By Kevin Vallier
Free societies need social trust — the faith that strangers will follow established norms. Researchers have found that social trust advances human well-being. It helps create markets and wealth, manage corruption, and spur a robust civil society. It can even improve our psychological health.
But social trust has an under-appreciated feature: it helps us to respect human dignity. One of the moral pillars of western civilization is the idea of individual human worth. This “dignity” does not imply a selfish “individualism.” The idea instead, as many faiths and philosophies acknowledge, is that everyone deserves honor and respect owing to our shared human nature.
Dignity restricts how we treat other persons. The classical liberal tradition has long recognized the dignity of the person, but modern day liberal thinkers added the claim that dignity implies universal human freedom and equality. We are free because we are naturally subject to no other human being. We are equal in having the same rights and freedoms. Recognizing dignity means acknowledging both freedom and equality. Hence, the liberal maxim that everyone is free to live their own lives in their own way, provided they honor that same right in others.
Now let’s explore how trust fits into the story. If we want to build a society that respects human dignity, do we want society to be trusting or mistrusting? The answer is straightforward. Mistrustful communities can struggle to recognize universal human dignity. Mistrust focuses our thoughts on the bad that others might do. We live in fear and seek to protect ourselves. We don’t see others as sources of opportunity, but as risks of harm. Or, owing to willfull indifference, we see them as a source of disrespect.
In low-trust societies, we must get ahead of others. Life is a race: if some succeed, others must fail. Otherwise, untrustworthy people will hurt us. Low trust permeates our relationships with strangers, leading us to doubt their motives, and even see others as corrupt.
Not everyone in low-trust societies will mistrust others. Good people exist, surely. But in low-trust communities, we can never know if we’re dealing with a good or bad person unless we know them as part of a small social group. While mistrustful people may affirm human dignity in principle, they will struggle to respect it in practice.
In contrast, high trust societies are sources of freedom and equality. First, freedom. Social trust helps people build shared institutions, which compete with central governments for our loyalties. Communist governments sought to undermine social trust so that people couldn’t trust anyone but the Party. And they half-succeeded. Communism continues to have devastating effects on social trust in post-communist nations.
When people trust each other, they also feel less need to dominate others. Trustful people worry less about whether others will abuse their freedoms and are more likely to hope people will choose to build and create. In trusting societies, people feel safe taking those first vulnerable steps towards connecting with others freely.
Social trust is also connected with human equality. People in societies high in social trust often are more committed to treating people as equals. People in high-trust cultures see little reason to elevate some groups over others since each person is recognized as having value. Social trust also encourages mutually beneficial economic relationships. People are less likely to allow their employers to mistreat and control them, and, because they see dignity in each person, are more likely to reach out a hand to help fellow citizens in need.
High trust societies recognize dignity by preserving freedom and equality in their institutions. These institutions most centrally include markets, democracy, and freedom of association, all of which help us cooperate with those we do not know. Markets prompt mutually beneficial exchanges, democracy helps people solve problems on equal terms, and freedom of association allows people to come together to pursue shared values.
High-trust societies also combine good outcomes, like economic growth and economic equality. When people trust one another, they find more opportunities to exchange and create shared institutions that improve human capital, like schools. Economic growth results, and people view economic growth as shared by all. In trustful societies, people don’t blame one another for poverty and want. Instead of leveling down the wealthy to help the poor, they seek to expand growth, resources, and things like access to education to level up people in need.
We often think that markets and democracy are opposed, and that societies cannot combine economic growth with economic equality. Sensing these tensions, the left wing of the liberal tradition celebrates democracy and economic equality as ways of honoring human dignity. Conversely, the right wing of the liberal tradition celebrates markets and prosperity since prosperous market orders also honor human dignity. But high trust societies can combine these emphases and thereby respect dignity in many ways at once.
We are still studying and trying to identify the causes of social trust, and how societies develop the capacity for it. But the social science of trust is not all new. And today, excellent researchers are teaching us how to cultivate this vital attitude.
This research is absolutely vital because only high-trust societies respect human dignity.
Kevin Vallier is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University, where he directs their program in Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law.
This viewpoint is part of an ongoing series that discusses the principles that unlock human potential. Find links to the entire series here.