Dilemmas of Trust

Trudy Govier, Mcgill-Queen's University Press, 1998

By Ron Shirtliff (reviewer) | 1999-03-01 12:00:00

If truth is the first casualty of war, trust is the second and probably the most permanent. Truth may be revealed by historians after the event and put right, as it were, but trust, residing as it does inside the psyche of the individual, is not so easily restored to some objective reality. Once destroyed, trust is not easy to recreate.

Dilemmas of Trust by Trudy Govier is not about war in the sense of national or ethnic conflict. Rather, hers is a philosopher's treatise, drawing on psychological and sociological insights on the nature of trust and distrust as people relate to each other as friends, lovers, family, and colleagues, and to larger society, in day to day life. The reader can project these insights onto the extreme conditions that exist in the massive conflicts of war.

We earn trust by being trustworthy. If we do not lie or cheat, make bad judgments, or miss appointments, people come to trust us. Our trust of others develops out of their trustworthiness; our experience of their predictable and appropriate behavior, from truth telling, to understanding and caring, to being on time. Trust in others is not, of course, always the right response. To put our trust in those who are untrustworthy, liars, thieves, or hatemongers is certainly foolish, and most likely to lead to our own harm. Yet to refuse to trust leaves us isolated. We wish to trust because of our optimism, our faith in people, our desire for social connection, but judgment must always temper our decisions to trust others.

Trust is only possible for those who have self-trust, a confidence in their own judgment and in their own worth and predictability. This sense of self is achieved in infancy as a result of having trustworthy care from a competent parent. If self-trust is not achieved at an early age, or is lost as a result of abuse or brutality, an individual is unlikely to be able to trust others and is probably condemned to a truncated human existence.

For a full human life, trust is a necessity, but it does not always produce a social good. A group of thieves or assassins may well trust each other, confident that each will carry through with his or her part to achieve their common end, though the benefit to the larger society is negative.

The absence of trust, distrust, is self-perpetuating and isolates the individual.

When trust is lost between friends, within a family, or a larger unit of society, persons have a stake in its restoration. This may be achieved through acknowledgment of the failure, and an offer of conditional trust: "You may go out on your own this evening, but we expect you to return by eleven." Just as distrust is self-perpetuating, so trust, based on understanding and good judgment, may also be self-perpetuating.

When trust has been violated, an alternative to distrust and alienation may be forgiveness and reconciliation. This may lead to a renewal of trust. Govier argues that the greatest benefit may come to the aggrieved party. Forgiveness must, as trust itself, be tempered by understanding, wisdom, and a sense of degree. The regularly battered wife might be unwise to renew trust, and systematic genocide may be beyond forgiving.

This is a very readable book, devoid of technical terms, systematically developed, and clearly expressed. Scholarly in the best sense, it includes 17 pages of notes and a seven page bibliography. Examples of dilemmas are taken from well known current events, movies, history, and some constructed situations. Govier lives in Calgary and her consciousness and many references are Canadian, but are in no sense parochial. The reader does not need to reach to understand her arguments and illustrations.

The final chapter sums up her thesis: "Without trust, personal and social life would be impossible....We must trust; yet we are vulnerable in doing so."

Philosophy deals with the big questions; the answers, alas, are not always reassuring. The truth that makes us free doesn't always make us comfortable. Transparently honest, this study treats us gently, and there is much to gain from the easy and pleasurable reading of this book.

Reviewed by Ron Shirtliff

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1999

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1999, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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