Sunday, December 11, 2011

My Word Is My Bond

The basis of all human transactions is trust.  Trust that others will keep their word and do what they said they will do.  Let me rephrase: in a well-functioning society the basis of human transaction is trust that other people will keep their word.

In a society where some use power or force to get what they want, or others deceit, there will be considerable costs to us as individuals, and to society as a whole. 

You pay the plumber to fix the sink trusting the leak will be fixed; you take a job trusting you will be paid; you sign a business contract trusting your partners will hold up their sides of the bargain; you get married trusting your spouse will be faithful.

There are ways to mitigate the costs of the inability to trust others.  If we are working for someone else we can ask to be paid up front (although others may be reluctant to pay up front afraid there will be no incentive to finish the project).  We can bring those who fail to live up to their promises to an independent body for dispute resolution.  Couples can enter into pre-nuptial agreements. But, of course, these mitigations cost time and money.

It is extremely difficult to enter into any relationship where parties do not feel bound by their word.  This is true whether we are talking about romantic or business relationships.  At first, everyone makes wonderful promises and aspires to great things.  But if everyone decides to do what best suits him or herself when things don’t go as planned, the venture will not be long for this world.

For example, if two parties think they have come to a business agreement only to arrive at the next meeting to find that the terms they thought were set in stone are being renegotiated, the deal will not get done.  The same is true for romantic relationships.

The Social Contract

Thinkers have argued we adopted this culture of trust for our collective wellbeing.   For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau referred to it as a social contract, and Thomas Hobbes argued that we surrender our freedom to act to a sovereign to avoid chaos.  The general idea is that it makes sense to keep your word so that others will keep their word to you also.  Indeed, it does make sense.  Of course, if you can break your promises and hold others to their obligations you will be in even better shape.  But, as we all realize if everyone were to do this, no one would get what they want. 

Therefore, if fewer people keep their word causing fewer people to trust others, society will inevitably break down.  In such a case we would witness a failure of personal and familial relationships, business relationships and the failure of authority. 

Today, we see high levels of family breakdown, we live in increasing economic instability, and trust in government is at all-time lows.  I believe that many of the current problems can be traced to a lack of trust, which has resulted from the failure to keep our promises. 

Business contracts are now viewed as economic transactions.  When something does not go as planned, the business person does not consider whether it is right or wrong to abide by the terms of the contract, rather he or she weighs up the costs of a breach against the costs of continued compliance.  Similarly, in many marriage ceremonies what is really being promised is not “till death do us part” but “till things get too hard”.  In many people’s mind the phrase “principled politician” has become an oxymoron.  Further, one of the reasons cited for the failure of the recent congressional supercommittee charged with reducing the U.S. deficit was a lack of trust.

But if it makes sense for us to adhere to the social contract, why are we experiencing such a breakdown in trust?  Why are we shooting ourselves in the foot?

First, we are so obsessed with looking out for number one that we fail to see how our actions affect others, and how such an attitude affects society as a whole when universally adopted.  We want to game the system to get ahead of others.

Second, throughout history there was something else underlying the idea that we should keep our word.  Holding everything together was the belief that there were absolute moral truths that were not based on society; moral truths that transcended the physical world and found their wellspring in a morally perfect God.  These truths were held to be true for all people at all time in all places.  We kept our word because it was the right thing to do, regardless of economic cost.

Since the Enlightenment, we have become enamored with physical or materialistic explanations for everything.  It was no longer acceptable to state that we should keep our word because of a transcendent moral code.  However, humanity could not be permitted to do whatever it wanted.  As Hobbes recognized, life in such a society would be “nasty, brutish and short.” (1)  So materialist rationalizations explaining why we should keep to our word were required.  One such rationalization was the idea of the social contract.

But, as stated above, the problem with the social contract is that we want everyone else to adhere to the social contract, but we want some wiggle room to do as we see fit on occasion to our advantage.  Indeed, if there is nothing objectively wrong with breaking your word, why blame them? 

The social contract appears to be breaking.  So this theory does not explain why we think it important to keep our word.  The attempt to explain why trust is so vital in materialistic terms has therefore failed.  
Without a return to the concept that your word is your bond because it is the objectively morally right thing to do, we are headed for chaos. 

We cannot be trusted to keep our word; even when we know that doing so is in our best interests.  So, perhaps we should reexamine our jettisoning of transcendent moral truth.

1.            Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. London: Penguin Books, 1985. 186.


  1. Trust is important; without it, we cannot allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We trust that someone will not act in such a way as to hurt us. Without trust, there is no appropriate (healthy) vulnerability. Without such vulnerability, there is no risk taking. Without such risk taking, there is no progress.

  2. Great point. I agree without trust we can't move forward.