Here’s an article I wrote for the Guardian CiF Belief, called ‘Philosophy: a case of Sunday afternoon fever’. It’s about a charity operating in north London, called the Stuart Low Trust, which provides companionship and puts on events for people who might have some experience of mental illness. Each Sunday, they meet to discuss philosophy, and what’s amazing about it all is the openness the participants have to new ideas. Compared to academic debates, where people largely already know what they think and just fight their corner, the people taking part here do so because philosophical questions are very much live ones for them. Who should I be? How should I live? What matters? All of that is a work in progress. Of course, it’s work in progress for others too, even established academics, but somehow the people taking part in the Stuart Low Trust have a better grip on this fact than others do.
I admire, even envy that a bit.
I was a panelist in an event last week, put on by the Advertising Association, called Lead 2013. We took took up the subject of trust and brands, beginning with the question, ‘What can be done to rebuild trust between brands and people in 2013?’ I think part of the trouble with the question is that trust does not exist between people and brands. Trust is something that exists in the mind of a vulnerable person — a person who has to trust because he or she lacks certainty or anyway the power to make something happen.
I said we’re living in an age of distrust — think about scandals in banking, politics, the media and military, even organized religion. The trouble is that once trust is lost it’s difficult to regain, and that’s partly because any effort to change things has to recognize that trust is more like an emotion than a belief. If you miss that feature of trust, you might try to rebuild trust by pointing to facts or taking oaths. But because trust is at least partly emotive, you can’t simply decide to trust someone any more than you can decide to love someone. It’s not something you can will, not something in your power to choose to do. Of course, you can say, right, I’m going to have to trust you, and make a judgement call, but paradigm cases of trust are not like that at all.
Some philosophers have said that trust is optimism about the goodwill of another person towards us, and I think that sounds about right. When we lose that optimism, we can’t be simply talked back into it. When a cheating spouse tries to reestablish trust, it can’t happen just after a list of facts and oaths and promises. There’s no shortcut. Time, transparency, and a change in behaviour — building within oneself the property of trustworthiness — is the only way to regain trust once it’s lost.
So if there’s horse meat in a burger you’ve sold, the only way to reestablish trust is to do a very human thing, something human beings have evolved to judge extremely accurately: you have to promise to do better, and this is the difficult bit, you have to mean it.