Response to Building Cultures of Trust, by Martin E. Marty

[1] Do we trust this book?

What an odd question! Books provide information, make arguments, tell stories. We evaluate them by verifying, assessing, and appraising — not trusting! We would be gullible to trust a book, right?

[2] Not really. Books and media are constantly bombarding us – especially in an election year — with claims and cross-claims, arguments and rebuttals, stories and counter-narratives. We are forced to choose some of them, and which ones we accept, reject, or ignore can help or hurt us, sometimes badly and permanently. But we never have enough time to check all facts, evaluate all arguments, and assess all stories carefully. If we did, we’d never finish. Indeed, the reason we read most books is to summarize and condense reliable information for us in a way that puts us at ease. In the process, thoughtful readers can wind up rejecting what is billed as factual and logical, and accepting what’s supported by insufficient evidence.

[3] This reflection on the experience of reading illustrates several key related features of trust. One is that trust involves situations of vulnerability: human beings are weak, helpless, and possessed of limited power and knowledge, and trust is involved with trying to cope with that vulnerability. A second is the inevitability of trusting. In such situations of vulnerability, it is not a question of whether to trust, but how. A third key feature is discernment; we can trust well or poorly. A fourth element is that trust has an affective dimension, and is not something that we can decide to do or not to do intellectually with the aid of a checklist or set of criteria.

[4] By trust, then, we don’t necessarily mean a moral virtue, something it is always good to have. Rather, to put it briefly and in a preliminary way, trust means deferring with comfort to others, in ways sometimes in our control sometimes not, about a thing or things beyond our knowledge or power, in ways that can potentially hurt us. We vulnerable humans cannot avoid trusting in this world into which we’ve been thrown, so full as it is of things more powerful than we have at our disposal, and of much more information than we can ever hope to possess. Trust is a virtue only when done discerningly.

[5] Much human experience — from having relationships, hiring nannies, and electing politicians to mailing letters, boarding aircraft, playing with toys and eating food — depends on trust. Even scientists and the religious — whether ordinary churchgoers or theologians – exercise trust, though their approaches are very different in instructive ways.1 Both groups have to exercise trust – that is, defer to others about something beyond one’s immediate knowledge — in a set of specific things. For scientists, these things include knowing which data, theories, and findings to credit; for the religious, it includes knowing which leaders, rituals, and prophets’ words to honor. Such trust must be exercised carefully and reflectively, not indiscriminately; those who blindly follow the orders of leaders are not acting religiously but fanatically. And trust is always open to re-evaluation.

[6] Even reading depends on trust. We trust books if the author’s voice warmly engages us in the unfolding conversation with its care, wisdom and experience; we distrust them if something about the facts, analyses, tone, or posturing causes us to balk or resist.

[7] Marty describes his book as “an attempt to bring some philosophical, theological, and certainly historical warrant for the value of [discerningly trusting] cultures, and to suggest that, against all odds, we humans who are normally mistrustful – witness our locks on vaults and our signed contracts – can, as individuals and in collectivities, begin to develop cultures of trust where there have never been any, or restore them where they have been devastated” (37). It’s an elusive subject, fiendishly difficult to write about convincingly. It is all too tempting to package opinions about trust, growing sentimental, bombastic, cynical, or sceptical. Trust is not something you can reliably measure, program, look up in a dictionary, or come across a gold standard for. It is something you and others do all the time, that you cannot avoid doing, that you catch yourself in the process of doing, that has a profound effect on your behavior, that puts you at risk, and that you can do poorly or well. Failure to trust causes us to behave defensively, in an insular and insecure way.

[8] To investigate trust, we have to pay careful attention to keep from becoming sidetracked or dazzled, and we have to keep from smothering the first-hand experience of trusting with second hand, pre-packaged versions. Marty’s book is about the trusting process; more specifically, it is about how we might improve the conditions in which we trust discerningly – which is a virtue. It is about what it would take to build a culture of trust, to fashion ways that communities can “lead participants to count on each other and keep commitments.”

[9] Once again: Do we trust this book?

Yes, and from the very first pages. Here are several things that the author does: First, throughout the book, Marty often envisions himself trying to convince a skeptic of his most important points. What we witness is therefore not Marty holding forth to an audience, but going out of his way to understand and engage them. We see him in the act of taking others seriously, even and especially those who do not share his views.

[10] Second, Marty discusses the views of people who have discussed trust or closely related concepts — not just mainstream philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant, James, and Schutz, but also contemporary scholars including Michael Oakeshott, Leon Kass, Gerda Lerner, Jaroslav Pelikan, Joseph Godfrey, Onora O’Neill, and David Tracy. From this we see that Marty is no foreigner to the issue, no intellectual voyeur, but knows the landscape.

[11] Third, Marty does not try to wrap up his analyses in an unconvincing unity. He often cites a passage or an author and lifts key elements without trying to harmonize: ten elements from a passage by Kass, four witnesses to problems of modernity, six reasons why dialogue is vital. This reassures us that he is aware of how messy the topic is.

[12] Fourth, Marty does not promise the unattainable. He does not attempt to deliver a “solution” to the problem of trust. He reiterates that his intention is to point to incremental measures that can be undertaken to improve conditions that foster trust. These include, most notably, increasing our awareness of the different modes of experience or universes of discourse involved in scientific, religious, and public life through ongoing conversation; and increasing our awareness as well of the “category mistakes” that occur when we misconstrue the boundaries, giving rise to irrelevant arguments that appear to draw these spheres into conflict. This reassures us that Marty is being neither messianic nor martyr-like. He does not make big claims, but prefers to point to episodes involving small subcultures, and to what he calls meliorative activities, or “understandings and strategies that can improve (‘make better’) the conditions of trusting” (3).

[13] These four conversational tactics tend to make us trust the book. But there is yet a deeper reason that leads us to trust it; namely, the sameness of its “message” and of the way the message is delivered. Marty’s authorial style, after all, might just be a particularly persuasive strategy in which to couch a content. Yet Marty’s content – his views about how to improve trusting – are on display in his style itself. He shows us by doing what he says. He is telling us – and showing us by doing it himself – that what leads people to count on each other and keep commitments is to take them seriously, know the views, not try to over-harmonize, and not over-promise. That’s why we trust this book – because it recognizes that the how of the subject is the subject. People, Marty says, who do not make category mistakes are aware they are “viewing the world and inheriting or forming a discourse in a particular way” (135) and he is careful to make clear his own view of the world. He writes that conversation is “key to the development of cultures of trust” (158), and makes his book in effect an ongoing conversation.

[14] But if we must refer to trust, wouldn’t it be better to ask, “Do I trust this book?” or “Is this book trustworthy?” That makes trust the specific act of a specific reader, or the objective property of an object.

[15] No, because Marty recognizes that his task is not to address one or the other pole of trust, but what happens in the subcultures that connect those poles. Trust is something that takes place in a community – with awareness of the possibility of betrayal, and in an environment of people and institutions. In such subcultures, even small experiences of trust can be destructive, creating “vortices that suck up all the energies of a person” (161).

[16] There is no “magic pill” for trust, Marty writes, and the project to improve trust conditions is inevitably going to be ongoing. Just after writing this, Marty imagines a skeptic declaring in exasperation, “What is the point of ‘endless’ ventures?” (165). By this time, Marty has so thoroughly succeeded in getting us to see what he does that we cannot help thinking, “What is the point of ventures that aren’t endless?”

Robert P. Crease is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Stony Brook University. He is the organizer of the Trust Institute at Stony Brook and a monthly columnist for Physics World magazine.

1. See Robert P. Crease, “The Paradox of Trust in Science,” Physics World March 2004, p. 18; “A Question of Trust,” Physics World August 2008, p. 20.

Robert P. Crease

Robert P. Crease is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Stony Brook University. He is the organizer of the Trust Institute at Stony Brook and a monthly columnist for Physics World magazine.