A society is a network of relationships, and in a healthy society those relationships consist of trust. Trust is an understanding of how another will behave in a given situation. It leads to smooth coordination of action, greater prosperity, and good feelings. Trustworthy people understand which obligations are real and are strong enough to follow through despite obstacles and temptations.
Trust starts with treating your own body and mind with respect, choosing longer-term rewards. This requires a conception of ideals, archetypes derived from stories and heroes, and training to derive satisfaction not from primitive reward circuits but from steps toward the ideal.
Our obligations extend next to family and those with whom we are closest. How deeply you trust someone should reflect how deeply they trust you. This will reflect time, the history of trust extended and reciprocated, and shared ideals. Soldiers who have repeatedly fought together for a common cause experience the highest degree of trust, often exceeding that of a family.
Friendships grow through a similar process, though because the stakes are lower more effort and time must be invested. Endeavors undertaken, movies watched, books read, and events discussed together reinforce confidence in each other’s strength and shared ideals.
Good business relationships are built through a similar process. Most business endeavors today have little analog in our collective past, so the bonds therein are forged makeshift from faculties that evolved for family, friendship and martial fraternity. American society used to be renowned for the speed with which men could come to trust one another with their efforts and assets. This was the fruit of a less-mobile, more integrated society with overlapping connections and ideals. But community, fraternal, and religious institutions have disintegrated, and gone are the days of 50% Neilson ratings for ordinary TV shows (the Superbowl gets 40%). We have become geographically and spiritually atomized.
As implicit trust has weakened, we have come to rely more on contracts and the legal system, which are easily gamed by the cunning and powerful. Lawyers are a costly and poor substitute for trust.
In the investment management business, advertising campaigns signal trustworthiness, but disclaimers provide absolution from negligence and conflicts of interest. Mutual fund managers rarely have more than a token position in their own funds. Advisors fail to disclose alternatives to high-fee products. Easily avoidable losses are incurred in portfolios that have no need for high returns and but critical need for stability. All of this is commonplace, because investment professionals do not feel responsible for how their decisions affect their clients. They are protected by their firms, by the mass of others making the same transgressions, and by the ignorance promoted by the industry.
When we live in a trust network, rather than a web of contracts, we feel responsible for the quality of our work, since we must continue to live with those it affects. There is a responsibility for outcomes, not just compliance. The feelings of guilt and shame evolved to guide behavior in stable societies where violations resulted in shunning, whereas today a conscience seems to be a hindrance. It doesn’t have to be, if you chose instead the better path.
Our responsibility towards others is a responsibility to ourselves, since living in a web of trust is still the key to a good life. We should seek out relationships with others who hold themselves to similar ideals, and make the effort to forge lasting bonds, softly then firmly shunning those who defect. By binding ourselves to a web of trust, we become more conscientious and feel compelled to develop the skills and practices to reach for ideals. By bootstrapping such a community we can restore our self-respect, our mutual respect, and in time, our honor.