“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” Shakespeare wrote that in All’s Well That Ends Well. Is being trusting a virtue or evidence of lack of discernment? Are Mormons more gullible (as is often asserted or at least implied) than the average person?
If being trusting & accommodating and being suspicious & contrary exist on a continuum, we usually judge the virtue of that approach based on the outcome. The problem is that we only judge the most noticeable outcome: being conned. We can’t determine that someone was NOT conned because we don’t know what opportunities to be fooled were presented, just as we can’t know if someone avoided being in a car accident by taking a different route home. Other outcomes are less easily noticed, on both the positive and negative side. For example, being suspicious not only prevents us from being deceived, but it also causes us to avoid social benefits that a more trusting person may reap such as higher levels of cooperation, friendship, peer support, exploring other alternatives, etc. It’s difficult to assess covert positives, but easy to assess overt negatives.
Consider the following:
- Trusting person is conned = noticeable
- Trusting person reaps positive benefits = not easily noticed
- Suspicious person avoids being conned = can’t be noticed
- Suspicious person avoids positive benefits = not easily noticed
In the well-loved novel Pride & Prejudice, long-time friends Darcy and Bingley bicker about this very topic. Charles Bingley is a very trusting, affable person, quick to believe the best of others and to deprecate himself and question his own opinions. Fitzwilliam Darcy is his opposite: wary of strangers, taking a while to warm up to new acquaintances, very self-confident, and distrustful of others’ motives. Darcy berates Bingley for not knowing his own mind and bending too easily to the will of others:
“if, as you were mounting your horse, a friend were to say, ‘Bingley, you had better stay till next week,’ you would probably do it, you would probably not go–and at another word, might stay a month.”
Bingley becomes embarrassed, aware that Darcy’s portrait of him is unflattering and has a core of truth to it; he does readily yield to others’ opinions and wishes. Elizabeth Bennett comes to Bingley’s defense, but Bingley is not placated, feeling his friend’s criticism acutely, even though Darcy is often the beneficiary of his friend’s pliable nature. The argument is summed up crisply by Elizabeth’s exchange with Darcy:
[Elizabeth:] “To yield readily–easily to the persuasion of a friend is no merit with you.”
[Darcy:] “To yield without conviction is no compliment to the understanding of either.”
Darcy’s summation indicates that while he knows Bingley often does what Darcy wants, because he does it based on feeling and not logic, his loyalty is of less value. Elizabeth’s view is that Bingley is acting in a trusting manner based on experience and mutual social benefit rather than examining options coldly without regard to emotion and human relationships.
Which view is right? As the story reveals, both have disastrous consequences: Bingley nearly loses all his own happiness until he learns to (very tentatively) stand up for what he wants, and Darcy overlooks the feelings of others so much that he nearly ruins his own chance for happiness, delivering an insulting marriage proposal, comically and exhaustively listing all the reasons against the union before asking her to accept him. Even Elizabeth doesn’t escape unscathed; she is easily fooled by the con man George Wickham because he is handsome when she would find him as pathetic and amusing as her father does if it weren’t for his flattery and flirtation. Everyone in the story is easily deceived, each in his or her own way.
In Matthew 10:16 Jesus warned his followers:
First of all, I’m not sure doves are truly harmless (rats with wings, more like) or that serpents are truly wise (maybe that wily one in Jungle Book who disturbingly tries to seduce Mowgli into his deadly embrace), but the point of this scripture is that we should not be too trusting. We are sheep: docile, innocent, short-sighted, but we are surrounded by predators who would eat us alive.
Just where is the sweet spot between gullible and cynical? And which would you rather be seen as: too trusting or not trusting enough? Being trusting is related to: faith, humility, meekness, innocence, passivity. Being skeptical is related to: experience, doubt, taking control and pride. It seems that we prize the qualities of being trusting, and yet that sets us up to be deceived. The non-religious would say “that’s the point. Religion wants gullible followers.” But I think Elizabeth Bennett is onto something: trusting people have a social advantage over the aloof, skeptical ones. By avoiding being deceived, you also avoid the social and personal benefits of trusting others, even though some will prove unworthy of your trust.
*Originally posted at Wheat & Tares.