Monday, June 19, 2017

The cement of society (2)

Trenches of the Western Front, First World War.
 On the foreground Allied trenches; on the background German trenches. 

In my last blog I put that trust is the cement of society. Montaigne stated that it is just language that ties people together, but I see it this way that language is the means used to inspire trust. However, what is trust? In an old blog I described trust as a kind of promise, but as I see it now this is actually not to the point. It’s true that accepting a promise is not possible without trusting the person who gives the promise, but trust is much wider. It involves also other relationships. Nevertheless we can find the essential aspects of trust in the relationship constituted by a promise. For one thing, a promise involves a kind of dependence, and so it is with trust. One doesn’t give a promise or accept it, when one has nothing to do with the other. The person who accepts the promise needs the help of the person who gives the promise, or the other way round. This dependence can be of different kinds. For instance,you need the practical help of the other, or his or her moral support. My friend promises to help me, or a person in need promises to follow my advice, knowing that it is the best for him or that by not doing so he will lose my future support. However, the latter example shows that the dependency may be rather weak, for perhaps the person who gives the promise may know others who can help him, so why not break the promise? Often there are no sanctions in order to extort a promise. It’s the same so for a relation of trust. So, for another thing, trust is vulnerable. This makes that Annette Baier sees trust as a kind of reliance on the good will of the other, and that she formulates the essence of trust in this way: “Where one depends on another’s good will, one is necessarily vulnerable to the limits of that good will. One leaves others an opportunity to harm one when one trusts, and also show’s one’s confidence that they will not take it. ... Trust then ... is accepted vulnerability to another’s possible but not expected ill will (or lack of good will) toward one.” (p. 235) This description of trust is, so Baier, a first approximation of the idea, but for this blog it will do.
Briefly, who trusts takes the risk that things will not evolve as hoped or expected. It’s therefore not surprising that for Niklas Luhmann – who wrote an influential book on trust – risk is the core of trust. He called it a “risky advance” (p. 27). I think that this idea of trust as risky advance needs an explanation, but instead of spending some abstract words on the matter, I want to quote a passage from Léon Werth’s autobiographic novel Clavel Soldat, which exactly says what it is about. The event takes place during the First World War on the Western Front in Northern France. Clavel cannot sleep and goes back to the trench for a smoke, when dawn breaks:
“Someone holds out his head above the parapet. He makes a movement with his arms as if he brings a rifle to his shoulder. Then he shakes his head as if he says “no”. It’s Arnoult, one of the volunteers...
Apparently a German in the trench on the other side has answered his signs, for he seems not to consider it necessary any longer to take precautions.
– Comrades... Dirty work... Arnoult says.... Scheissarbeit [shit work]
A voice on the other side answers:
Verfluchte Scheissarbeit [damned shit work]
The corporal plucks him by his coat.
– They’ll shoot you down.
He answers:
– I trust them.
And then he shows himself up to his middle through a break in the parapet.”
(p. 174)

In our incalculable and anonymous world we have often no option but trust if we want to reach our aims or if we want to make contact. Not everything can be arranged and regulated ahead: We have to take risks and to trust, even though, as Luhmann puts it, in the end trust has no foundation (p.31). For trust bridges the moments of uncertainty in the behaviour of other people (p. 27).

- Baier, Annette, “Trust and Antitrust”, in Ethics, Vol. 96, No. 2 (Jan., 1986), pp. 231-260.
- Luhmann, Niklas, Vertrauen. Konstanz: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft; 2014.
- Werth, Léon, Clavel Soldat. Paris: Viviane Hamy, 2006.

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