Media, Government, Banking & Trust

In May 2006 a poll for the BBC, Reuters and the Media Center found that 41% of British adults trusted the media ( By July 2011 that had fallen to 20% ( The News of the World phone-tapping scandal opened a new fissure in the trust crisis that is inflicting many professions in Britain. The media joins bankers, and their actions, which contributed or caused the financial crisis now ravaging world economics, with MPs and the expenses scandal. Trust, it would appear, is an endangered commodity. Yet it is crucial. Sissela Bok wrote “Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.” (in Lying, New York: Pantheon Books, 1978, p.31n). Without trust the things that really matter become unsafe. This seems to be the lesson of the last five years with the economy, the political system and now the thing which we rely upon to keep a check of goernment and business, all being holed below the water line. British western society seems to be lacking in trust.

Onora O’Neill began her 2002 Reith Lectures with the following:

“Confucius told his disciple Tsze-kung that three things are needed for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler can’t hold on to all three, he should give up the weapons first and the food next. Trust should be guarded to the end: “without trust we cannot stand”.
What can we understand by trust? Annette Baier (1986) comments that while Plato states, in his Republic, that the majority of citizens should trust their philosopher king to rule wisely over them, he does not list trust as a virtue, and neither does Aristotle. Christian philosophers extol the virtue of faith as something like trust in God, and in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures, the covenant is linked to the trust between God and his people. Baier observes that for us to put trust in others we need good grounds to do so. It is a matter in part of how vulnerable we feel and whether we have good grounds to believe that others will not take advantage of our situation. This is why we find abuses by parents, nurses, doctors, teachers and ministers of religion so objectionable. If a person in a position of care for another abuses their trust, then this shows the most vulnerable abused by those who should be most trusted.

Trusting, according to Baier is allowing for someone else to care about the thing I care about. We trust them to use their choice and power in our interest. In trusting we hand over to another.

Is there a contract in trust? Are we equally trustees to be trusted as well as trusters to trust? This seems not to be the case. While trust in God is absolute trust in another person may only ever be conditional. On the other hand the trust of a child is over-complete which is why the betrayal of such trust can have such devastating consequences, as with betrayal in a committed relationship, be it sexual or of a close friendship. Yet we also trust people we never or hardly think about – the tube train driver to take care of the signals, the postman not to pry. Hobbes would warn us about relying on such a virtue and instead points to the need for a powerful overseer to enforce moral behaviour. The more we think about trust the more it becomes apparent that it is interconnected with all the relationships and all the contacts we have with others.

Onara O’Neil suggests that we need to encourage good governance and we need to limit deception. In the fifth of her Reith Lectures she turns to Kant and his classical notion of autonomy. She notes:

“Kantian autonomy is a matter of acting on principles that can be principles for all of us, of ensuring that we do not treat others as lesser mortals – indeed victims – whose abilities to share our principles we are at liberty to undercut. If we deceive we make others our victims, and undermine or distort their possibilities for acting and communicating… the most common wrong done in communicating is deception, which undermines and damages others’ capacities to judge and communicate, to act and to place trust with good judgement. Duties to reject deception are duties for everyone: for individuals and for government and for institutions and professions – including the media and journalists.”
In 2002 O’Neil seems to have predicted the issue which was to become the defining moral concern of our countries state, a decade later. The issues of deception, good governance and the centrality of trust must surely be at the heart of any road back from our present troubles.

To consider:

1. Compare John Stuart Mill’s notion of individual autonomy, and its connection with the harm principle, with Kant’s concept of classical autonomy, and its role in the categorical imperative. Which do you find more helpful in making sense of trust and why?

2. What might the Situationist thought of Fletcher add to a conception of trust? Consider his notion of love as Justice and unconditionality.

3. To go further read the 2002 Reith

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