Social Trust Introduction

Kevin Vallier, Michael Weber

Our politics are polarizing and divisive, negative partisanship is on the rise, and people seem to be gradually retreating into their own information bubbles, only consuming information that reinforces their point of view. We are witnessing a global rise in populism, and liberal democracy is in retreat in some parts of the world, and under threat in others. Attempts to reduce polarization, including those carried out most prominently by former President Barack Obama, seem to have failed, or worse, backfired.

Many quite plausibly think these unfortunate events are at least in part the result of falling social and political trust. But there is surely significant complexity here, which is why it is important to develop research on the concepts, causes, and consequences of social trust in particular, and the ethical issues raised by social trust. That is the purpose of this volume.

0.1 What is Social Trust?

Social trust, often referred to as “generalized” trust, is trust in strangers— persons within one’s society with whom one has little personal familiarity. Social trust can thus be understood broadly as trust in society. But trust to do what? Social trust is trust that persons will abide by social norms, which are publicly recognized, shared social rules that people both in fact expect one another to follow and think that everyone morally ought to follow. Social trust creates a climate of practical and strategic stability. Because people in trusting societies generally believe that others will follow these social norms, they can formulate projects and plans with relative confidence.

This understanding of social trust is well-grounded in the social-trust literature. Most scholars see trust as a product of durable mutual expectations about cooperative moral behavior. Some, such as Eric Uslaner, understand moralistic trust as trust that others share one’s personal values. However, it is better to understand social trust as trust that people share and recognize an array of social rules that do not necessarily correspond ro what persons consider of ultimate value in life. We do not need to know a person’s ideology to know whether we expect them to stop at a red light, or to not steal your phone if you leave it in Starbucks by mistake. Social norms lie at the root of social trust, and norms and our personal ideals are not related in a straightforward way. Fortunately, that means we can socially trust persons with very different values than our own.

To be rational, social trust must be justified, and justified by trustworthiness, which we can understand as a disposition to comply with social norms. Social trust can only be rationally sustained if people think that those they trust merit that trust. In other words, it is rational to trust others only if we think they are trustworthy. And we can understand a socially trustworthy person as one who is disposed to follow shared social norms.

One ethical concern that arises is that, intuitively, we generally want social trust to be sustained for the right reasons. Pouring the “trust hormone” Oxytocin into the water supply might make people more trusting, but it is not a good way to promote social trust. More realistically, promoting trust by manufacturing a common enemy to create a bond between members of a community together seems unsatisfactory, and not just because it might be ineffective, leading to more division rather than cohesiveness. What we seek is to sustain social trust by giving persons morally appropriate incentives to be trustworthy, and then allowing social trust to form as a free cognitive and emotional response to observed trustworthy behavior.

A great deal of research on social trust is carried out by political scientists, indeed mostly by political scientists. Economists too research trust. But they study trust in different ways. Political scientists study trust mostly by way of surveys on how much people trust their government, each other, etc., while economists study trust in the laboratory, often running variations on the “trust game” in game theory to look at the circumstances in which people play cooperatively. One of us has written on the methods of measuring trust in some detail.1 For the sake of the reader, the first essay in this volume reviews how trust is measured in some detail, so we will not review the measures here in the interests of brevity.

The present volume is divided into three parts: (1) empirical research on social trust, (2) concepts of social trust, and (3) the ethics and politics of social trust.

The empirical research on trust will likely be the most familiar to many readers, but each paper studies trust with different methods. Collectively, then, they should give the reader a sense for the breadth of ways in which trust is studied empirically. They should also provide the reader with an overview of how social trust is understood in different empirical literatures, setting up the next part of the book.

The concept of social trust is important for philosophical readers to have a clear sense for the topic of the book, given that social trust is often ill-defined or under-defined for the tastes of a philosophical audience. We end with essays on the ethical issues raised by or related to social trust. These include relationships with trust in the police, with trust in law enforcement more generally, and trust and parental care.

  • 0.2 Chapter Summaries
  • 0.2.1 Empirical Research on Social Trust

The volume begins with “Legal and Social Trust in Africa,” which uses survey data to explore the relationship between social trust and trust in the legal system. Andreas Bergh, Christian Bjornskov, and Kevin Vallier review how social trust is studied, and then draw on research on trust in Africa to argue that trust in the legal system is a function of social trust, and not necessarily the other way around. But social and legal trust are only connected when legal officials are seen as representative of most members of society. In the second piece, “Trustworthiness Is a Social Norm, but Trusting Is Not,” Cristina Bicchieri, Erte Xiao, and Ryan Muldoon use a survey of strategic behavior in what are called “trust games” in game theory, which provides evidence for the claim that most people do not think they are obliged to trust one another, but that they are obliged to be trustworthy. This is because people do not ordinarily punish persons who fail to trust, but they do choose to punish those who fail to be trustworthy. In the third essay, “Trust, Diversity, and (Ir-)Rationality,” Simon Scheller argues that we can explain out-group discrimination in trust situations as an emergent property of individually rational behavior, even when the collective behavior is irrational. Scheller uses a kind of computational model, known as an agent-based model, to make the case for his thesis. Each of these essays use distinct methods to measure trust—questionnaires, laboratory results, and computational models. The reader should come away with a sense for the breadth of methods used to measure trust.

0.2.2 Concepts of Social Trust

The next three articles explore how philosophers develop account of the nature of different kinds of trust, that is, analyses of the concept of trust and related extensions of the concept of trust, such as trust in science and social distrust. In the fourth article, “Disappointed Yet Unbetrayed,” Edward Hinchman explores how to define trust and whether trusting someone involves more than merely relying on them, including whether trust is a two-place relation (A trusts B) or a three-place relation (A trusts В to X). Hinchman defends a new three-place model on which “A Xs through trust in B.” This he calls the “Assurance View” of trust because, he claims, trusting В is to accept B’s implicit invitation to truth—an assurance that В is trustworthy in the right way. This essay introduces readers to debates about how trust as a general concept is defined, which will have implications for how social trust should be conceptually defined. Marion Boulicault and S. Andrew Schroeder follow with “Public Trust in Science: Exploring the Idiosyncrasy-Free Ideal,” which provides an account of the nature of public trust in the scientific process. The authors argue that the trustworthiness of science is partly based on the fact that it proceeds independently from the particular values, wishes, and goals of individual scientist. We can trust science when it would have reached the same conclusions, no matter which scientists were involved in the process. In this way, Boulicault and Schroeder defend an “idiosyncrasy-free ideal” of trust and trustworthiness in science. This essay develops a notion of trust appropriate for trust in the scientific community. Next, Lacey J. Davidson and Mark Satta argue in “Justified Social Distrust” that social distrust, namely distrust based on the belief that others in one’s society are not trustworthy, is a concept worthy of analysis in its own right. They argue that members of oppressed groups are often epistem- ically justified in exhibiting social distrust under conditions of oppression. In some cases, oppressed groups are epistemically justified in distrusting their oppressors, but this distrust is harmful to the oppressed group. So, Davidson and Satta explore ways in which a community can build trust when social distrust is rational, in particular by structuring institutions to make the distrusted group more trustworthy. The articles in this section should give the reader a sense for how philosophers approach social trust, and some indication of how to formulate an account of trust and particular kinds of trust and distrust.

0.2.3 The Ethics and Politics of Social Trust

The third and final section of the volume focuses on the ethical and political issues relating to social trust, in particular how social trust and distrust play a role in evaluating personal behavior and institutions. In “I Feared For My Life: Police Killings, Epistemic Injustice, and Social Distrust” Alida Liberman argues that police violence is often excused on the grounds that the policeman feared for his life in committing a violent act against a suspect. Liberman argues that this is a new form of epistemic injustice, ignorance bolstering, where the excuse is used to create false beliefs in the dominant social group, which harms everyone, since ir is now harder for them to learn the truth. Ignorance bolstering, Liberman contends, also undermines the basis for social trust between Black people and the police, and between Black people and the White majority.

In “Social Trust and Legal Interpretation,” Ira Lindsay argues that trust between actors within the legal system helps legal theorists determine which method of constitutional interpretation to use. Lindsay claims that we should adopt legal methodologies that help officials increase agreement about what the law is and how to apply it. Thus, theories on how to interpret statutes should be chosen partly because of the degree of agreement they generate between conflicting interpreters. A textualist methodology would be appropriate in cases where moral disagreement creates differences in intuitions about how the law should be interpreted. But in cases where people agree about the underlying moral issues, a purposivist interpretative approach may be relevant. Lindsay ends by endorsing this “modest relativism” about legal interpretation.

In the next essay, “Social Trust and Mistrust of Parental Care,” Amy Mullin addresses challenges to socially trusting parents to provide adequate care for their children. Children are often harmed by betrayed trust. Thus, trusters have a great responsibility to learn about factors that would lead them to reduce their confidence in the ability or motives of trusted parents. Mullin argues that there is no alternative, or no good alternative, to socially trusting parents to care for their children, but for trust to be apt, a community must develop a joint conception of the basic needs of children, the degree of care that they need, and the harm they suffer without that care. This includes practices of funding, monitoring, and making policy about childcare at different levels of government and in public- private partnerships.

Agnes Tam, in the final essay, “A Case for Political Epistemic Trust,” begins with the observation that members of the public have to rely on the testimony of authorities. Trust of this kind involves a serious political risk, in part because authorities may abuse the trust the public places in them by providing the public with misinformation. One might think correcting misinformation means that defenders of liberal societies must cultivate vigilant trust, which helps monitor the trustworthiness of officials. But Tam argues that this is a mistake both because it over-intellectualizes trust, and because the risk of abuse from lost trust is often exaggerated. For officials often act on a social norm of providing trustworthy information, rather than acting purely from self-interest. A superior method of cultivating trustworthy epistemic authorities is to help them respond to the norm of epistemic trustworthiness, improving trust without making trust too intellectual. Tam then outlines how liberal democracy can pursue this strategy. Taken together, these four essays show how social trust and distrust can figure into normative arguments.

Our goal in putting these essays together in a volume is to help the reader look at the idea of social trust from different perspectives, helping to see how social trust is measured, defined, and used to make ethical and political arguments. Taken as a whole, they should help to lay the foundation for continued philosophical and interdisciplinary work on social trust.


1. Vallier 2020.

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