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Trusting Institutions

Jacopo Domenicucci

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  • 1 I thank Tiziana Andina and Maurizio Ferraris for prompting me to guest-edit a trust-related issue f (...)
  • 2 Should we think of this second worry as inherited from Locke?

1This special issue is devoted to trust, institutions, and their ties, specifically.1 Such ties have been of central concern for philosophers and social scientists for a while, and seem to become an increasingly widespread subject of public debate. This bundle covers two distinct worries, resulting in two (generally complementary) directions of investigation. The classic one, inherited from Hobbes, deals with the importance of institutions for trust. The other one, which is more central to this issue, is about the importance of trust for institutions.2

2The first is a question about the role of institutions in securing the conditions for cooperation, i.e. in structuring collective interactions in the positive and stable way that we often call “trust”. A specific concern lurks behind this question. It is the worry, icastically embodied in the scenario of the “state of nature”, of an institutions-free situation of interaction, which cannot bootstrap itself out of chaos and violence. Less colourfully, the predicament is that trust is only allowed by the intervention of institutions that reduce uncertainty and secure contracting. In which way do institutions build –or contribute to building- social trust? Which specific forms of trust (e.g. out-group, generalized…) are the result of institutional interplay? Is social trust nothing but the result of institutional reward, sanction and safeguard mechanisms? Or do institutions also have a cultural role in the breeding of trust? These questions have been central in political and social philosophy, as well as in the social sciences, and they often lurk in the background of various contributions in this volume (Jaffro, Lauret, Lenard).

3The central focus of the present volume, however, is not so much on instituting trust (as you may call the institutional conditions for trust), as on trusting institutions, i.e. on the trust-related conditions for institutions. This takes us to the second question. Do trust-like (and mutatis mutandis distrust-like) attitudes describe ways in which we may relate to institutions? Is there a basic notion of trust that is common to both interpersonal and institutional dealings? If so, can it be rational to trust institutions, or are prudence and circumspection always better policies? Do certain institutions (e.g. democratic institutions, healthcare systems, banks) need public trust to function properly, as is often said, or is compliance enough? These are the questions more centrally discussed in this volume.

4These questions are standard in the social sciences, in the main international indexes and barometers of trust, in the public debate. They are less so in philosophy. In the classic post-Baier debate on trust, for example, only a few papers even raise the issue of the appropriateness of trust beyond interpersonal settings (among them, Hawley 2017, Domenicucci and Holton 2017 – actually Baier 1986 mentioned trust issues beyond the personal level, but later presentations seem to renegotiate that).

  • 3 Beyond that, reasons why our topic has not been so much picked on by philosophers may be at the cro (...)

5It’s not so clear why philosophers have relatively neglected institutions qua targets of trust. There is, perhaps, a way to frame the topic that makes it not especially enticing for philosophical palates. It may be tempting, indeed, to suggest the issue only rests on matters of empirical psychology insofar as the descriptive fittingness is concerned, and on case-by-case practical judgement when it comes to the rational appropriateness. In this perspective, the descriptive question is understood to be merely about whether we have the right psychological endowment to develop a trusting attitude (or a trusting behavior, or both) towards institutional agents. The question about rationality is, in turn, reduced to the rational criteria involved in deciding to entrust some interest to an institution, given a pursued goal, certain means and a context. These aspects are obviously relevant here. But I believe there is more than that, and, precisely, some job for philosophers.3

  • 4 Trustees’ responsiveness is given a critical role in influential definitions of trust, e.g. Pettit (...)

6Take the descriptive appropriateness of trust in institutions. There are fundamental questions about the stability of a concept of trust and the sort of theoretical accommodation needed if we want to apply it beyond individual human agents. Institutional trust namely raises conceptual issues when it comes to the importance, for trust, of trustees’ responsiveness and of reciprocity. These are arguably prototypical traits of trust that we inherit from accounts mainly interested in interpersonal dealings.4 What is their invariance (and, together, the stability of the whole notion) when it comes to discussing trust beyond individuals? For example, can we make sense of an idea of institutional responsiveness to citizens’ trust? Trusted institutions are often endowed with some degree of normative authority, a form of moral standing, which can be the source of normative judgement in our regards. Can trust in institutions be disentangled from a moral point of view, can it be disinhibited?

  • 5 See Lalumera for epistemic and value-directed reasons; see Lauret for the centrality of the social (...)
  • 6 See Lenard on trust in democratic institutions as discretion-granting, arguably a form of trusteesh (...)
  • 7 See for example Lauret for a similar worry; see Terrone for an analysis of institutions in terms of (...)
  • 8 See Lalumera and Lauret.

7Now take the question about the rationality of trust in institutions. What sort of reasons would justify institutional trust – epistemic reasons, non-cognitive reasons, normative reasons (e.g. shared values), functional reasons (e.g. based on the social function of the institution at hand)?5 What are the relevant criteria to assess the expectations it is rational to have towards an institution? Is the rationality of institutional trust that of a trusteeship, or of a delegation of mandates and missions?6 When I trust an institution, is it only rational to expect fair application of general standards to my case, or to expect my particular interest to be taken care of individually (e.g. in patients-hospitals interactions)? Discussions of trustworthiness often focus on the role of ‘moral character’: is there an institutional analogous – institutional dispositions – or should we just talk in terms of rules for institutions?7 Is trust in istitutions socialy beneficial or would prudent compliance and social trust be good? And should trust in institutions be cultivated as a social norm?8

8As of now, the most comprehensive discussions that touch on the specificity of a trusting attitude towards institutions are probably in the collection edited by Mark Warren (1999) –especially, papers by Hardin, Harré, Offe and Patterson. The other locus where trust in institutions has been discussed is in political theory debates around democratic institutions (Warren 1999; Ingelhart 1999; Uslaner 1999; Dunn 1995, 2000; Lenard 2007; Mollering 2006) beyond, classically, authors as diverse as Locke, Tocqueville, Burke and Simmel.

9The present volume features contributions from various areas of analytic philosophy – moral philosophy (Jaffro), social ontology (Terrone), social philosophy (van’t Klooster), social epistemology (Lalumera), and political philosophy (Lauret, Lenard). It consists in three parts: the first offers an account of each of the central concepts – trust and institutions; the second unpacks the psychological and rational conditions of appropriateness for an attitude of trust in institutions; the third diving into situations to be analysed in terms of a crisis in institutional trust.

1. Trust and institutions

10The first carries out a clarification for each of the notions: one paper is mainly on trust (Jaffro), the other mainly on institutions (Terrone). Rather than finding an easy positioning in the current literatures they address, both papers put forward new perspectives on these concepts.

11The very structure of the conceptual galaxy of trust phenomena (trust, distrust, self-trust, self-distrust, trustworthiness…) is at the centre of the first paper, by Laurent Jaffro (Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne). Jaffro distinguishes two ways in which you may understand the interconnections between trust phenomena, the harmonic and the disharmonic view. In the former, trust and self-trust reinforce one another, while in the latter they counterbalance one another. Beyond the contrast between these approaches to individual and social agency, Jaffro paves the way to a fine-grained theory – meta-harmonic – discriminating between contexts where one or the other approach is relevant. This has a payoff for the way we understand trust in institutions, since harmonic contexts will see institutions as silent preconditions of trust, while disharmonic will require of agents that they explicitly extend their trust to a specific institution.

12Institutions are in turn at the centre of the second paper, by Enrico Terrone (Università di Torino), who presents the fundamental features of a theory of institutions and of how we relate to them. More precisely, his theory distinguishes institutions from other social forms in terms of a structural trait of the way we relate to them. The fundamental contrast is with the other key social form, practices, that are made of norms, while institutions are systems of rules. Terrone draws on the standard distinction between an attitude and its content. While following a norm is a matter of normative attitudes, being guided by an institution is generally a matter of normative content (for non-normative attitudes). As you’ll see, this does not mean that institutions need not themselves supported by norms and the relevant normative attitudes.

2. Trusted institutions: Can we – and should we – trust institutions?

13The second Section addresses the appropriateness – both descriptive and normative – of the concept of trust to describe the way we do and should relate to institutions (Lauret and van’t Klooster). Both papers unpack the descriptive and normative appropriateness in turn. The first focuses on the cases of national healthcare and education systems, the second on central banks and specifically the Swiss National Bank.

14Pierre Lauret (Louis-Le-Grand) asks whether one can properly develop trust relationships with institutions. This seems a question about our own psychology and the nature of institutions. Actually, institutions appear to stand in a tension between the sorts of beings you can only rely on (for narrow tasks, in an instrumental way, exercising prudence) and those, which you can also trust. The answer, then, has to be fine-tuned according to the specific social function (e.g. profit, national healthcare, public education…) of each form of institution. Lauret focuses on public institutions, and paves the way towards a theory of the rationally appropriate individual and collective relationship to the latter. He distinguishes three main forms of institutional confidence – the liberal, the totalitarian, and the ultra-liberal – and defends the liberal attitude toward public institutions.

15Jens van’t Klooster (University of Cambridge) proposes a defence of the fittingness (again, descriptive and normative) of the attitude of trust when it comes to institutions, arguing against the highly influential views of Russell Hardin (2002) and Onora O’Neill (2002). Taking central banks as a case study, van’t Klooster somehow takes the bull by the horns and focuses on setting where trust prima facie seems the least likely to be found appropriate: anonymous institutions (i.e. institutions giving citizens limited access to information on their operations). He discusses in particular trust in central banks.

3. Crises in institutional trust: Democratic institutions and healthcare systems

  • 9 For an explicit formulation of this approach in a seminal paper, see (Potter 1996: 332).

16The third Section is devoted to two areas that can be looked at through the lens of a crisis of trust in institutions – democratic institutions (Lenard) and the healthcare system (Lalumera). Both papers carry a specific understanding of trust, tailored to the socio-political issue they tackle, and provide broad policy-relevant analyses. Both have an unorthodox take on their fields. Lenard privileges the question of citizens’ trust in institutions, while the debate has been more focused on trust between citizens (the civic trust holding together the social body). Lalumera tackles trust in the healthcare system as a whole institutional complex, while medical trust has been mainly discussed in the context of patient-practitioner relations qua institutional relationships.9

17The question of trust is actually a key problem for both the legitimacy (Lenard 2007; Warren 1999, 350) and efficiency (Lenard 2007) of democratic institutions. Patti Tamara Lenard (University of Ottawa) focuses here on citizens’ trust in democratic representatives and unpacks the criteria for a trustworthy democratic representation. Political trust is here understood as a form of discretion-granting to the representatives. It can be let down in two ways: when discretion is misused and when it is abused. The former obtains when representatives simply take the wrong decisions despite acting in the respect of democratic discretion. The latter, which is a more critical violation of democratic trust, obtains when decisions are taken arbitrarily. Detailed criteria are given to tell apart arbitrary from democratically discretionary decisions.

18Another institution (or system of institutions) where trust is a precious and scarce resource is the healthcare. Elisabetta Lalumera (Univerità degli Studi di Milano - Bicocca) tackles the crucial role of public trust for well-functioning healthcare systems. She provides a model of the sort of trust that healthcare systems need, and applies it to study its erosion when it comes to the recent rise in vaccine hesitancy. She highlights epistemic and value components. The epistemic component is classically bound up with the epistemic authority of the healthcare system as a knowledge-producer, beholder and user. The importance of public understanding of the values driving healthcare systems has two dimensions: the identification of the public with the values pursued by the institution and the positive assessment of these same value set.

19To end with, the volume features a dialogue with Tiziana Andina (Università degli Studi di Torino) that raises questions about the cross-temporal dimension of our social and institutional trust, with a focus on the idea of State-based transgenerational bonds.

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Baier, A., 1986, Trust and antitrust, “Ethics”, 96, 2: 231-260.

Burke, E., 1997, Edmund Burke’s Speech to the Electors of Bristol at the Conclusion of the Poll, November 1774: For Presentation to Members of the House of Commons at the Conclusion of the Poll, Westminster, Merrion Press.

Domenicucci, J., Holton, R., 2017, Trust as a two-place relation, in P. Faulkner, T. Simpson (eds), The Philosophy of Trust, Oxford, Oxford University Press: 149-160.

Dunn, J., 1984, The concept of trust in the politics of John Locke, in R. Rorty, J. B. Schneewind and Q. Skinner (eds), Philosophy in History: Essays on the Historiography of Philosophy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 279-301.

Dunn, J., 1995, Trust, in Goodin, Robert and Pettit (eds), A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, Oxford, Blackwell: 638-644.

Dunn, J., 2000, Trust and political agency, in D. Gambetta (ed.), Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations, Oxford, Oxford University Press: 73-93.

Hardin, R., 1999, Do we want trust in government?, in M.A. Warren (ed.), Democracy and Trust, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 21-41., 2002, Trust and Trustworthiness, New York, Russell Sage Foundation.

Harre, T., 1999, Trust and Its Surrogates: Psychological Foundations of Political Process, in M.A. Warren (ed.), Democracy and Trust, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 249-272.

Hartmann, M., Offe, C., 2001, Vertrauen: Die Grundlage Des Sozialen Zusammenhalts, vol. 50, Frankfurt a. M., Campus.

Hawley, K., 2017, Trustworthy groups and organizations, in P. Faulkner, T. Simpson (eds), The Philosophy of Trust, Oxford, Oxford University Press: 230-250 (

Inglehart, R., 1999, Trust, well-being and democracy, in M.A. Warren (ed.), Democracy and Trust, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 88-120.

Lenard, P.T., 2012, Trust, democracy, and multicultural challenges, University Park (PA), Penn State Press.

Möllering, G., 2006, Trust, institutions, agency: Towards a neoinstitutional theory of trust, in R. Bachmann, A. Zaheer A. (eds), Handbook of Trust Research, Cheltenham, Elgar: 355‑376.

Molm, L.D., Schaefer, D.R., Collett, J.L., 2009, Fragile and resilient trust: Risk and uncertainty in negotiated and reciprocal exchange, “Sociological Theory”, 27, 1: 1-32.

O’Neill, O., 2002, Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics, Gifford Lectures 2001, Cambridge - New York, Cambridge University Press.

Offe, C., 1999, How can we trust our fellow citizens?, in M.A. Warren (ed.), Democracy and Trust, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 42-87.

Ostrom, E., Walker, J., 2005, Trust and Reciprocity: Interdisciplinary Lessons from Experimental Research, Vol. 6, New York, Russell Sage Foundation.

Patterson, O., 1999, Liberty against the democratic state: On the historical and contemporary sources of American distrust, in M.A. Warren (ed.), Democracy and Trust, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 151-207.

Pettit, P., 1995, The cunning of trust, “Philosophy & Public Affairs”, 24, 3: 202-225.

Potter, N., 1996, Discretionary power, lies, and broken trust: Justification and discomfort, “Theoretical Medicine”, 17, 4: 329-352.

Putnam, R., Leonardi, R., Nanetti, R.Y., 1994, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Putnam, R., 2001, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York, Simon & Schuster.

Tocqueville, A.D., 2010, De la démocratie en Amérique, Paris, Flammarion.

Uslaner, E.M., 1999, Democracy and Social Capital, in M.A. Warren (ed.), Democracy and Trust, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 121-150.

Warren, M.A., 1999 (ed.), Democracy and Trust, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Warren, M.A., 1999, Democratic theory and trust, in Id. (ed.), Democracy and Trust, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 310-345.

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1 I thank Tiziana Andina and Maurizio Ferraris for prompting me to guest-edit a trust-related issue for “Rivista di Estetica” back in 2016. I thank the anonymous referees who made this issue possible and who provided valuable feedback to the contributors and invitees. I also thank the authors for their precious papers and their generous contributions. I thank Boudewjin de Bruin and Alex Oliver, as well as the members of their Cambridge-Groningen Trusting Banks project (especially Tony Booth, Marco Meyer, Tom Simpson, Chris Thompson and Jens van’t Klooster) that triggered this questioning. I also thank Richard Holton for early discussions on the appropriateness of trust in institutions, which came up in joint work.

2 Should we think of this second worry as inherited from Locke?

3 Beyond that, reasons why our topic has not been so much picked on by philosophers may be at the crossroads of methodological and political convictions often hard to debunk. Let me just name a few. An easy case may be that of (neo, post)Marxist theorists, for whom institutional trust may just be a fishy category: it could be accused of remaining at the surface of the social interplay, not engaging with the economic infrastructure and not questioning the legitimacy of the power relations at stake. Liberals, in turn, have traditionally stressed the ambivalence of institutional trust – as a naive attitude to which prudence should be preferred- but this has rarely led to a detailed discussion. Communitarians, in contrast, may be thought of as assuming certain forms of institutional trust to be instrumental in achieving the right social coordination, but I am not aware of major works in this direction. Turning to social capital theorists (stemming from Putnam 1994, 2001), one may be surprised they haven’t said much about institutions as a target for trust (rather than as a result, a condition, a context, a correlate of…), despite their central concern for the relations between social trust and institutions. The hugely influential social capital approach (both in the social sciences and at the World Bank) was indeed determinant in setting the agenda for the field of trust and institutions. It put a strong focus on social trust, civic trust, in a word, horizontal forms of trust that were shown to matter and to have strong correlation with the institutional setting. This was precisely part of the original contribution of this literature. The all-too-obvious vertical trust in institutions may have been overlooked in favor of a newer and, perhaps, more complex agenda. Part of the ambition of this issue is to shed some light on the self-standing interest for, if you want, the more obvious, vertical, question.

4 Trustees’ responsiveness is given a critical role in influential definitions of trust, e.g. Pettit 1995. There is substantial evidence that reciprocity is central in trust, see Molm et al. 2009 and Ostrom and Walker (ed.) 2005. For reciprocity as a puzzle for institutional trust, see Domenicucci and Holton 2017. In the present volume, see Jaffro on the idea of a tendency to symmetry.

5 See Lalumera for epistemic and value-directed reasons; see Lauret for the centrality of the social function of an institution; see van’t Klooster for a defence of the rationality of non-cognitive reasons to trust anonymous institutions.

6 See Lenard on trust in democratic institutions as discretion-granting, arguably a form of trusteeship; see Lauret for an answer that supervenes on the social function of each institution; see Van’t Klooster for a focus on institutional mandates.

7 See for example Lauret for a similar worry; see Terrone for an analysis of institutions in terms of systems of rules.

8 See Lalumera and Lauret.

9 For an explicit formulation of this approach in a seminal paper, see (Potter 1996: 332).

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Jacopo Domenicucci, « Trusting Institutions », Rivista di estetica [Online], 68 | 2018, online dal 11 mars 2019, consultato il 30 octobre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Jacopo Domenicucci

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