I'm not much of a proponent of virtue-based ethics, but lately I've been warming up to it it...One virtue I've been thinking about is "Trust."
First, let's agree that we use the word in a bewildering variety of contexts. We say that we "trust" or "distrust" both living and non-living entities. I "trust" my wife, my dogs, and the brakes on my Toyota. I would "distrust" my wife to perform brain surgery. I certainly wouldn't "trust" my dogs to drive my Toyota. We also "trust" or "distrust" organizations, leaders, and or followers. For now, let's focus on individual and organizational trust.
In virtue ethics, I'm a big fan of Aristotle's emphasis on context. He certainly would NOT argue that it is virtuous to completely trust all persons, leaders, followers, or organizations, at all times, in all places. To be trusted one must be ... or trustworthy. Let's break this down a bit. Aristotle thought that trust (and distrust) are virtues, and that virtuous behavior is habitual. Therefore, the decision of whether to trust a person or organization is contingent upon access to information about habitual behavior. If John Doe has a history of drinking all of your most expensive beer when you're not home, then you probably wouldn't want to leave an unguarded case of Heineken in your refrigerator. You might, however, trust that John will not steal your wife, Toyota, or your dogs. Hence, trust really is contextual. Moreover, if you habitually trust persons or organizations that, obviously, are untrustworthy, you are not virtuous. You're a "sucker." If you habitually "distrust" persons or organizations that are demonstrably trustworthy you are not virtuous either. You are a "cynic." In short, Aristotelian virtue requires that we trust the right person, at the right time, in the right place, to the right degree. We must be discerning.
As a general rule we trust family and friends, at least in part, because we know their "track record." On the other hand, we generally, distrust "strangers;" that is persons and organizations whose track record is unknown. However, if we're virtuous we naturally seek out "information" that might indicate trustworthiness or untrustworthiness. Of course, that leaves us open to the criticism that we're biased or discriminatory; especially when we distrust classes of strangers based on limited information. So here is the basic question! When we are deciding whether to trust or distrust strangers, what should be the default position? Should we trust strangers until we possess reliable information that warrants distrust; or should we distrust strangers until we possess reliable information that warrants trust? Unfortunately, some individuals and organizations are opportunistic, and are highly skilled at disguising their untrustworthiness. Hence, many positions of trust are invaded by untrustworthy opportunists. At least in recent years, politicians have probably been the most opportunistic. Here, the basic problem is that politicians have almost unlimited ability to disguise their opportunism by manipulating the machinery of government to their advantage. Transparency, therefore, is a necessary condition for guarding against opportunism. But transparency undermines opportunism, and therefore persons and organizations often manipulate language to make it difficult for the rest of us to decode their track record. Hence, the rise of "private languages," that serve to undermine our ability to know who to trust. Most professions that serve as "agents" for the rest of us, employ private languages: lawyers, priests, ministers, physicians, politicians, used car salesmen, insurance brokers etc. I call it "private language fraud."
I've been rightfully identified as a cynic; that is, I am not readily predisposed to blindly trust strangers, especially those that expect me to trust them to decode a private language. In fact, I always deploy my philosophical skills to "deconstruct" those private languages on my own, or at least find someone that I trust to do it for me. The most conspicuous example of private language fraud on earth is the U.S. tax code. Until that mess is translated into "public language" that the rest of us can understand, I'll continue to distrust politicians.