If we couldn't trust each other, our lives would be very different.
Trust is one pattern of reliance, where the trusting person, or trustor, can’t control what the trusted person, or trustee, does, and may not even know what the trustee does at the time he does it, but plans on the trustee doing one thing rather than another. This pattern of reliance is no doubt essential to social life.
But is it rational? Does trust really amount to being stupid, or helpless, or both?
Well think of that old Russian Proverb President Reagan liked to repeat: “Trust, but verify”. Meaning: if the trustor trusts the trustee to do a certain action, then the trustor should verify, that is, find some guarantee, that the trustee will come through. If Gorbachev told Reagan that he was going to disarm a hundred missiles, it would be very civilized of Reagan to trust him. But he’d be remiss if he didn’t insist on verifying that Gorbachev does what he says he’ll do.
But then aren’t we saying, Reagan shouldn’t trust Gorbachev? Isn’t the proverb just an ironic way of saying, “Don’t trust, but verify instead.” If you need a guarantee, you’re not trusting. To trust someone to do something, is to rely on them to do that thing, without having any guarantees.
But then, isn't trusting just being stupid or helpless or both?
Even so, we often have no choice but to trust. We’re forced to count on others all the time. “Trust” is just what we call this kind of helpless dependence on others. The newborn trusts its mother to provide care and nutrition. I trust PG&E or Con Ed to supply electricity 24/7. I trust Shell or BP to provide gasoline that won’t make my car blow up. But I’ve got no way to make sure anyone will actually do what I count on them to do. So we say I “trust” them.
But perhaps I'm missing something. Trust isn’t expectation with no guarantee. It’s expectation with a certain sort of guarantee. The sort of guarantee one gets with a promise, for example. The trustor relies on the trustee to be trustworthy. To live up to her word.
But can’t we trust someone we don’t believe is trustworthy? Ferris Bueller’s folks trusted him to behave responsibly. But did they really believe he would?
Trusting those who are not trustworthy, however, seems to me a risk we often have to take. Trusting where we cannot verify also is a risk we often have to take. Long after we cease being helpless babes, we remain relatively helpless adults, compared to the large institutions and structures on which our life depends.