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Is It a Jungle Out There? Trust, Distrust and the Construction of Social Reality

  • Trudy Govier (a1)

An acquaintance who works with street teens once said to me, “They live in a completely different world.” She did not mean only that they lived downtown and not in the suburbs, slept under bridges and not in beds, ate in soup kitchens instead of restaurants. She meant that street teens experienced a social reality radically different from the reality of those who have lived most of life in a relatively sheltered and stable middle-class environment. They have a different view of other people, of social authority, of human nature, of political and social institutions. As my acquaintance understood it, this difference resulted from experiences at home and school, experiences with adults who were at best negligent, at worst abusive and hostile. Children were not cared for at home, fared poorly at school, then ran from home to the street. The street teens she knew were hostile and despairing and expected others to be the same. A fundamental difference was in the area of trust: these teens lacked trust in family, teachers, peers, police, even those who sought to help them. And apparently for good reason, given the circumstances from which many of them emerged.

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1 Michalos, Alex C., “The Impact of Trust on Business, International Security and the Quality of Life,” Journal of Business Ethics, 9 (1990): 619–38. No paper on trust would be complete without references to Annette Baier's widely read Trust and Antitrust,” Ethics, 96 (1986): 231–60, and Axelrod's, RobertThe Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984). Though themes in these works are not directly addressed here I have, of course, benefited from studying them.

2 I have explored this matter in An Epistemology of Trust,” International Journal of Moral and Social Studies, 8, 2 (1993): 155–74.

3 This is not to say, of course, that trust and distrust are immune to alteration of the basis of evidence. It is just that there is some tendency to interpret consistently with these attitudes; if one trusts another, it will take more episodes, and clearer episodes, of unreliability to lead one to the conclusion that the other is unreliable than it will if one begins with a neutral attitude, or one of distrust.

4 Given the seriousness of some patient-doctor relationships, in such contexts as death or near-death, the impersonality of the relationship is open to criticism. See, for instance, Frank, Arthur W., At the Will of the Body (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991).

5 Thomas, Laurence, Living Morally (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989).

6 Such dealings with complete strangers are not features of village life, a fact which underlies what I call the ‘modernism thesis’—the claim that in traditional peasant societies or in small villages people are less inclined than those in complex modern societies to trust strangers. See Sellerberg, Ann-Mari, “On Modern Confidence,” Ada Sociologica, 25: 3948, and Banfield, Edward C., The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (New York: Free Press, 1958).

7 Thomas, Living Morally.

8 I have explored these problems in Distrust as a Practical Problem,” Journal of Social Philosophy, 23, 1 (1992): 5263.

9 Zand, Dale, “Trust and Managerial Problem Solving,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 17 (1972): 229–39.

10 Snyder, Mark, “When Belief Creates Reality,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 18 (1984): 2447–2305. The specific examples given are my own.

11 My example. The revisionist history is not necessarily based on falsehood but on different selections, different emphasis, highlighting and interpretation.

12 Snyder, “When Belief Creates Reality”; also noted by H. Horsburgh, J. N. in “The Ethics of Trust,” Philosophical Quarterly, 10 (1960): 343–54.

13 These connections are not inevitable, as Snyder notes. A person may, for instance, assume responsibility for establishing a warm and open relationship and take special care to make friendly initiatives even when the other party does not seem especially forthcoming.

14 This brings us back to street teens. In part, but only in part, the reason they live in a different world is that they have created it.

15 Michalos, “The Impact of Trust,” p. 626.

18 Rotter, Julian B., “Interpersonal Trust, Trustworthiness and Gullibility,” American Psychologist, 35 (1980): 17.

19 Cited by Michalos. It is argued that it is not ambition and drive accompanying Type A behaviour that are correlated with early heart disease but rather the hostility and cynicism that are features of some, not all, Type A personalities.

20 These are, of course, not the only alternatives, just the two most relevant to the argument I am developing here.

21 I suspect that this is the case, but the point seems impossible to prove.

22 Michalos, “The Impact of Trust,” p. 631.

23 The Rotter comments pose a challenge, I think, because social scientists are unlikely to have the opportunity to explore citizens' attitudes to government and each other in totalitarian or war-torn societies, or in concentration camps. In a global frame of reference, people studied by social scientists constitute a sample which is, in effect, biased toward the literate, the well fed, the physically and politically secure. One can try to redress this selectivity by studying fiction, autobiography and other non-fictional presentations of life in less secure and safe environments, and by trying to extract from these sources observations about the relevant attitudes.

24 Work on this paper has been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, to whom I would like to express my thanks.

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Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
  • ISSN: 0012-2173
  • EISSN: 1759-0949
  • URL: /core/journals/dialogue-canadian-philosophical-review-revue-canadienne-de-philosophie
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