The Moral Weight of Trust

[1] Near the beginning of her 1992 article “Trusting People,” Annette Baier notes that trust “cannot be given except by those who have only limited knowledge, and usually even less control, over those to whom it is given.” Therefore, she reasons, “an omniscient and otherwise omnipotent God will of necessity lack one ability that his human and animal creatures have—to give or withhold trust. The traditional religious commandment has been that we should trust God, not that we should live up to any divine trust in us.”1 Moreover, she believes that religious treatments of trust leave a bad taste. Baier suggests that as a result of Christianity’s toxic amalgamation of trust (in power) with obedience (to power), exhortations to trust have come to be associated with a surrender of both responsible autonomy and critical reflection.

[2] Whether for these reasons or some others, Christian ethicists have been slow to notice the rich and expanding discussion of trust (and trustworthiness, distrust, and betrayals of trust) that is now underway among philosophers, social and organizational theorists, and those who, at the practical level, are trying to improve institutional process and cooperative interaction. Yet it is intriguing to consider the possibility that Christian ethics is or ought to be about how we might live up to divine trust in us, that Baier may have only partially understood Christian trust in God, and that Christian ethics might be considerably enriched by attention to this emerging discussion in other disciplines.

Social Trust

[3] This revitalized interest in trust springs up from dislocation. The activity of trusting, which had been embedded in the nexus of personal relationships (and usually relatively intimate personal relationships—spouses, family members, friends), was heaved out of that context into the public and institutional domain by theorists who began writing about social trust. Moreover, in an intellectual culture shaped to a surprising degree by practices of doubt, skepticism, and suspicion, a few have begun to press a counterargument for the importance of confidence, reliance, and trust. The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998) figures prominently in both of these seismic shifts.

[4] Luhmann begins from the observation that complexity is the problem that social arrangements exist to solve. The world is not an array of stable objects and structures—the world actually has “no limits”—but on the contrary always contains more possibilities than can be realized or even recognized. Systems are arrangements, stable but evolving, for reducing complexity by limiting and controlling contacts with that plenitude lying beyond the systems’ boundaries. Systems select and construct a viable world, but there is nothing necessary about any such constructed pattern of attention and expectation.

[5] In his book Trust, one of the earliest definitive treatments of social trust, Luhmann argues that trust is essential to social functioning because it is the basis of social cohesion.2 If we had to rationally consider, evaluate, and decide everything about every social relation into which we enter (or which is thrust upon us), we would face a complexity beyond any powers of human processing. Trust is essential because it simplifies our social world, reduces the burdens on our time and energy, and makes relatively uncomplicated cooperation possible. Trust is made necessary by freedom. Because human beings are free agents, our actions are neither mechanical nor predictable. The task of anticipating every possible free action of the thousands who affect our lives in any given week is literally unthinkable.

[6] Trust not only simplifies our manifold relationships but also reduces our anxiety about external threats to our well being. According to Luhmann, as levels of social trust decline, levels of fear and anxiety increase—along with all the strategies and maneuvers necessary to protect oneself from threats. For this reason, high levels of distrust defeat cooperation and disrupt social arrangements. The association of trust and risk features prominently in much of the literature on trust, but whereas most theorists tend to explain trust as an individual’s reasoned, voluntary acceptance of risk based on reliable warrants and calculations of probability, Luhmann locates the conditions conducive to trust in social arrangements. Threats are real and always there, but in a healthy society the possibility of operating in trust is a socially established, supported, and protected possibility. To take an example, childcare providers do sometimes abuse the children in their care, but if parents had to operate at every turn as if the babysitter is a real and present threat to the baby, responsible parents would never be able to leave their children in the care of anyone at all. A healthy and well-ordered social world is one in which laws, practices, education, expectations, accountability, and social relationships are ordered in such a way as to enable parents to entrust their children to others. One important measure of a good society lies in its capacity to minimize the inevitable vulnerabilities of individuals and provide the conditions within which trust can flourish.

[7] Trust, however necessary, is nonetheless precarious. Since even relatively healthy groups—be they nations, churches, families, universities, hospitals, or corporate worksites—do not protect all of their participants equally, participants will experience different levels of threat. What one group takes for granted as reliable and unproblematic, another group will not. This disparity both arises from and leads to radically different interpretations of the same social phenomena. One of the most intriguing aspects of Luhmann’s argument is the help it gives us in understanding why features of a social world that are regarded as benign, and even beneath notice, by some participants are a cause of profound social anxiety for others. This helps a great deal in understanding why minorities do not live in quite the same world inhabited by the majority and why victims of past oppression cannot just “get over” their memories and fit smoothly into institutions and practices that they have good historical reasons for distrusting.

The Morality of Trust

[8] Luhmann succeeds in showing the social importance of trust, but that is different from showing that it is important or interesting from a distinctly moral point of view. Luhmann understands himself to be advancing social theory, not moral philosophy. Even if we are convinced that social distrust represents a form of social pathology, we would not be bound to consider it ethically interesting for that reason. Not all social problems are distinctly moral problems, though they may have moral dimensions.

[9] In a critique of the ELCA social statement on human sexuality, Robert Benne captured what I take to be a widely accepted view that trust, though perhaps parasitical upon moral behavior, is not itself of moral interest: “‘trust’ is not really a principle of moral guidance; rather, it is the quality in a relationship that arises when moral actions elicit trust. It is the proper actions and the guiding principles and intentions lying behind them that elicit trust. Trust is not the active principle but rather the response.”3 Trust is a kind of beneficent but occasional and unpredictable result of right action. First there are moral (or immoral) actions, and then, to the extent that actions warrant it, trust (or distrust) may follow. Trust as a possible effect is not structurally important to the consideration of what ought to be done or whether what was done was right or wrong. Even where trust is warranted, it is not morally obligatory.

[10] Whether trust is morally weighted or a proper subject of moral inquiry is a question that can be answered in a variety of ways (see the accompanying diagram). In addition to thinking of trust as Benne does, one might exclude it from the domain of morality on the grounds that it is actually a species of rational assessment, a well or badly grounded cognitive belief about the competence and commitment of those with whom one is obliged to interact. Trusting someone to do something often proves to be a mistake, but it is an intellectual mistake, not a moral one. The remedy is sharper attention and clearer reasoning. This sequestering of trust in the realm of epistemology does not work as well when we shift from trust to trustworthiness. While we might well have qualms about saying, ‘You ought to trust’ when we know how foolish and dangerous trusting may be, most of us feel quite comfortable saying, ‘You ought to be trustworthy,’ and we commonly regard untrustworthiness as a moral flaw. But even in this case, we might think that talk about trust and trustworthiness adds nothing to our existing moral vocabulary concerning honor, honesty, reliability, and responsibility.

Is Trust Morally Interesting – Click for larger version

[11] It was Baier who, in a series of essays from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, riveted the attention of philosophers on the phenomenon of trust.4 In particular, in her 1986 article “Trust and Antitrust,” she expressed dismay that ethicists had given so little attention to “the morality of trust relationships.”5 Working out of resources provided by Hume and already accomplished in linking the affective, the cognitive, and the conative to the moral, she set out to develop a moral theory of trust so as to be able to “judge whether [any given] form of trust is sensible and morally decent” (240). She considered it obvious that “immorality. . . thrives on some forms of trust” (232). On the whole, Baier confines herself to treating trust and all its cognates as human actions that merit moral scrutiny rather than assigning trust or trustworthiness a moral value as a duty, good, or principle. She specifically rejects the possibility that trusting-ness and trustworthiness might qualify as virtues. Both, she thinks, have “deplorable” forms.

[12] Yet even so, in the 1992 essay, she makes the same sort of move Josiah Royce makes when he commends loyalty to loyalty while admitting that any specific instance of loyalty might be faulty. “Trust in sustained trust” and “trustworthiness to sustain trust” are, she suggests, “the supreme virtues for ones like us, in our condition.”6 By “ones like us,” she means beings who have a natural capacity to trust and “meet” or “receive” trust (141, 146). Moreover, she thinks that we have an “innate capacity” for “trustworthy transmission [to children] of discriminate trusting” (141). But the reference to “ones like us” is also a reference to our indelible needs. Baier links trust to vulnerability in two ways. First of all, it is an effect of vulnerability. Trust is necessary precisely because we are such vulnerable and limited creatures. We need to be able to count on and cooperate with others. But, in addition, trust introduces a special sort of vulnerability into our lives: “vulnerability to not yet noticed harm, or to disguised ill will.”7 This is why it so much easier to notice our acts of trust retrospectively, when the betrayal of trust makes obvious both the degree of our reliance and the dangers that infect our relationships.

[13] Thus, although Baier’s work teaches us primarily how to look at the activities associated with trusting as activities (like business practices or the allocation of benefits and burdens) that merit close moral scrutiny, she also identifies the need for trust as an indelible human need. To the extent that she ties together trust and vulnerability, she comes close to articulating a moral principle: people ought not to abuse others either by spurning the human need to be able to rely on others in the face of threats or by exploiting the vulnerabilities created by trusting others.

Trust as a Moral Transaction

[14] It may seem curious that even such a fine philosopher as Baier vacillates between, on the one hand, suggesting that trust and trustworthiness constitute behaviors that can be moral or immoral, beneficial or vicious and, on the other hand, speaking as if trust is morally required by our being the sort of creatures that we are. What this indicates, I think, is that trust does not lend itself to analysis within the framework of a highly individualized and thus segmented approach to ethics. What is needed is a more adequately developed understanding of moral transactions.

[15] Over the past fifty years we have seen the emergence of what might be called transactional ethics. I do not mean by this ‘an ethics governing transactions’; I mean a shifting of the anchor of moral consideration away from the stand-alone, bounded agent to lodge it in a performance or transaction that occurs between agents, that is constitutive of a particular kind of relationship, and that succeeds or fails morally as a joint venture (asymmetries notwithstanding). We see this in the growing literature on forgiving, on making (and dissolving) commitments, and on promising. It is also discernible in the broad literature concerning the ethics of care, especially when that is linked to the literature exploring the moral structure of dependency. Interest in patterns of complicity, enabling, and co-dependency has already migrated from therapeutic circles into popular discourse where it has taken on a decisively normative coloration. The growing interest in dialogical ethics and discourse ethics could also be gathered into the shift toward a more transactional understanding of the life well lived. H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Responsible Self: A Christian Moral Philosophy (to which I will return in the last section) was an early and pivotal contribution to this transition.8 A more recent effort to create the infrastructure for such an approach can be found in the remarkable venture into moral phenomenology that constitutes studies 7–9 of Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another.9

[16] Viewed in this connection, Baier presents an interesting case not just because her insights seem to be, in some ways, sabotaged by her focus on individuals who trust and other individuals who must deal with the burdens of being trusted, but also because she sometimes does so closely approach the transactional model. Even in the earliest of her ground-breaking essays, following Locke’s model of “analyzing trusting on the model of entrusting,” she frames trust as “a three-place predicate (A trusts B with valued thing C).”10 Making the point that entrusting can thrive only under certain conditions, she presents it as a transaction that can, for that very reason, fail. Entrusting cannot be considered as a species of contract, she argues, because the relation of A and B usually involves some sort of dependency or inequality (in contrast to the equality of power and risk that characterizes formal agreements) and because the act of entrusting involves not only a longer and more intimate acquaintance of the parties, but also levels of discretion and judgment that cannot be spelled out explicitly. In developing this contrast, she is, in fact, differentiating between two forms of moral transactions (which involve different contexts and conditions, have different requirements, and succeed or fail in different ways).

[17] Shifting our attention from single individuals (who succeed or fail independently) to their interaction allows us to get away from the let-the-buyer-beware approach to the problem of trust, which tends to start in all cases from a uniform posture of suspicion. Transactions require two parties who perform equally (but not necessarily symmetrically) as agents in a mutually involving action. Trusting and supporting trust interlock, as do being trustworthy and expecting trust. Trusting is less an activity of individuals than a function of relationship, tempered by the responsibilities and reliances that are appropriate to the nature of the relationship in question. The contextualizing conditions for trusting will vary considerably depending on whether we are talking about a relationship between spouses, parents and children, friends, professionals and their clients, buyers and producers, guards and prisoners, and so on. Among other things, a transactional approach to trust enables us to see that the vulnerabilities are not entirely one-sided. It is possible for a person to entrust another with responsibilities that are disproportional or inappropriate to the nature of their relationship, imposing debts and generating accusations and blame where neither is justified. Like conversations, moral transactions do not lend themselves to simple and comprehensive judgments of right and wrong, when the transaction collapses or fails (which can happen for a wide range of reasons, including individual maliciousness or deviousness), the resulting harm can be enormous and is rarely confined to only one of those involved.

Faith as Trust or Distrust

[18] There is much to be learned from Niebuhr’s The Responsible Self about a more transactional model of ethics. To begin, as he does, with the question, “What is going on?”11 is to begin with attention to the context within which I and some Other(s) engage one another. Niebuhr’s argument that fittingness is the proper measure of moral action (as opposed to “rightness” or “goodness”) tends implicitly and explicitly to shift us away from our habitual focus on an isolated agent’s personal intentions and moral warrants toward an interest in interpretation, anticipation, negotiation, reliance, and judgment in situation (phronēsis, if you like). He is critical of individualistic approaches to ethics that teach us “to magnify our distinctiveness from others” and produce an ethical habitus focused on evaluation and blame, self-justification, and the sovereign satisfaction of “sitting in judgment on our own cause” or the cause embraced by others (150). Our true moral project is, rather, to “seek to understand what we are and must try to be more fully” (150). Despite the self-referencing sound these words have to most modern ears, he considers this to be a project that can only be carried out communally. As he says at the end of the first chapter, “I shall simply ask that we consider our life of response to action upon us with the question in mind, ‘To whom or what am I responsible and in what community of interaction am I myself?’” (68).

[19] But rather than further elaborating the elements of his work associated with his delineation of the fitting, I would like to bring these remarks to a close by taking up the subject of trust in relation to Niebuhr’s distinction between the “ethics of death” and the “ethics of life” (143). In the latter part of The Responsible Self, Niebuhr treats the transaction of trust neither as an object for moral scrutiny nor as something morally desirable. He treats trust (or distrust) as the foundation upon which one’s entire moral life is built and by which it is, in all its aspects, shaped: “Faith as trust or distrust accompanies all our encounters with others and qualifies all our responses” (118).

[20] The “I am” and the “I am I” are not simply the locus of greatest certitude—but also of gravest vulnerability. The “I am” is neither its own author nor in control of its own destiny. “The radical action by which I am and by which I am present with this body, this mind, this emotional equipment, this religion, is not identifiable with any of the finite actions that constitute the particular elements in physical, mental, and personal existence” (112). We are each, in all our uniqueness and historicity, flung, cast, thrown, elected into existence by a power (perhaps evil, perhaps benign) that stands over against us, against which we vividly grasp our limits, our dependence, and our fragility.

[21] Inchoate as this awareness may be, it is primordial. At some often unrecognized level, it shapes our interpretations and our responses. The paths of response that Niebuhr identifies are three.12 The first is Heidegger’s Verlorenheit: forgetfulness and an ignorance that is actually intentional enough to qualify as self-deception; this is the path of loss of the self in the “they,” the path of altogether “escap[ing] from personal response and responsibility” (120). The second option is to interpret the power by whose act I am as an enemy, and to either strive against it or struggle to appease it. This is the path of distrust. It gives rise to “the mythology of death” (106–107), and its ethics is the ethics of death—that is, it produces “a network of interactions ruled by fear” (142). The third path involves the conviction that this power, so apparently the destroyer of so much we hold dear, is fundamentally “for us,” a beneficent creator ready to “affirm, maintain, and bless” (119). This is the path of trust, and only along this path (however imperfectly we are able to follow it) do we arrive at an ethics of life. There is, then, a powerful and direct tie between our interpretation of and response to what we consider to be ultimate reality and our treatment of other people.

[22] This prompts just two final observations, one pertaining to Baier and the other to the moral weight of trust.

[23] Baier suggests that religious thought has given trust a bad name by associating trust with compliant obedience to despotic power. At first glance Niebuhr seems to exemplify the very line of argument she criticizes: the powerless creature, totally at the mercy of the One who acts upon us in all things, has no real alternative to abject submission, to placing blind trust in its dubious mercy. Yet there are three notable differences between Niebuhr’s argument and the one that Baier attributes to Christian theology. First and most formidably, the argument that Baier imagines is actually what Niebuhr describes as the strategy of appeasement within the pattern of distrust: “By the bringing of gifts, by special practices of discipline, by the offering of holocausts, by the cultivation of guilt-consciousness, by inflicting pain upon ourselves, we seek to turn away from ourselves the power of destruction aimed against us” (141). While granting that, unfortunately, one does frequently find this attitude among the religious, Niebuhr treats it as the polar opposite of trust in God. Second, according to Niebuhr, the gospel calls us to trust in the goodness of God not the power of God. Trust is the hope that we may enter into “an interaction moving always toward universal eternal life” (143). Both the gospel “as the declaration of divine action” and the commandment require human response, but in the case of the gospel, “this response is not obedience but confidence and loyalty” (136). Finally, this activity of trusting God (and it is an activity, and not a mental belief about God) is a matter of responsive interaction, not docility under domination.

[24] At its deepest level, Niebuhr’s consideration of trust is religious and not ethical. How one moves from faith as distrust, with its accompanying ethics of death, to faith as trust, with its accompanying ethics of life, “is not the task of Christian ethics as ethics to set forth” (143). Nevertheless, this theological argument is meant to ground a “Christian moral philosophy.” Niebuhr holds that in our response to all actions upon us we meet and interpret not only the proximate other but also that power which we take to stand behind the other. Those who live in fear and anxiety will respond self-protectively, suspiciously, and distrustfully. Only distrustful action will seem to fit a universe that is construed as, at best, indifferent and, at worst, fundamentally destructive and death-dealing. Against such a background, unrelenting suspicion and the betrayal of trust might often seem like a reasonable cost to pay for self-protection. In contrast, the hopeful ethics of life, grounded in a covenantal trust in the One who acts upon us in all proximate interactions, would fund and encourage transactions of trust as fitting actions. The influence runs the other way as well. When we behave in untrustworthy, defensive, and suspicious ways, our deeds confirm for others and ourselves the truth of “the mythology of death” (106). Thus, “trust and distrust in the ultimate power of being affect and are affected by all the interactions of trust and suspicion among the Thou’s and It’s” (120). It does not go too far to say that trust, like justice, is, for Niebuhr, a moral good to be sought and a measure of right relationship. Trusting and upholding trust (though always within the framework of what is fitting to the situation at hand) would be, in his view, among the most important ways we have for fulfilling to our moral calling as agents who are at once sinful yet saved.

1. Annette Baier, “Trusting People,” Philosophical Perspectives vol. 6, Ethics (1992): 139. Reprinted in Annette Baier, Moral Prejudices (Cambridge, MA: Harvard university Press 1994).

2. Niklas Luhmann, Trust and Power: Two Works by Niklas Luhmann, trans. Howard Davis, John Raffan, Kathryn Rooney Chichester (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1979). Originally published in 1974.

3. Robert Benne, “When There Are No Biblical or Theological Grounds to Change, Don’t,” Lutheran Forum, March 4, 2009, second paragraph under the subheading “A Continuing Problem.”

4. Baier only discovered the work of Luhmann some years after her own work on trust was underway. Although three other important studies preceded hers—H. J. N. Horsburgh, “The Ethics of Trust,” The Philosophical Quarterly 10, 41 (1960): 343–54; Carolyn Gratton, Trusting: Theory and Practice (New York: Crossroad, 1982); and Bernard Barber, The Logic and Limits of Trust (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983)—Baier is generally credited with establishing trust as a matter of compelling importance for ethicists. Her contribution remains central to the contemporary conversation.

5. Annette Baier “Trust and Antitrust,” Ethics 96, 2 (January 1986), 232. Reprinted in Annette Baier, Moral Prejudices (Cambridge, MA: Harvard university Press 1994).

6. Baier, “Trusting People,” 137.

7. Baier, “Trust and Antitrust,” 239.

8. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy, introduction by James Gustafson, foreword by William Schweiker (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1963, 1999).

9. Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, translated by Kathleen Blamey (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992). Originally published as Soi-même comme un autre in 1990.

10. Baier, “Trust and Antitrust,” 236.

11. Niebuhr, The Responsible Self, 60. Since all subsequent quotations of Niebuhr’s work are taken from The Responsible Self, page numbers will be provided parenthetically in the text.

12. I am drawing here on both chapters 4 and 5, but I should note a slight difference in the structure of the otherwise similar analyses offered in these two chapters. This tripartite presentation of possible “reactions” to “the radical act by which I am” (115) comes from chapter 4, “Responsibility in Absolute Dependence” (115–21). In chapter 5, “Responsibility in Sin and Salvation,” he identifies only two options, trust and distrust. Distrust, however, is itself broken down into three subordinate possibilities: “ignoring, fighting, appeasing” (141). The first and second “reactions” of chapter 4 are thus collapsed into one multi-dimensioned stance in chapter 5.

Diane (D.M.) Yeager

After retiring from teaching ethics and philosophical theology in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Diane Yeager is now delighting in a totally new phase of learning as a docent at the Smithsonian's  National Museum of Asian Art.