The Philosophy of Trust


A trust allows an individual to transfer assets to a named trustee who will hold and manage the assets in accordance with the trustor’s wishes during their lifetime. The trustee can distribute the assets to beneficiaries, such as family members, after their death. A well-drafted trust can avoid costly legal fees and taxes and can also keep private affairs out of the public eye. A trust is a useful tool for anyone who wants to protect their home, life savings and other assets from lawsuits, estate taxes and the possibility that a family member may not be able to manage or spend them wisely.

The philosophers who have written on trust tend to agree that to be trustworthy, someone must be able to trust someone else. But they also differ about when it is appropriate to trust someone, and what the nature of this trust is. Some philosophers believe that trust is a feeling of confidence and security, while others suggest that it involves a neural pattern that binds representations of self, other, situation and emotion.

In addition, many philosophers agree that for a person to be trustworthy, they must be able to explain the reasons why they have this feeling and why it is rational to rely on them. The prevailing view is that these reasons must be accessible to the trustor and must be epistemically reliable in order for their trust to be justified.

Interestingly, a great deal of research and scholarship in the field of trust has focused on interpersonal trust. This is despite the fact that many individuals who live in modern societies engage in trusts that are not interpersonal. These include trusts in institutions (e.g., government or business), trusts in science, and trusts in robots. But these forms of trust are coherent only if they have important features in common with interpersonal trust.

For example, a trust can be set up to ensure that a loved one with a disability is cared for in the manner described by the trustor. This is a much more desirable way of doing things than leaving everything to that loved one in a will, which would likely result in their being disqualified from receiving necessary care and services.

Trusts can seem geared primarily toward high-net-worth families because they are often more expensive to establish than a simple will. However, even people of modest means can benefit from a properly drafted trust. If a family member is suffering from dementia or other illness, a trust can be used to ensure that their finances are managed and spent according to the trustee’s instructions. This can avoid legal conflict and disputes that may arise if the deceased’s property is left to the family member who might be forced to sell off assets in order to pay for care. A trust can also help ensure that the trustor’s heirs qualify for Medicaid, a program that pays for long-term care. Moreover, a trust can help protect assets from creditors and avoid the lengthy probate process.