CONTRIBUTOR / Sanford Goldberg
PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY
WEINBERG COLLEGE OF ARTS & SCIENCES / Philosophy
Philosophers are interested in the nature, rationality, and ethics of trust. Each category is highly debated and raises thorny questions. For example, most philosophers believe that trust is a kind of reliance on another person that, when violated, provokes not only disappointment but a feeling of betrayal. But why? And, in the ethical realm, does our obligation to trust a loved one require us to ignore evidence that casts doubt on her trustworthiness?
Trust is a topic that’s of great interest to philosophers. In philosophy, two subfields typically look at trust. One of them is ethics, and the other is the theory of knowledge, which is also known as “epistemology.”
The topics that philosophers look into, when they look into trust, are three: the nature of trust, the rationality of trust, and the ethics of trust. And, in this brief segment, what I thought I would do is run through all three.
When it comes to the nature of trust, philosophers are very interested in distinguishing trust from dependence and reliance. It’s a controversial issue whether trust is actually distinct from dependence or reliance, or if it’s just a type of dependence or reliance.
Most philosophers think that it’s a type of reliance, and the question is, how does it differ from mere reliance on someone?
And one of the key insights — if in fact it is an insight — of philosophers who think about trust is that trust is a kind of reliance that gives rise not merely to disappointment but to a sense of betrayal when one’s trust is violated.
And really, philosophers interested in the nature of trust ask what kind of thing is trust, such that violations of that trust yield a sense of betrayal rather than mere disappointment?
Philosophers interested in the nature of trust also are interested in the varieties of trust. And here, they distinguish between main types. The main type is what we would call “practical trust” — that’s trusting someone or some institution to do something or to be a certain way, or to refrain from doing something or to refrain from being a certain way.
The other variety of trust is what philosophers call “intellectual” or “epistemic trust,” which is the kind of trust that you have in a person or a source of information when you trust it, when you rely on it for the truth in what it tells you.
Many people think that epistemic or intellectual trust is a special case of practical trust, and that is an issue that philosophers will discuss at great length in a variety of different ways.
When it comes to the rationality of trust, we need to distinguish between two types of rationality. The first type I would call “practical rationality.” Practical rationality is the sort of rationality when it’s in your interest to do something — so, it’s rational when it’s in your interest to do something.
You might ask, when is it practically rational to trust? And here, the answer will again depend on what kind of cost-benefit analysis you do. Suppose that if you trust someone, then he or she will be your friend. That’s obviously a good thing, and that goes on the benefit side.
Suppose that you’ll have lots of friends. That makes it very, very good to trust. These are the kinds of considerations that might actually make it practically rational to trust.
But you can take a different attitude towards the rationality of trust. Suppose what you’re primarily interested in is acquiring true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs. Less interested in things like friendship or other kinds of goodies, instead you’re interested in acquiring true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs.
There, it’s clear that whether or not trusting someone will make them your friend is irrelevant to the kind of belief you want to acquire. Here, we need to talk about epistemic rationality.
What are the conditions under which trust is epistemically rational? Here, philosophers divide into two main camps. One of the camps holds that it’s rational to trust another person — so, to believe what they say — only if you have good independent reasons to regard them as trustworthy.
This view — which in philosophical circles is known as “reductionism” — holds that it’s only when you have those good reasons that it’s rational to trust someone. Those reasons can take a variety of forms.
Perhaps you know someone’s track record. They’re highly reliable, and they’ve been highly reliable in the past, so they’re likely to be reliable on this occasion. Perhaps they look sincere and competent. Those can be reasons to trust.
Other philosophers disagree. They think that you don’t need positive reasons to trust another person; what’s necessary instead is that you lack reasons to regard them as untrustworthy.
They hold, for example, that it’s rational to trust another speaker, in the same way that it’s rational to trust your own perceptual resources, when you don’t have reasons to regard the relied-upon source as untrustworthy — that is, when you don’t have reasons to think that the person with whom you’re interacting is actually unreliable or incompetent or insincere.
That view is known as “antireductionism,” and that’s the opposing view of the reductionist view about the rationality of trust.
I move on now to the final issue that philosophers explore when we think about the nature of trust, and that is the ethics of trust. I take it that it’s uncontroversial to think that we all have ethical obligations to be trustworthy.
For example, we all take it, I suppose, that you shouldn’t lie and you shouldn’t say things for which you don’t have adequate evidence. That’s not particularly controversial.
The more controversial and interesting question arises when we ask whether we have ethical obligations to trust others. Why would you think that you do have ethical obligations to trust others?
Some philosophers remind us, for example, that friendships or loving relationships can require trust on the part of the two people involved. For example, if you have a friend but don’t trust her, that may well undermine the friendship.
Or if you have a partner or a spouse and you don’t trust him, that may undermine the relationship that you have.
These philosophers use these kinds of relationships to suggest that we are sometimes under ethical obligations to trust others.
There’s one case that philosophers use to think about the question about the relationship between the ethics of trust and the rationality of trust. Take a case in which a child of yours or perhaps a very good friend is accused of a horrific crime. And he or she swears to you that he or she is innocent — not guilty as charged.
And now imagine that the evidence that’s out there is rather substantial and suggests that the person is in fact guilty. If we think that there are ethical obligations to trust our friends or our children, then we reach an interesting conclusion that it may be ethically required of us to believe something that flies in the face of the evidence.
And that is grounds for some interesting philosophical discussion.