Books : reviews

Robert C. Solomon, Fernando Flores.
Building Trust: in business, politics, relationships, and life.
OUP. 2001

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 30 August 2002

As I explained in a previous review, I am interested in trust in the context of agent computing. The blurb made this book sound ideal:

what, precisely, is trust?
How can it be achieved and sustained?
... how can it be regained once it has been broken?

The authors distinguish three kinds of trust: naive trust, that unreflective innocent trust of a small child with no concept of betrayal; blind trust, that self-deceptive wilful denial of any evidence of betrayals; and authentic trust, reflective and honest, the mature trusting relationship that the book is concerned with. The first two are what most people think of as trust, and why they then have problems in how to sustain, and regain, trust. Additionally, because people use the metaphor of trust as a fragile thing, it can consequently be too easily broken, and difficult or impossible to mend. But authentic trust is an ongoing process, a relationship that incorporates the concept of distrust; such authentic trust can be negotiated, built, and rebuilt.

They are careful to point out that this mature relationship requires honesty, which can be painful, rather than the destructive cordial hypocrisy that smilingly says everything is fine while knowing it is not, leading to the impossibility of trust. Authentic trust is created when you come to be unafraid of the negative assessments of people you respect. By the same token, trust is destroyed by flattery or cordial hypocrisy. These are simply lies, and when people lie to you, you cannot trust them, their assessment of the situation, or their promises.

The authors emphasise that trust is so valuable because it provides the freedom to engage in projects one could not, or would not undertake on one's own. But much of the current philosophical focus is on trustworthiness, which leads to the paradox of not being able to rationally trust until trustworthiness has been established, yet being unable to establish that trustworthiness without first trusting. So how can we rationally trust? However, the paradox rests on a misconception of trust: if there are guarantees that the trusted party is indeed trustworthy, there can be no authentic trust, simply reliance or predictability. To be real trust, it must entail the possibility of betrayal. This is because people are not reliable or predictable in the way that laws of nature are, but they do have interests and desires, which may conflict with our own. Trust is restricted to agents, beings (usually people or human institutions) who have a choice, who make decisions, who have attitudes, beliefs, and desires, who respond to our acts and gestures with feelings, acts, and gestures of their own. So the authors move the focus to the trusting, rather than the trusted, side of the relationship, and explain how it is possible to perform the act of trust rationally. To break the paradoxical deadlock, the trust relationship must begin with the act of trust, not the establishment of trustworthiness, and must explicitly include recognition of the possibility of breaches and betrayals of that trust. Trust is not earned, it is given.

The authors are also careful to point out that not all breaches of trust are equal. The fragile thing metaphor encourages us to believe any breach will shatter trust beyond repair. But there are several forms of breaches of trust. Since not all these breaches are equal, the responses should not be equal. And, with the focus on the entire relationship, not the single breach, the response should be context dependent. What counts as a ... breach of trust should always be considered within that larger framework [of the entire relationship]. It is a question of keeping in mind what really counts. In particular, they point out that circumstances can change, and so promises may need to be renegotiated in the light of new understanding. They emphsise this such requests for renegotiation are not a breach of trust, but actually a confirmation of the trusting relationship.

Breaches occur for many reasons. Sometimes things just don't work out, and it is nobody's fault. Sometimes someone makes a mistake, someone is at fault, yet focusing on the relationship rather than the outcome gives us the navigational tools to overcome, if not overlook, mere mistakes. Next are the real breaches of trust, maybe due to arrogance or insincerity, rather than being mere mistakes. These require apologies to maintain the authentic trust relationship. An apology is a statement of intention to redeem oneself, and the beginning of a conversation about how this can be done. Then we come to indifference, or lack or caring, and finally to genuine betrayal. Focusing on the relationship, rather than the metaphor of fragile thing, even full betrayals can be overcome: this requires the act of forgiveness. Forgiveness is an action, a ritualised undoing of the act of betrayal. But in the same way that an act of trust changes both parties and the relationship, so an act of betrayal and forgiveness changes things; the relationship does not return to what it once was. This is part of the property of authentic trust: it is a dynamic, changing process that must be worked at and maintained.

This focus on the trusting party also helps focus on the essential property of self-trust, trust or confidence in one's own ability to trust wisely. Trust is a skill that can be learned by doing, but this skill begins at home: If you do not trust yourself or your ability to behave correctly in a difficult situation, you may well find it difficult to have faith that others can do so. You also must trust yourself to have a good sense of people, to choose to trust people who are likely to be trustworthy rather than, for instance, because you find them charming or attractive. ... If you do not trust yourself to choose wisely the people you trust or with whom you form relationships, you may have a good deal of trouble trusting people.

All these points are important, and interesting, and act as an essential a first step in clarifying terminology and metaphors, and setting the stage for building authentic trust. It has certainly clarified many concepts for me, and given food for thought. But I am also interested in the promised descriptions of how this authentic trust can be achieved, and regained, in practice, and there was very little concrete said on this topic. I would have liked to see a further section of examples (and advice?) on building such relationships.

Some longer quotes:

It is often suggested that widespread distrust is stimulating the current interest in trust. We think that the truth is more subtle and interesting: there is more trust in the world than ever before, and the increasingly global dependence on trust spurs both our interest in and our need for trust. In situations of distrust, people do not talk about trust but rather develop strategies for coping with its absence.

Both trust and distrust tend to be self-confirming, and it is easy to see why. If one person trusts another, the second person, knowing that he or she is trusted, will be more likely to be trustworthy, thus confirming the trust on the part of the first person. The psychological reward of trust is that it is gratifying to be trusted. It is also gratifying, in a more profound way, to trust. Trust indicates respect, and trust creates a bond (if only, at first, the bond of trust). The problem with thinking about trust as an attitude toward other people is that it ignores the reciprocal nature of trust. Most people respond to trust by being trustworthy, making further trust all the more likely.

Simple trust, the sort of trust that is celebrated in a well-cared-for dog, is not the paradigm to follow, but neither is the lawyer's fantasy of an "ironclad" contract.
... Blind trust is denial. ...
Too often, trust as such is confused with blind trust ..., and trust as such is taken to exclude criticism, scrutiny, and "objective" consideration of the evidence. If "objective" means simply "impartial," this is true. To trust is to be committed, and thus to be partial. But trust need be neither blind nor simple.

Trust can be prudent, measured, reflective, and conditional and still be authentic, not blind. Part of the problem with trust is that too many people refuse to consider as trust any trust that is prudent, measured, and conditional. We suggest, to the contrary, that blind trust is not really trust at all. In religious contexts, it might better be called faith, but in secular contexts, it is best identified as foolishness. To confuse such uncritical acceptance and willful denial of all possible counterevidence with trust is to misunderstand trust in the most profound way. The equation of trust with blind trust leads to the conclusion that it is never wise to trust. Trust becomes a vice instead of a virtue, a liability instead of a strength.

predictability requires a high degree of probability, even a kind of (psychological) certainty. Trust requires something else: a reciprocal relationship in which questions of probability take a back seat to questions of mutual expectations, responses, and commitments. Analyses of trust in terms of predictability miss this essential aspect of trust, the element of reciprocity. In what we call reliance, predictability (combined, perhaps, with a certain amount of control) is definitive. One must still make decisions about whether to rely or not rely on something, given the possibility or probability of failure or disappointment. But what is not present in reliance that is crucial in trust (and distrust) is that the person trusted has intentions and motives and makes his or her own decisions, with or without regard for the other person's decision to trust.

We do not merely predict and control the behavior of other people. We reason with them. We appeal to their emotions, their sympathies, their fears, their hopes and desires. ... corporations have interests and strategies, and this leads us to consider them in human terms.
     Machines ... do not have interests and strategies. ... But if corporations have interests, even if they are only narrow economic interests, and they behave strategically, then they can be appealed to, negotiated with, depended on (or not) to fulfill their commitments.

Failing to trust someone is not merely an omission. It is unethical not to trust people when they are plausibly trustworthy, just as it is unethical to treat them unfairly. In fact, refusing to trust people may be more damaging to them than treating them unfairly, for the latter fails only to give them what they deserve. The former limits their capacity to act as full human beings.

Simple trust is unreflective. Blind trust is self-deceptive. Authentic trust is both reflective and honest with itself and others. All forms of trust involve counting on other people, and, as such, they all are vulnerable to betrayal. But whereas simple and blind trust experience betrayal as earth-shattering, betrayal is neither surprising nor devastating to authentic trust. All trust involves vulnerability and risk, and nothing would count as trust if there were no possibility of betrayal. But whereas simple trust is devoid of distrust, and blind trust denies the very possibility of distrust, authentic trust is articulated in such a way that it must recognize the possibilities for betrayal and disappointment. It has taken into account the arguments for distrust, but has nevertheless resolved itself on the side of trust. Authentic trust is thus complex, and it is anything but naive. Authentic trust is not opposed to distrust so much as it is in a continuing dialectic with it, trust and distrust defining each other in terms of the other.

We are all painfully familiar with bureaucratic moods, which are often conflated with "policy." Such moods dictate a retreat from personal responsibility and judgment, typically in the name of following rules.

our moods and emotions do not happen to us. We choose them. To think of trust as an emotional phenomenon is to accept that trust begins (and ends) with care, and it is also to embrace the idea that trust is a personal choice and within our realm of responsibility. This suggests a philosophy of life. Human life is a series of emotional engagements and projects, in which we invent a shared future through our moods and emotions. To believe otherwise is to cut ourselves off both from other people and from the power we each can bring to our lives by working together and trusting one another.

Sometimes trusting ourselves is actually much like trusting another person. We find ourselves waiting to see how we will behave in some emergency or emotionally charged situation, for instance. ... Some people think that self-trust means the absence of all anxiety, total self-confidence, but they are wrong. Fear and anxiety are indications of uncertainty, and trust necessarily involves uncertainty. It is the absence of fear and anxiety that may mark the lack of true self-trust. Their total absence more likely indicates indifference or ignorance, or perhaps a simple trust that is bewildered and devastated when we do fail ourselves.

Just as care is an essential ingredient of trust of every kind, lack of caring and indifference stand as antitheses to trust. Cynicism, even when it presents itself as serious and sincere, is often a self-deceived form of indifference. One pretends not to care when one really does care, or one intends not to care because one does not want to be responsible for doing anything about the situation. But between cynicism and indifference, there is only a philosophical difference: the cynic claims to have a philosophy of life to justify his or her irresponsibility.

Lying is in itself a breach of trust; indeed, by some standards, the ultimate breach of trust. Lying embodies a wholesale insincerity---stating as truth what one fully knows not to be true---and it may also manifest a profound lack of caring, even when the lie (a "white" lie) is intended to protect the feelings of the person to whom the lie is told. In such cases, one may well care about the feelings of the person, and that is a form of care. But it is a shortsighted, limited notion of care, and it may cause violence to the longer-term relationship. ... But many lies are not so white, and not intended to protect the feelings of the recipient. They are rather designed to protect the liar from the consequences of his or her actions. Thus Kant, in a judgment that captures the viciousness of some lies, says that lying is a violation of the very humanity of the person lied to, a denial of his or her human dignity.

Compensation is repayment, where the betrayal consisted of some quantifiable good. Money is the most obvious example. When the betrayal is financial, as in many securities fraud cases, the idea of "measure for measure" would seem to have a precise meaning. Compensation in this sense could thus be assimilated to the more general concepts of debt and repayment. That would be misleading, however, because what must be compensated for is not merely the financial loss but also the betrayal. Thus the apparent quantitative objectivity gives way to something much more subjective. And when the loss due to the betrayal is entirely made up of such intangibles as pride, status, self-confidence, and trust, the notion of compensation begins to look troublesome indeed.