Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Ecological Trust: An Object-Oriented Perspective

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Ecological Trust: An Object-Oriented Perspective

Article excerpt

A Confession

When I was a child, I lied to my mother about something. It matters little what it was; I can't even remember. What is seared into my memory is the acute helplessness I felt when she informed me that I would now have to "earn back her trust." The idea devastated me, in part because I did not yet know how I earned her trust in the first place. The process was foreign to me. It was difficult for me to fathom what trust-earning would take. All I knew was that it would require a sincere effort, and that it would probably be a long time before the bond of trust that I had carelessly broken was forged again. My mother was disappointed in me. Even more, she said she could no longer rely on me, and the resulting affect burdened me in a way that I had never before experienced. Our lives afford us many opportunities for such carelessness, disappointment, and betrayal. Relationships bear within themselves these possibilities-some more than others. But it is not just human relationships, or even the relationships between living creatures, that carry the fragility of trust within them. Trust is a much more universal bond, and one that we often take for granted. This essay will illustrate some of the ways that trust crisscrosses our lives unbeknownst to us.

Of course, my mother's disappointment in my dishonesty probably seemed more intense than it actually was. In retrospect I can see that she was teaching me a lesson, not so much about lying, but about trust and reliability, as well as their significance and danger. What I could not see then-too worried as I was about my own fate and my mother's esteem for me-was the dimension of vulnerability that lurks within the bond of trust. When someone puts their trust in you, they open themselves to disappointment, manipulation, exploitation. To trust is to put your fate or desire in someone else's hands, precisely not knowing what they will do with the entrusted. It would probably be overstating the case to say that my dishonesty took a risk with my mother's vulnerability, or that the white lie I had told put her in a more precarious position. It remains true, however, that I manipulated her. And this was made possible by my mother's fundamental ignorance about who I was and what I might do with her trust. Trust is not only an ethical phenomenon; it is also an epistemological problem. It is a problem of knowledge that is at once a promise, a promise of security or of danger. It is as volatile as any promise, and just as precarious.

Most disturbing to me was the realization that someone was relying on me without my knowledge, that they were invested in me in a way that placed them in the position to be disappointed, manipulated, betrayed, or harmed. Someone was vulnerable because of me. Someone was invested in my reliability and I had no idea. Even in our most intimate relationships, trust can remain hidden.

A Thesis About Trust in the Anthropocene

Trust is often regarded as a distinctly human phenomenon. My contention is that while trust in other persons is without question important to civil society and human flourishing, the reach of trust extends throughout the entirety of the human and nonhuman world. In fact, on a daily basis we place our trust much more in things, in objects, than we do in persons. Most of the time we are profoundly ignorant of the extent of our trust, which means that we are largely unaware of the extent to which we have invested the security of our wellbeing in the world and rendered ourselves susceptible to its accidents. This is the necessary condition of ecological life, however; it could not be otherwise. I will refer to this pervasive and unknowing trust in animate and inanimate objects as ecological trust. An understanding of ecological trust requires us to think the personal, institutional, as well as interobjective forms of trust, along with the dangers attending each. It forces us to recognize our inescapable ignorance of just how prone we are to the contingencies of existence, whether broken promises, faulty infrastructure, or metaphysical instability. …

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