• Vex

Is Trust Logical? Examining the Logical Feasibility of Trust and Its Societal Necessity

Pretend for a moment that a machine – which operates largely independently through the use of advanced artificial intelligence – exists which you depend upon in some way. What exactly it is you depend on the machine for isn’t particularly relevant - it could be anything such as a job related duty, driving you from place to place, calculating the best stocks to buy in to, caring for you after an accident, etc. Regardless, there is a non-insignificant portion of your life which is affected by this machine. You may even depend upon it for your general well-being and to maintain a well-structured, orderly life. However, this machine is imperfect. It can fail, occasionally in catastrophic ways. The incidence rate for these failures is largely unpredictable from machine to machine and cannot be done away with by you or the creator of the machine – such changes to the machine’s function are outside your purview. Even the most dependable of these machines demonstrate some irregularities in their behavior, irregularities that are possibly triggered by certain circumstances which may not be entirely avoidable.

With all this in mind, while you depend upon and live your day-to-day life with this machine (amongst all the other machines in the world) is it an entity you would consider trustworthy? In other words, while you and others may need these machines and have to accept a world in which they exist and cannot be wholly avoided it is also possible to not trust the machines. In a broad sense the machines are functional, operate as an integral part of society, and provide many benefits – but there always exists the possibility that any machine can malfunction in a way which can range from a minor and temporary issue to a life-threatening catastrophe. Now – knowing all this – ask yourself honestly if such a thing is worthy of having trust placed into it. Would you generally trust the machines, or would you always carry a certain degree of wariness regarding them? Should you find a moment to do so, please leave a comment below, I’m very curious to see other’s answers and their thoughts behind them.

Regardless of your answer you should now replace the machines in whatever scenario you’ve imagined them in with humans. For the purposes of this thought experiment the “machines” were simply a relatable stand-in for human beings which you hopefully judged from a more emotionally neutral point of view. We are presuming here that humans share all the traits of the machines described above, and more – they are often unpredictable, exist on a spectrum of dependability, and their “malfunctions” can amount to little more than minor annoyances (as in the case of someone with mild temper control issues) to extreme and dangerous behavior (as in the case of those who commit violent acts without provocation or reason). Given that, would your previous answer regarding the trustworthiness of the “machines” change now that they’ve been replaced with human beings? If so, why? While it is obviously true that human beings are capable of working together to achieve grander goals, the issues presented by the inherently imperfect human mind are a constant presence. No society or group has ever been wholly free from crime, incompetence, callousness, jealousy, corruption, nepotism, etc. That said, we have now reached the crux of the matter – is it logical to instill trust in other people, knowing said people are certainly flawed in a way which may at some point have an impact on your life? I am inclined to answer no, as trust implies a sense of assurance that the person will behave in an expected manner when needed and will never intentionally inflict damage upon you. As already noted however there is no such guarantee that even the most dependable person will never turn on you or otherwise fail you at some point.

One counter to this line of thought is that we may define “trusting others” in a way that excludes giving over our full, unconditional trust in their person. For example, you might trust your barber to do a good job cutting your hair but you may not trust him with painting your car. Similarly, you might trust a friend or family member to provide emotional support but not sound financial advice. This conceptualization of trust – which I suspect is the one most people will find agreeable and practicable – wherein trust is conditional greatly complicates analysis of our original question. Even taking as true that unconditional trust is illogical, this does not make conditional trust illogical. There is also another question raised by this analysis which is whether or not interpersonal relations, and by extension society, can function without any form of trust. If we had a total lack of trust would we be able to form even the smallest of collaborative groups? What would such a world without trust look like? It’s possible that such a trust-less world results in rapid human extinction due to a total inability to cooperate at any level. Conversely it may result in a world where might truly makes right, with those in power lording over everyone under their dominion in what would surely be a hellish dystopia where paranoia runs rampant and attempts at subversion of the dominant power structure never cease.

What this ultimately leads us to is the suggestion that whether trust, in and of itself, is illogical or not is the wrong question to ask, and that the right question is whether or not trust is necessary. Without at least some degree of conditional trust, it would appear that building healthy societies is an impossibility. Examining the issue through the lens we have created here with our brief thought experiment, there may still be questions about the logical feasibility of conditional trust, but it is certainly a far more defensible concept than absolute trust. Conditional trust opens some “breathing room” in terms of how you define your trust in a given entity, thus allowing for things like inconsequential or otherwise minor mistakes to be looked over in favor of maintaining the social order built around said trust. It also allows for the trusting of individuals unworthy of unconditional trust to carry out certain tasks or to behave in a certain manner while retaining the expectation that said individual should not be relied upon otherwise.

To get back to the point, what this revelation regarding the feasibility of unconditional trust vs. conditional trust and society’s dependency on trust to function shows us is that unconditional trust – applied as a rule – appears to be illogical. However, given how human beings generally function, we may need to at least practice conditional trust or what I would term “fluid trust”, wherein our trust is tailored to fit the situation, being allowed to “fill in” the voids where it is needed and having its access dammed off where it is not. This fluid conceptualization of trust is much more flexible and appropriate for beings which are as deeply flawed as ourselves, and may be one key to maintaining a healthy social order. After all, without any trust it appears that creating, growing, and maintaining even the smallest of cooperative groups wherein individuals are at least roughly co-equal is impossible.

To conclude, I posit that holding unconditional or absolute trust in other humans is illogical due to the innate flaws of human beings, but some form of conditional trust – such as the fluid trust described before – seems necessary to maintain even the vaguest semblance of a healthy society. Without any trust at all, it is likely that our societies would rapidly devolve into arenas of all-out conflict where ethics and societal progress are but words in the wind.

- Vex