The Virtue and Vices of Trust

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Bro. Ken JP Stuczynski

Allegory of Virtue and Vice - Lorenzo Lotto

We long for the times when a handshake and a person's word meant something. But even in those olden days, we couldn't always wear rose-colored glasses and survive unscathed. Part of the reason we became Masons is to be around people who really trust each other -- and live up to deserving that trust. And yet there is still occasional impropriety, and embezzlement is no stranger to the Craft in spite of our oaths and admonitions.

I know this isn't the most exciting topic, but I'm going to talk about one of the best ways to maintain trust within an organization, and it's not what you think. Instead of thinking of trust as not needing accountability and oversight, why not use such things to solidify trust?

First of all, let's examine if trust is transferable. We treat it that way in Masonry in many ways. We vouch for those entering our ranks such that if a Brother trusts someone to become a Brother, we assume we can trust them as well. (We can argue over how often this is or is not true, but we pride ourselves in being able to ask for and give help based on a lapel pin.) If a member of our jurisdiction is expelled, we expect that no other jurisdiction will ignore that. In fact, my own jurisdiction is still working out recognition with another Grand Lodge over just that.

But there are limits. A Right Worshipful I know gave a petition to someone at a party who had never previously met anyone (except his girlfriend, the Eastern Star Sister he came with). Not the worst offense, but then he proceeded to ask other Brothers to be his character references. When asked what he was thinking, he defended the idea that if one Brother signs, the other Brothers should trust his judgment and be willing to follow suit. So then why bother with three references at all?

First, such trust would be misplaced. He doesn't see it this way, but he was asking them to lie -- accepting yourself to be used as a reference implies you know their character, not merely shaking their hand at a party and trying to remember their name. But he was also expecting them to defer their judgment and trust him.

There's another limit built into our officer's duties. No one person handles the money. The secretary receives it and the treasurer uses it. It passes through two hands. Their records can be checked against each other. And in many jurisdictions, the Master's signature is required, and even only then after a due vote of the Lodge (or within a voted-upon budget). Some bank accounts (and even vouchers/warrants in some jurisdictions) require two signatures.

We could say this is because of legal requirements and tax codes. After all, the Benevolent Laws of New York State were formed specifically to harmonize state law with Masonic Laws that existed even before the state was incorporated. (Eventually, these laws were applied to all fraternal organizations.) Most of it deals with Trustees but it sets an example of financial transparency for membership and even the public. And it is more honest to state that the profane followed the Masonic precedents than the other way around.

But why go to all the trouble? We trust our Secretary. We trust our Treasure. We trust our Trustees, hence the very name. It's why we elected them. I'll tell you why. It's so people who don't know them don't have to go by someone else's trust. It goes too far. Second-hand trust is a precious commodity between individuals but breaks down like a game of telephone the larger the group. It's like telling someone a secret, believing they will not tell another person, but then they tell someone they "trust" not to tell anyone else. It all goes round-robin until everyone knows and the only anger is over blaming the next person who violated secrecy exactly the way they did themselves.

That's why these safeguards are in place. If people are held strictly to certain administrative processes and are regularly audited for errors and other issues, there is no question of trust because there is no question. You cannot trust every other person's personal judgment, but you can trust the proof within a process. And this isn't just about members -- even if we could infallibly trust our officers to not only be honest but error-free in their records, that isn't good enough for the public or the State. We need to be able to prove we are impeccably trustworthy and impeccably competent. The only way to do that is impeccable accountability.

We see what happens when we have trust without accountability. It could be priests or politicians or officers of the law. Some of these we are taught since childhood to explicitly trust on sight. The problem isn't that we can't trust any particular one. It may be reasonable to extend some level of trust to anyone with a collar or office or badge. Even when trust is broken by one or more human beings in those roles, we (or rather most of us) don't easily condemn all of them. But what if there aren't safeguards against misconduct, and instead there are policies, indemnity laws, or even unions that shield them from a level of accountability expected of other important professions like doctors and teachers? In other words, what level of trust can we expect of society for a profession, no matter how noble, when it is even perceived that wrongs go too often unaddressed or are buried? It's hard not to see where this leads, and those in the professions themselves, regardless of any individual virtue and blamelessness, can fall under wholesale persecution.

Heck, it happened to us. In 1826, a printing house in Upstate New York that was going to publish a Masonic exposé was burned down. The author, William Morgan, was harassed with questionable civil suit charges and incarcerated for them. Bail was paid by Masons, who took him away by force and basically made him disappear. There was no body. Even today, some believe he was taken to Canada as some sort of extrajudicial exile. The county sheriff lost his job for his involvement, and even a postmaster was involved, whose descendant, a Mason that I know personally, brags about his ancestor being the boatman that took Morgan across the Niagara River (at least partway).

This was the spark that ignited a powderkeg of anti-Masonic sentiment that had been growing for at least a generation. Masons occupied prominent political and civic posts and it is reasonable to assume from the aforementioned incidents that a "good-ole-boy" network was in force. As in the United Kindom today, there was a public fear that Masons can get away with anything because their members fill the ranks of bobbies and judges. Masonic privilege, however real or imagined, created the sentiment of oligarchy with non-Masons as second-class citizens. In due course, the Anti-Masonic Party was founded and became the largest political third-party in American History. After that subsided and paused during the Civil War, Evangelical elements took over, and Morgan was metaphorically their patron saint and martyr. There's even a monument to him.

But it was much worse.

Masons were killed. Temples were burned. Lodges closed or stopped their work for decades, and on a vast scale. In my area, not far from where the Morgan Affair took place, not a single Lodge survived and it wasn't until 1854 that another Lodge was chartered.

So what does this have to do with trust? Distrust grows in the soil of opacity. The profane world interprets our secrecy as a sociopolitical tactic rather than a moral discipline. And they can only see how we act in the World. Even in living memory, there have been businesses and municipal departments and so forth that de fact required membership in the fraternity. I suggest we ought to consciously avoid exercising this human trait of fraternal nepotism. We ought to have our books externally audited, and use non-Mason building inspectors to make sure we aren't endangering anyone. Doing so is NOT about mistrusting ourselves, but making it crystal clear to anyone within or without that we are above board without question.

In our personal practice, we may do deals with a handshake. But sometimes we may want to consider contracts, not with the expectation we will need them for accountability, but for clarity of each party's responsibilities. Consider the Old Charges which established (among other things) the relationship between masters and apprentices. It could be referred to at any time. It was likely committed to memory. And they were placed on a pedestal in front of the Master's station before we later resorted to a Volume of Sacred Law on an Altar. Would a simple handshake have sufficed? Or does a rule and guide help keep harmony?

Perhaps we should care enough about our promises to write them down and hand them to someone -- and expect them to do the same. This isn't distrust. It's a covenant that removes fear of distrust. That is the whole point. But we are wrongheaded about it. We shy from formal agreements because having them feels like an accusation that without one, our word will not be kept. It's more natural to breed distrust rather than trust, even if subconsciously, from insistence you don't need one.

But nothing is more important in applying this principle than guarding the West Gate. We must wonder how fewer Masonic charges would be thrown around (both frivolous and egregious) far less if we had more properly investigated candidates instead of trusting the judgment of their beloved Past Master relative, or their devoted first-line signer. Many a scandal could have been avoided.

And what of background checks? It is not legal to require it of some candidates and not others, but one of the objections for requiring them at all is because some Brothers feel offended their own grandson has to go through ANY process of examination. They feel it is owed to their progeny. However, there are too many instances, Masonic or otherwise, where genetics do not determine character. Likewise, personal feelings do not correlate with trustworthiness.

You see, when you make a decision that impacts others, you are deciding for them. You are expecting them to accept your own judgment, which is why there ought to be at least three on any investigative committee and you still require a vote of the Lodge. It's why we blackball. It's why we can stop a degree with a single objection. We ought to trust as we may, but trust for ourselves, not for the whole Fraternity.

And when we can say all our members undergo a background check and are held accountable if they grievously err, the World cannot question what it otherwise could not directly know. THAT builds trust, rather than an unverified and unrealistic belief that we are all beyond sin.

A virtue is a mean between extremes. If trust is a virtue, then what are the extremes? Surely we should not be untrusting in general, nor live such that we cannot be trusted. But surely we should not demand people to trust us unreasonably without safeguards, nor eschew requiring accountability in the duties and obligations of others toward you or the Craft. All this comes down to a seemingly contradictory axiom -- blind trust jeopardizes trust. In contrapositive fashion, safeguards and proofs establish it.

The larger lesson? Accountability is the collective practice of responsibility. Let's not use trust as an excuse to forget this in how we deal with our Brethren and how we run our quarries.


Bro. Ken JP Stuczynski is a member of West Seneca Lodge No.1111 and recently served as Master of Ken-Ton Lodge No.1186. As webmaster for NYMasons.Org he is on the Communications and Technology Committees for the Grand Lodge of the State of New York. He is also a Royal Arch Mason and 32nd Degree Scottish Rite Mason, serving his second term as Sovereign Prince of Palmoni Council in the Valley of Buffalo, NMJ. He also coordinates a Downtown Square Club monthly lunch in Buffalo, NY. He and his wife served as Patron and Matron of Pond Chapter No.853 Order of the Eastern Star and considered himself a “Masonic Feminist”. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this, a far more interesting topic than the author humbly posits it to be. I define trust as my belief that another will act in my interests, which is a fairly radical idea in a competitive world. I especially liked the connection between trust and our overwrought "secrecy" - more correctly "privacy." In the face of a declaration that we will not declare much, the outside world is asked to trust us...Thanks again.


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