Terms of Trust

Oxford Studies in Political Philosophy 2:209-233 (2016)
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Situations of fundamentally opposing interests are such that, without some degree of trust, they will fail to advance. In this paper I consider war and the achievement of peace through a series of reciprocal steps as the primary setting in which to examine trust, its terms, and its limits. A surprising point that transpires is that, in the attempt to resolve situations that are fundamentally conflictive, there is often a tendency to take steps to promote something else, superficially resembling trust, sometimes counterproductively at the expense trust. An analysis of trust consisting of three elements is offered: (1) Vulnerability: the truster expresses an inclination to put himself in a vulnerable position with respect to the trusted. (2) Benefit: for the purpose of some gain that will befall the truster if the trusted does not exploit this vulnerability. (3) Reciprocity: with the expectation that the trusted will be sufficiently motivated to reciprocate at least partly due to the fact that truster’s behaviour is informed by such an expectation. The problem of trust is then presented as the idea of overcoming the “trust gap”. It is this: given the trust gap, and the rational-prudential basis to distrust – what could after all enable trust? Overcoming the gap may be achieved in one of two ways. Metaphorically speaking, we can narrow the gap, making the risks involved less worrisome, even if not eliminating them all together. Thus, encouraging cooperation on the basis of self-regarding prudential reasons. Or we can bridge the gap, leaving the risks as they are while procuring non-prudential resources to encourage cooperation. Only the latter can be truly classified as trust. Three ways in which the gap may be bridged are specified: Non-prudential reasons to reciprocate trust (Empathy, Fairness, and Reciprocity) correspond to the three components of trust (Vulnerability, Benefit, Reciprocity). The three reasons are introduced with the help of a minor thought experiments the results of which get further support from psychological experimental literature. It is then shown how these features of the situation provide a moral reason and, therefore, an expectation to act trustworthily, and as such facilitate trust. The possibility of trust is thus explained on the basis of an idea of reasonableness, rather than instrumental rationality, sentiment, or faith. Finally, it is argued that narrowing the gap might detrimentally affect bridging the gap. Confidence building measures (guarantees, incentives, and sanctions), designed to narrow the trust gap and facilitate cooperation, may unwittingly demolish the foundations for bridging the gap. Some policy implications are tentatively proposed: (1) Don’t focus exclusively on narrowing the gap. (2) Manufacture “common knowledge”. (3)Take care when narrowing the gap not to thwart bridging the gap.



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Daniel Attas
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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