Disambiguating Faith: Faith As Loyally Trusting Those Insufficiently Proven To Be Trustworthy

Disambiguating Faith: Faith As Loyally Trusting Those Insufficiently Proven To Be Trustworthy August 12, 2009

Yesterday I began my series of posts attempting first to disambiguate the various senses of the word faith, to explore how the various practices referred to under this one word’s umbrella all relate to each other and how they can be ethically and epistemologically assessed, both as they occur individually and in various combinations with each other.  In this installment I want to distinguish trust based on objective considerations of trustworthiness with faith, which often connotes a trust that goes either beyond the evidence of trustworthiness or even against actual evidence of untrustworthiness.

The word faith is used most frequently to refer to trust, loyalty, or some combination of trust and loyalty.  Trust and loyalty are distinguishable and separable attitudes and attributes.  By this I mean that they are not identical and that they can exist apart from each other.  It is one thing to trust someone and another to be loyal to them.  We should trust loyal people (at least those loyal to us!) and we should be loyal to trusting people (at least insofar as we have encouraged them to trust us and insofar as they only trust us to do ethically justifiable things).  While loyalty and trust are closely related concepts and trusting and being loyal should be closely related practices, they are clearly distinguishable.  I might be trusting but not loyal: for example I might cheat on you while trusting you not to do the same.  Or, on the other hand, I might be loyal but not trusting:  I might never cheat on you while simultaneously I suspect you of infidelity.   And similarly, as distinguished in the last post, I might be honest but disloyal or loyal but dishonest.

It seems to me that when people are said to “share a faith” or to “keep a faith,” this requires both loyalty and trust.  Faith involves a commitment not just to be loyal but to trust and not just to trust but to be loyal.  Loyal people may not demand trustworthiness from those to whom they opt to be loyal.  I might be a loyal friend, consciously aware that my friend will betray. Similarly I might be trust some one while being disloyal.  But to be in a faith relationship with someone is to combine both loyalty and trust.  And faith’s trust connotation is not always based on considerations of objective trustworthiness.

Trustworthiness is an attribute someone may be rationally determined objectively either to have or not have.  Someone may be trustworthy either because she has an objective competence (say with a skill) or because she is reliable with respect to a moral virtue (for example, she has the virtue of courage and so is trustworthy when danger arises).  In matters of belief, someone’s trustworthiness can be objectively demonstrated by reference to her critical thinking skills, powers of perception, education in relevant facts, conscientious appropriation of trustworthy methods of inquiry, practical experience with the matters at hand, and, most of all, moral commitment to the intellectual virtues of honesty, accuracy, sincerity, intellectual cautiousness, self-scrutiny, humility, independence, thoroughness, and judiciousness.

Sometimes when we use faith as an interchangeable synonym for trust, we are referring to a rationally defensible judgment of trustworthiness.  When I say “I have faith in her abilities” I may be saying that I have made a rational judgment that her abilities are objectively trustworthy.  I have assessed her competency in the relevant area and judged it sufficient for me to justifiably trust her.  Or that, I trust her without any volitional input or choice involved.  In other words, I simply trust without having to try or to choose to continue to trust against doubts that I should.  This could be because of reasons I explicitly can articulate or simply as a matter of habit of trusting her or those like her for reasons that could theoretically be made explicit, even if I never have consciously thought them out.

However, sometimes what it means to “have faith” in someone’s abilities, her moral virtues, her trustworthiness as a source of true beliefs, or as is to have confidence in her beyond her demonstrable qualifications as a competent, moral, truth-discerning, and/or loyal person (as the case may be).  And often in these cases, there is either a conscious choice to trust her or if there is not, there would be were my reasons for trusting ever to be explicitly challenged and I were to realize that my trust is not entirely warranted.

In other words, faith often refers to a trust in someone that is insufficiently supported by evidence that she actually qualifies to be trusted in the respect in which she is trusted or the degree to which she is trusted.  The sources of such a faith in someone beyond their demonstrable qualifications may be manifold—sentimental attachment to her, love which hopes that she will prove herself and decides to think as though she already has, or a hasty inference that a few glimmers of potential observed in her will surely shine greatly if given the opportunity.   I am sure other sources of unjustified belief in people’s trustworthiness can be enumerated as well.  These examples are enough to give us a handle on the difference between “having faith in someone” and instances of trusting someone proportionate to the evidence of their trustworthiness and what sorts of psychological and ethical reasons might be in play when we opt to trust someone beyond our rationally defensible reasons to do so.  In each example, faith is a step of loyalty which seeks not only to continue supporting someone who may not be trustworthy but to actually trust her, despite one’s uncertainty about her.

Additionally, there is a third way to have faith in someone and it is the clearest case of faith diverging from rationally warranted trust.  I might have faith in someone not only where there are insufficient objective reasons to trust her but also in cases where there is greater evidence against her trustworthiness.  Beyond a paucity of qualifying factors that prove her trustworthiness, she may exhibit many disqualifying behaviors or attitudes that outright prove her untrustworthiness.  In these cases, faith in someone is more than a belief beyond the evidence but a belief against evidence that someone is not a competent, loyal one, or a source of trustworthy beliefs.

Both the cases of trusting with insufficient proof of trustworthiness are instances of a kind of loyalty to someone, regardless of its motive and other psychological causes.  There may be some good reasons to be loyal to someone even where there are not good reasons established for trusting them.  But interestingly, faith is a kind of loyalty which asks us to express our loyalty to someone precisely by trusting her beyond her objectively demonstrable trustworthiness.  Is it really a virtue to have faith in someone where adequately defensible trust is not possible or is this a vice?  Should we let our loyalties lead us to trust where our ability to perceive objective trustworthiness does not give us enough evidence that soemone is trustworthy?  Why should we?  Why shouldn’t we?

I think the value of this faith needs to be separately explored within the various contexts in which we trust people.  Interpersonal faith in a friend or a marriage partner is a different issue than epistemic faith in a purported source of knoweldge, which is in turn a distinguishable issue from faith in one’s traditions and again from faith in one’s religious traditions.  There may be different virtous and vicious ways to have faith in each of these various contexts.  In tomorrow’s post, I will start these more specific explorations into different contexts of faith and types of faith by sketching out a general theory of what traditions are, how they function, and what vital purposes they serve.  Within that context, we will be able to see the positive roles that faith may have historically played in tradition in general and in religious traditions in particular.  This will help us to understand its significant cache in cultures far and wide which esteem it as a crucial virtue.

Once we have understood faith’s positive contributions to human culture (or at least its appreciated contributions that attach cultures to it) we can then more precisely assess its downsides and address the question of what might be necessary to fill its positive functions if we deem it overall more a vice than a virtue and try to do away with it.  In other words, even if we think (as I do) that in many forms and in many contexts faith is on balance either an intellectual or a moral vice that should be discouraged, we need to deliberately think about new ways to accommodate individual and cultural needs which would suffer if this particular flawed tool of human minds and cultures were taken away from us.

Your Thoughts?


For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above.  It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.

Faith in a Comprehensive Nutshell


How Faith Poisons Religion


What About The Good Things People Call “Faith”? (Or “Why I Take Such A Strong Semantic Stand Against The Word Faith”)


How Religious Beliefs Become Specifically *Faith* Beliefs


Faith There’s A God vs. Faith In God

Trustworthiness, Loyalty, And Honesty

Faith As Loyally Trusting Those Insufficiently Proven To Be Trustworthy

Faith As Tradition

Blind Faith: How Faith Traditions Turn Trust Without Warrant Into A Test Of Loyalty

Faith As Tradition’s Advocate And Enforcer, Which Actively Opposes Merely Provisional Forms Of Trust

The Threatening Abomination Of The Faithless

Rational Beliefs, Rational Actions, And When It Is Rational To Act On What You Don’t Think Is True

Faith As Guessing

Are True Gut Feelings And Epiphanies Beliefs Justified By Faith?

Faith Is Neither Brainstorming, Hypothesizing, Nor Simply Reasoning Counter-Intuitively

Faith In The Sub-, Pre-, Or Un-conscious

Can Rationality Overcome Faith?

Faith As A Form Of Rationalization Unique To Religion

Faith As Deliberate Commitment To Rationalization

Heart Over Reason

Faith As Corruption Of Children’s Intellectual Judgment

Faith As Subjectivity Which Claims Objectivity

Faith Is Preconditioned By Doubt, But Precludes Serious Doubting

Soul Searching With Clergy Guy

Faith As Admirable Infinite Commitment For Finite Reasons

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

How A Lack Of Belief In God May Differ From Various Kinds Of Beliefs That Gods Do Not Exist

Why Faith Is Unethical (Or “In Defense Of The Ethical Obligation To Always Proportion Belief To Evidence”

Not All Beliefs Held Without Certainty Are Faith Beliefs

Defending My Definition Of Faith As “Belief Or Trust Beyond Rational Warrant”

Implicit Faith

Agnostics Or Apistics?

The Evidence-Impervious Agnostic Theists

Faith Which Exploits Infinitesimal Probabilities As Openings For Strong Affirmations

Why You Cannot Prove Inductive Reasoning Is Faith-Based Reasoning But Instead Only Assert That By Faith

How Just Opposing Faith, In Principle, Means You Actually Don’t Have Faith, In Practice

Naturalism, Materialism, Empiricism, And Wrong, Weak, And Unsupported Beliefs Are All Not Necessarily Faith Positions

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