Living with Our Differences   /   Spring 2001   /    Articles

Trust and the Changing Terms of Social Solidarity

Adam B. Seligman

The Artist's Daughters on the Way to School, Gustav Adolph Henning (1851).

Vladimir Ilych Lenin is famously said to have remarked: “Vertraun ist gut, Kontrol noch besser.” That is, trust is good, control, however, is much better. In this saying we find a distinction critical to any preliminary understanding of trust—the distinction between trust and confidence (or control, in Lenin’s terms). Control or confidence is what you have when you know what to expect in a situation; trust is what you need to maintain interaction if you do not.

Confidence, and the knowledge necessary to confidence, can be based on many different things. It can be predicated on the ability to impose sanctions and the knowledge that one’s partner to an interaction also knows that sanctions will be imposed if he or she fails to live up to the terms of an agreement. Sanctions may be formal or informal; they may be based on an intricate web of kinship obligations or on the verities of contract law. They may be immediate or inter-generational, symbolic or material. In all cases my confidence is based on knowledge that our interaction and/or exchange is set within a context, within a system that, qua system, will impose sanctions in the case of an abrogation of agreements. Hence when I say that I “trust” the doctor, that is not quite correct. Rather, I have confidence in her abilities, in the system that awarded her the degree on the wall, as well as in the epistemological assumptions of American medicine. Of course I may also lack such confidence and take my daughter to Lourdes instead or trust, i.e., have faith in, the Lord if, for instance, I am a Christian Scientist. Similarly, when Annette Baier says in her article “Trust and Antitrust” that she “trusts the plumber to do a non-subversive job of plumbing,” that is also not quite true.11xAnnette Baier, “Trust and Antitrust,” Ethics 96 (January 1986): 250. For she knows that if he does a “subversive” job, she will not only not hire him again, and tell her neighbors not to hire him, but she will also complain to the local Better Business Bureau. She may even refuse to pay him. In short she can impose sanctions formal and informal. She knows this, he knows this, she knows that he knows this, he knows that she knows that he knows this, and so on. Their interaction and exchange is entered into by mutual interest and maintained by mutual confidence in the system within which the exchange takes place. Now if she were to rush off to meet a colleague and leave her baby with the plumber until her husband came home, that would be a very different story, one involving both parties in a relationship of trust. But I will return to this a bit later.

Confidence, to reiterate, is predicated on knowledge of what will be. And this knowledge may in turn be based on the ability to impose sanctions. It may also be based on what we may term familiarity, or what I like to call “stickball.” Because John played stickball on East 13th Street as a boy, he shares with me certain codes of conduct, certain moral evaluations, certain ways of being and acting that bring me to have confidence in him. We are alike, the same, and hence I can predict his actions. Knowledge of what will be, confidence, and prediction are here based not on sanctions but on sameness, on familiarity. Mind you the relevant other may not be “the same” at all, but we will often draw certain conclusions (true or false) from modes of dress, speech, where someone went to school, neighborhood, religion, and so on that allow us to construct a story, a narrative if you will, of sameness that will allow us to have confidence. Often, indeed, we combine as many bases of confidence as possible before entering interaction: formal sanctions may be costly and involve too great transaction costs. So we like to know we can impose informal sanctions as well. How often indeed does conversation turn to places of origin, school background, family, or even sports—all icons of familiarity, of ways to demonstrate some underlying sameness to the other as well as to ourselves. We do this all the time, everyday, in situations involving no more than choosing who to sit next to on the bus or what architect to employ in redesigning our house. It is the woof and weave of much of our public life.

Trust is something very different. Trust is what you need when you do not, cannot, have confidence, when you cannot predict behavior and outcomes. Trust is what you need when you interact with strangers. Trust is what is necessary if the other is unknowable. And the other is unknowable when you cannot impute or predict behavior because either a) there is no system within which sanctions can be imposed or b) there is no underlying sense or terms of familiarity or sameness which would allow such prediction.

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