 228-29.

(45) For an argument along these lines, see Mitchell, “Co-operation,” passim.

(46) I develop this point at length in Koehn, 39-43.

(47) M.K. Gandhi, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Publications Division, Ministry of Broadcasting, Government of India, vol. XXII

(48) Fisher and Brown, quoted in Govier, “Distrust,” 61.

(49) H.J.N. Horsburgh. a leading interpreter of Gandhi’s thought, develops this line of reasoning in his article “The Ethics of Trust,” Philosophical Quarterly 10 (1960): 343-54.

DARYL KOEHN, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Wieklander Chair of Professional Ethics, DePaul University. I am indebted to Professors Laura Pincus and Jeffrey Nesteruk for comments on an earlier draft of this paper. I also benefitted from comments made by participants at the Vancouver conference of the Society for Business Ethics and by members of Rutgers University Faculty of Management and Philosophy Department who kindly invited me to present a paper.