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In Book 2 of Plato’s Republic, the character of Glaucon, who is in conversation with Socrates, argues that most people are fundamentally self-interested, but maintain a reputation for virtue and justice to evade the social costs of being or appearing unjust. But if a man could get hold of the mythical Ring of Gyges and make himself invisible, he would most surely behave as it suited him: “No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.” We behave justly not because we value justice, but because we are weak and fearful; while the unjust man who is cunning enough to seem just will get the better of everyone and everything. 

As part of his lengthy reply to Glaucon, Socrates famously conjures up an idealized Republic to help him ‘locate’ (define) justice, first in the state and then in the individual. Socrates argues that justice and injustice are to the soul as health and disease are to the body: if health in the body is intrinsically desirable, then so is justice in the soul. For Socrates, an unjust man cannot be happy because he is not in rational and ordered control of himself. 

Even if Socrates is right and justice is intrinsically desirable, people with the ring of Gyges on their finger, or even without, may still choose to behave unjustly. If people no longer fear for the consequences of their actions, if they have little or nothing to lose, we can no longer rely on them; and if we can no longer rely on them, they can no longer rely on us. Trust breaks down, with each defending against the other, and even attacking the other to pre-empt an attack. The state falls into turmoil, enabling the most violent, ruthless, and devious to rise up like the scum on an angry sea. But even their tyranny will be short-lived. In The Prince (1532), his instruction manual for aspiring princes and tyrants, Machiavelli warns that ‘victories are never so clear that the winner does not have to have some respect, especially for justice’.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle maintains that man is made good either by nature, or by teaching, or by habit. Nature, he says, is not in our hands, and few people heed the voice of reason. All that remains is habit, and most of what passes for virtue is no more than automaton custom and habit. Ultimately, good habits arise from good laws, and, in that much, justice begets justice.

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was born prematurely when his mother heard of the approach of the Spanish Armada. As Hobbes later put it, ‘my mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear.’ In his masterpiece Leviathan (1651), Hobbes argues that the absence of laws, trust, and peace, which he calls the state of nature, is so abhorrent to men that, through a combination of fear and reason—but mostly fear—they come together to cooperate. In a memorable line, Hobbes characterizes the life of man in the state of nature as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.

For Hobbes, peace and cooperation are best achieved by a social contract establishing a commonwealth, a giant body politic—or leviathan—with an absolute sovereign at its head. For the sake of self-preservation, people agree to divest themselves of certain rights, restricting their liberty to that which they would tolerate in others. The sovereign’s role is to enforce the contract, which, owing to human nature, is under constant threat. Like the human body, leviathan is prone to disease and deformity. The general inclination of mankind, says Hobbes, is ‘a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death’.

Game theory helps to explain why two rational people might not cooperate even when cooperation is in their best mutual interests. In the archetypal prisoner’s dilemma, two gang members are arrested and entered into solitary confinement. The prosecutors offer the prisoners a bargain. Each prisoner can either testify against the other, or cooperate by remaining silent. If both remain silent, they serve just one year in prison. If both testify against the other, they serve two years in prison. If only one testifies against the other, he is freed and the other serves three years in prison (and vice versa). Whether or not the other cooperates, it is better to grass on him; and the same, of course, is true for him. But the equation changes if the prisoners know that their gang kills defectors, or if they believe that they will have to work together again. If marriage promotes trust and goodwill, it is also because both parties know that they cannot easily escape from each other’s clutch. In the words of Hobbes, ‘covenants without the sword are but words…’

Assuming that our gang kills defectors, I could rely on my colleague in the other cell to cooperate, but does that mean I trust him to cooperate? If I rely on others not to attack me because they are minimally rational and it is in their interest not to break the social contract, does that mean I trust them with my wellbeing, or even that I trust them not to attack me? If a stranger robbed me, I would feel upset but not betrayed, and betrayal is the counterpart of trust. In other words, Hobbes thinks so little of human nature that he cannot even conceive of genuine trust, and, by his social contract, offers us no more than a pale imitation.

Happily, human nature is a bit brighter than Hobbes surmised. People are not cold, calculating machines that sometimes break down, but cooperative animals equipped with social feelings such as love, compassion, shame, and guilt. Such feelings may help, but it is entirely possible to rely on someone’s love without also trusting her, while trusting people, such as doctors and judges, who clearly do not love or even sympathize with us.

Instead, trust is established when I ask or allow a suitable candidate to take at least some responsibility for something that I value, thereby making myself vulnerable to her, and she agrees to take that responsibility, or, in the circumstances, can reasonably be expected to do so. I trust my doctor with my health because, by virtue of being a doctor, and my doctor, she has taken some responsibility for my health—and, of course, I have asked or allowed her to do so. But even then, my trust in my doctor is not all-embracing: given the kind of person that she is, and the nature of our compact, I can trust her with my health, but not, say, with my finances.

My doctor may well one day decide, for one reason or another, to stop caring for my health, but I would expect her to regretfully make me aware of this fact, and maybe to make transitional arrangements so as to protect the thing that I value and entrusted her with, in this case, my health. If she withdrew herself in this measured and considerate manner, I would feel sad, disappointed, and perhaps annoyed, but I would not feel betrayed, or, at least, not nearly as much as I would otherwise have.

The French for trust is confiance, which, like the English ‘confidence’, literally means ‘with faith’. Perhaps we cannot trust people not to let us down, other than by a leap of faith similar to belief in God, with the length of the leap determined by such factors as fear, habit, nature, reason, and love. But we can just about trust them—or some of them—not to mislead us, and to let us down lightly.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the EmotionsFor Better For Worse: Should I Get Married? and other books.

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