How to Build Good Faith in the World Around You

“It’s impossible to know who is or isn’t acting in good faith.”

This is what bad actors want you to believe. In fact, they need you to believe it, because the more bad actors can convince you that everyone is acting in bad faith, the more likely it is that they can convert you into a bad actor yourself.

This leads to a dangerous feedback loop for any given group of people — whether it’s a society, business, team, organization, charity, friend group, government, school, family, etc. — because any instance of bad faith is evidence of… bad faith, meaning that any one person acting badly could convince another to do the same. This has always been a pretty big problem for humanity in general, one that may be inherent to our very nature.

However, I have an approach I like to use for this: I tell people what I don’t know, I always admit my mistakes, and I explain why I might be wrong.

That’s basically it. That’s the solution. Seriously.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This is not an easy fix. It’s taken a lot of practice to get this down and I’m still far from perfect. Moreover, the behavior has caused me plenty of headaches when I’ve worked alongside people who aren’t exactly acting in good faith. It makes you a little vulnerable, absolutely, and that’s something you have to keep in mind when you’re practicing the approach. If the environment you’re working in is swamped with bad actors, you might need to change tracks or just escape altogether.

But nonetheless, early in my adult life I realized that you can survive those dust-ups from bad actors, because the open secret is that most systems aren’t swamped by them. That’s why those systems work in the first place. With too many bad actors you end up with an Enron or a Global Financial Crisis. When overrun, bad actors eventually take down the system entirely.

But more importantly, I’ve learned with time that following this practice is just a great way of drawing out who is or isn’t acting in good faith. Do it enough and eventually the good-faith folks will find each other and start banding together. Once you get a critical mass of people acting in good faith, boom: you have a stable nucleus for consensus-building that can withstand pressure and propagate outward.

I have seen this play out on both a small and large scale in a variety of contexts and it is always a very tenuous project. It’s hard to know where the threshold is for that critical mass. And until you get there any bubble of good faith is very fragile and, again, vulnerable. But you can’t build anything that lasts without trying, and if you’re not trying, you’re not helping.

Essentially, what I’m saying is that the solution to building good faith is to just act in good faith yourself, without necessarily expecting it in return from everybody else. You’ll see it from some, but definitely not all. Some people are just irremediable, and you should not expect them to come around. Others have simply invested too much into their patterns of bad faith to throw it all away now. But the thing is, we don’t need them. We just need enough of us to hold our ground, literal or otherwise. From there, we can build.

We can build, but the they cannot, because to build you need some kind of stable foundation, for that you need consensus, and for consensus you need good faith.

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