TRUST – Mother Theresa and Machiavelli

This essay is about two aspects of moral obligation associated with Trust. Trust is something we seek for ourselves, to gain and preserve. We seek to be trustworthy. Trust is also something that we give to others. We choose to trust or not trust others. I would like to briefly address these two aspects of Trust within the context of moral obligation.

The Trust we seek for ourselves, assuming that we seek to be ‘good,’ morally upright people, is simply that people trust us. Our word is our bond, we are who we say we are, what we say is true, and what we say we’ll do, we’ll do. If what we say is false or we fail to keep a commitment, it is either unintentional, or due to circumstances beyond our control, or because our initial commitment may be over-ridden by the dictates of honor, common sense, or a good greater than our own. We eschew deceit in word, deed, or demeanor. In many ways, our intent to be good closely approximates our intent to be trustworthy. This is the Mother Theresa side of Trust. Our moral aspiration is to be trustworthy, honest, transparent, and upright; we consciously and strenuously avoid deceit and manipulation.

The second side of Trust that I would like to address is that we must be cautious in giving our Trust. This perspective argues that in addition to our moral obligation to be trustworthy, we also have a moral obligation to survive and thrive. This requires that we protect ourselves from predators who would manipulate or exploit us, who seek their own ends at our expense. This is the Machiavellian side of Trust. Machiavelli saw the world as an unforgiving place, in which self-serving people compete, sometimes viciously, in the game of life, eagerly preying upon those who are less clever or less wary than themselves. He and many other (but not all) prominent philosophers viewed this imperative to survive and thrive as ‘morally’ obligatory. We must be careful whom we trust, especially in matters of great importance to us, our livelihood, and our fundamental values.

If we use this perhaps overly-simple ethical model to look at moral obligation, it demands good judgment in balancing our intent to be trustworthy with the need for caution in giving our Trust. While being trustworthy and being trusting are certainly not the same, they are related – in order to be trusted, one must also be ready to trust, and giving Trust necessarily involves risk. While there are certainly risks associated with being overly trusting, there are also risks associated with being overly cautious. One can become cynical and excessively risk averse in dealing with people, and fear of the vulnerability associated with giving Trust can make friendship and intimacy difficult. Trust is (ideally) a two way street, and for the truly trustworthy, this two-way street becomes a network of roads and highways which allow the rich flow of positive energy and collaboration between and among trustworthy people.

This simple model of Trust can be a useful paradigm in business ethics. A businessman seeks to win and retain Trust and loyalty, most importantly from his customers, but also from his partners, and other stakeholders. The trustworthy and competent businessman will usually thrive and prosper, but ONLY if s/he is also wise and judicious in giving Trust. While overly Machiavellian caution results in little reciprocated Trust, being overly trusting can send one quickly into economic oblivion. Mother Theresa was a saint, and served as a model for trustworthiness, but we also need to consider Machiavelli’s caution in dealing with the real world of business competition in an unforgiving world.

The current movement toward Corporate Social Responsibility is largely an effort by corporations to win the public’s Trust. Corporate America is seeing that the public is increasingly willing to give its business to corporations which they trust to pursue not only their own profits, but also the same greater, long term good that the public seeks for itself and their society. Winning the Trust of the public is a business ‘holy grail.’ Losing it can be disastrous.

CAVEAT: This short essay does not address the phenomenon of what I call ‘tribal’ Trust. Tribalism would stipulate that Trust only has moral worth within the tribal structure (the corporation, the community, the political party, the military service, the nation). In this limited understanding of Trust, one can only truly trust those within the tribe, and trustworthiness outside the tribe has little or no moral value. Within the tribe, one frequently wins Trust by successfully deceiving and manipulating those outside the tribe for the benefit of the tribe. Discussing this narrower dimension of Trust is beyond the scope of this essay, but it is certainly worth recognizing.

2 thoughts on “TRUST – Mother Theresa and Machiavelli

  1. Bob,Great post; really gets you thinking.Trust is one of those concepts that by our initial, intuitive definition appears clear enough but under analysis reveals itself to be much more complex.Off the top of my head for example I can think of two distinct definitions for trust: 1. trust a person will be honest, that is, what they say is true, and 2. trust a person will have integrity, that is, do what is right.The accuracy of definition 1 is obscured by differing perceptions. We have all had the experience of going to dinner with someone and later finding they had a completely different perception of the experience.Some differences are to be expected; you thought the food was okay, they thought it was delectable. We all recognize variation in taste. But what about more objective things? Was the wait staff pleasant or rude, the service timely or slow, the bill reasonable or outrageous?You may even disagree on things that can be measured. How long did it take to get the food, was it fifteen minutes or forty-five? What was the bill, seventy-five dollars or ninety-five?When your dining companion later recounts how the food was delicious, but the service slow and the waiter rude it may cause us to distrust them. We have a tendency to see people as dishonest when their description differs from our own perceptions?Clearly it is a trivial example but the point is this; every interaction is mentally recorded based on our perceptions and those perceptions differ from person to person. It’s true of a dining experience and it’s true of a business meeting. When we trust others it is usually because we have had experiences in which our perceptions coincidently turned out to be the same.So really, all definition 1 says is we subjectively interpret situations the same way as the person we “trust”.Pretty straightforward. I think the more difficult question is definition 2.A working definition of integrity is that a person will do what they said they’d do, or what we expect them to do, unless circumstance arise which preclude it. But here again there is a perception problem. Not in interpreting what happened, but in our expectations of what will happen.Do we trust they will do what we think they should do or what they think they should do? Put another way, do we think they will act according to our principles or their own?Most instances of mistrust concerning behavior are due to assuming the other person would act according to our principles and when they don’t we think they can’t be trusted. In reality, if we understood their values we would see they were being true to their own moral compass.If we look at these two values, honesty and integrity, we can say the following:1. a person’s apparent honesty increases with their predisposition to perceive things the same way we do, and,2. a person’s apparent integrity increases with their natural ability to live up to our expectations.This leads me to conclude we will generally have more trust in people with similar cultural, social and religious backgrounds or people whose perceptions and values are similar to our own.We can probably all think of examples that defy this rather pedestrian observation; a person from a dissimilar culture with whom we shared a close bond of trust perhaps, or a person we initially distrusted who later gained our trust. I would argue this is the exception rather than the norm and most likely to happen after a period of shared experiences revealed a similarity of perception and revealed similar moral values.Still, it will be the coincidental convergence of perceptions and values that determine our level of trust. So in the end the term trust is simply a proxy for understanding. It is in understanding others we feel comfortable with them.If we don’t understand someone we can’t trust them.Siddhartha


  2. Siddhartha You bring up several interesting points that occur to me. The first part of your comment argues for the subjectivity of our interpretation of reality. This was a fundamental aspect of Nietzsche's metaphysics, and he once famously said that in order to understand the philosophy, you have to know the philosopher. In other words, one's philosophy cannot stand alone apart from the uniqueness of one's own life experiences. And the corollary to that is obviously that our own experience is understood and interpreted through the lens of our own culture, past, traditions and expereince. Your comments address the implication of that observation to the idea of trust. Your last point is indeed intriquing – can we 'trust' someone we don't understand? I wonder. I think on some basic human level we can 'understand' everyone, or at least most people. We all have some basic fundamental human needs that drive all of us. This was one of the points of the Rachels article where he sought a couple of universal ethical principles that would address these needs. I feel like I've found a bond with people with whom I could barely communicate verbally, but with whom I was able to communicate or trust on some other level. We didn't really 'understand' one another but were able to trust one another nonetheless. (I might even say that that may characterize my marriage). I think the connection of trust with communication would also be fun to explore. I realized as I wrote that post on Trust that it would beg a lot of questions, and I resisted the temptation to build in too many caveats. I did and still do like the simplicity of the simple diad of "Be Trustworthy – Be careful – but not TOO careful." Thanks for your comments – I'm excited to see that at least one person read my thoughts! Bob


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