concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011


Trust is confidence in a person: a justified, provisional belief that things will go right when one relies on them. The fact that it is in a person makes trust somewhat more complex than confidence, though, because our interactions with a person occur at all kinds of levels other than a mere appraisal of evidence. Our response to a person is an emotional and physical one as well as a cognitive one, and trust therefore requires immediacy. The fact that it involves an emotional response also means that trust casts forwards beyond the evidence in expectation of a positive outcome. However, that does not mean that the justification of trust can be given any kind of absolute basis beyond experience: rather it needs to be tied to experience, but be a few optimistic steps in front of it. The Middle Way of trust avoids dogmatic assumptions that provide grounds for naive over-trust as well as grounds for lack of trust where trust is due.

The appeal to trust, together with the closely related idea of faith, is one of the aspects of religious traditions that have often been used to obscure a dependency on metaphysics. The reasons for acceptance of metaphysical dogmas in religion is often related to a personal response - for example, relating to Jesus as a person - and those who see religious belief in purely cognitive terms are seen as too narrow in their interpretation of its meaning. However, this is a disingenuous way of arguing when faith in cognitive claims is justified by a relationship to a person, especially when we have not actually met that person in the normal sense of meeting a person. Trust can justifiably run slightly ahead of the evidence when we have an emotional response to a person we experience in front of us, but neither stories about remote people living in the past, or even appeals to the authority of living religious leaders who are remote from most of their disciples, provide a justifiable basis of trust. Trust here becomes rapidly degraded into metaphysical faith, where the appeal to the idea of a leading character justifies further abstract beliefs. I thus argue that much trust in gurus, and certainly 'trust' in scriptures (actually belief) is incompatible with the practice of the Middle Way.

However, positively used, trust is also important to our moral development. Since we grow up in a social environment, not in isolation, trust in others is a very basic part of our experience, and an important way in which moral objectivity is developed. Experience teaches us that some people are more worthy of trust than others, but it is largely metaphysics, from which we get a fixed idea of a person's character not amenable to experience, that distorts that process of learning how to bestow trust. Friendships are an obvious area in which trust develops and where moral influence supports objectivity, provided that there is a balance of acceptance and challenge within the friendship.

Links to related discussion

The Way of Trust (talk given to members of Western Buddhist Order - external link to FWBO discussion site)

The sources of justified belief in Buddhism (from 'The Trouble with Buddhism', including discussion of trust in gurus)

Friendship as an integrative practice (from thesis: scroll down to e.iv)


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