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.