Thursday, August 16, 2012

Seligman's "Trust" is Only in the Social Gaps

(Continuing the discussion of Adam Seligman's The Problem of Trust from our annual Theory Camp.)

Seligman's most distinctive idea is that trust is rarely needed.  Most of the theorists he is arguing with, especially Francis Fukuyama and Anthony Giddens, treat trust as a common and necessary feature of modern societies.  They think that modern people have to trust that millions of faceless strangers have done their jobs correctly in making our food, building our buildings, driving cars in the opposite lane, and so forth.  But Seligman says that that should not be called trust in other people, but confidence in the social system.

Trust, Seligman thinks, is needed when we confront other people beyond any reliable role in the social system, and beyond any signs of familiarity that they give off that they are people we can predict. Trust in other people is like the faith that people had in God in premodern times before, as he claims, we all became atheists.

Having defined trust as beyond social roles and beyond experienced familiarity, he then draws his grim conclusions.  Our roles are becoming so differentiated that we can't connect any of them to a real self - neither in ourselves nor in others. The globalized world brings us into contact with so many people with different experiences than our own that we cannot assume familiarity. We are forced to trust, or led to mistrust, in more and more encounters.  We are in danger, he thinks, of "re-enchanting" the world.  But the new world would not be enchanted by God, but something "more brutal and more Hobbesian."

[I disagree with Seligman's conclusion, a matter I will take up in the next post.]


Dennis Evans said...

Forgive me but I percieve some murkiness here, perhaps in common words being used as "terminology". For instance, trust and confidence are surely closely related. They are both "faith" words. The Latin roots of confidence describe a kind of faith. And the problem of truly knowing another person or even of knowing oneself or the extent to which our "role" can be identified with our real self, has always been problematic: its in the Bible.

gruntled said...

Yes, as is often necessary in social theory, Seligman (and Fukuyama) are taking ordinary-language words and using them in a specialized, more precise sense.

Because Fukuyama and Giddens say moderns have to have more trust than people in pre-modern Gemeinschaft communities did, Seligman has to say that the thing F and G are talking about shouldn't be called trust, but confidence. He wants to reserve trust for its more normal sense of trusting a person.

What is different about trusting a person and having faith in God, says Seligman, is that God is unconditional - if God exists, then our faith is well placed. People, though, are conditional, and we know they are conditional, yet we do have trust is some of them anyway.