We can't bank on trust alone

Every fallen hero, every instant villain should cause us to re- evaluate our failings as a society For trust to work, it must be pledged in the full knowledge of what vulnerabili ty it brings
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Charles Van Doren, anti-hero of Robert Redford's new film Quiz Show, already knows the answers of the questions put to him on the network blockbuster. The nation does not know that he knows. They trust him to be a brilliant Wasp, a natural leader in their leading nation. As director, Redford draws out that abuse of trust like an overture to the loss of innocence that will follow in America - from Kennedy through Vietnam, Nixon and on into what he would describe as the present moral confusion.

In that sense Quiz Show, like Forrest Gump, enforces the orthodoxy that there was once an innocence, a time of mutual and deserving trust between authority and people. It dates that period in the United States to the 1950s, a little earlier than the time of the film, perhaps before the McCarthy hearings. Then, goes the argument, heroes were wise guardians of the trust invested in them.

By contrast, in the 1990s we consider ourselves betrayed on all sides. Politicians lie, football icons lash out, sporting heroes take drugs, a young man given every opportunity to better himself in our enterprise culture scarpers into a Singapore sunset leaving a $750m-and-rising disaster behind him.

Each outrage is the more painful if it is seen to contribute to a wholesale degeneration of human behaviour and standards. But generals and governors and seers and snake-oil salesmen have deceived people in small and large numbers over the years. Cicero was quoting Ennius from the 2nd century BC when he pointed out that where rulership is concerned, no society is sacred and no trust safe.

The difference now is that we expect our leaders and icons to provide consistency, purpose and a template for behaviour. This expectation is not balanced by any realistic assumption that they will fail. We're searching for external patterns and philosophies as the internal moral codes generated by religion and social conformity peel away.

And since philosophy is now a contender for the accolade of rock and roll of the Nineties, let me introduce, on ethics, Annette C Baier, Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy at Pittsburgh University, past president of the American Philosophers' Association. Her series of essays Moral Prejudices outlines a new ethic of trust, favouring - and this is my crude approximation - not Kant and his theories of rationality and obligation but Hume and his empiricism, the study of observed experience.

What's engaging about Baier is that her philosophy is laced with anecdote and illustration - dilemmas about babysitters, passes made by the landlord, what to teach toddlers about strangers. For a philosopher, it is also quite brave: this use of real life rather than abstractions could well make a convention of traditional male philosophers sniff with disapproval.

The contract of society, Baier implies, is not working. In theory, government does x, the people do y. For those who fail to keep the bargain, there are punitive sanctions - particularly for the less powerful. There are apparently still areas where we exercise trust - that the other side observes a ceasefire in war, that a stranger gives us the right directions in the street - but increasingly that trust is replaced by last-resort reliance. Once trust in fellow man is gone, we can still rely on security guards in shops to deter others from injecting poison into the food on the shelves, or from stealing the goods.

By the same token, Network SouthEast some time ago reduced the number of staff selling tickets at stations. Now, in the waits between trains, you can study a poster that lists your options to become a legal fare- paying passenger. If there's no ticket office open or machine available, you should empty your pockets of change for a Permit to Travel - or if there's no machine for that, approach a member of staff on the train at the earliest opportunity.

The incentive to complete this obstacle course is an on-the-spot fine imposed by one of the increased number of staff employed to catch fare- dodging passengers. They may not trust us to pay but they can rely on our fear of being caught out.

Nick Leeson presumably had a fear of being caught out. He would not otherwise have been, until these past few days, a successful futures dealer. Five weeks ago he began extensive unauthorised dealing in derivatives. When it all began to go wrong, the checks and balances in the system for some reason failed to kick into action. He is now seen to have abused the trust that his employers had placed in him.

But there is an argument that what Barings invested in Leeson was not trust but reliance. Trust, says Annette Baier, must not be made blindly. It should not be the kind of faith that religious people place in an omnipotent being - for where's the moral value in that? For trust to work, it must be pledged in the full knowledge of what vulnerability it brings with it. In other words, it's a question of judgement.

Trust is a two-way deal. Baier endorses the Acton view that power (and she includes money in that definition) is a "proven corrupter of trustworthiness and so of networks of trust" but so is "meekness, servility and undemandingness of the relatively powerless". To this list you might easily add the indifference of the powerful.

The 1950s viewers of American network television programmes might be forgiven - for a while - for suspending their judgement in the dazzle of the new medium. But it was up to them to learn from Charles Van Doren's fall. Improved judgement, especially when painfully acquired, should be the spur to move forwards. But the alternate lionisation and vilification of OJ Simpson and Eric Cantona show how eager we still are to imbibe values from a persona or a system - and how bitter we become when our judgement seems to have been flawed.

The judgement that traders can gamble on hundreds of millions of pounds of a bank's assets should certainly be up for revision. On television on Monday, the deputy governor of the Bank of England insisted it wasn't the system but the individual that was at fault. Without doubt the individual was at fault, but what kind of system is it that allows such a breach - and is it responsible to permit it to continue?

The fear of being found out is one of the great motivations of modern society. The fear of being deceived is another. Somehow the two, like Barings' books, don't seem to add up.