Trust, moral ties, and social responsibility

Date of Completion

January 1999


Philosophy|Psychology, Social




The focus of this work is interpersonal trust, by which I mean trust between individual persons. This work formulates and defends an account of interpersonal trust as an affective attitude, the presence and quality of which has significant ethical and social-political consequences. A major task of the dissertation is to dispel the assumption common to the majority of writings on trust that trust is a mere fail-safe social mechanism which, in a world of perfectly omniscient, or perfectly moral beings, would not be needed. I will argue that a philosophical accounting of trust is both possible and desirable, but that it can only be given in the context of an ethical approach that recognizes the importance of affect, character, and relationships to moral life. ^ Chapter One is a critical exposition of some contemporary approaches to interpersonal trust, which tend to be dominated by rational choice models. I argue that such accounts of trust are best incomplete, in part because they miss the affective component of trust. In Chapter Two, I develop an account of interpersonal trust as an affective attitude. I claim that all forms of interpersonal trust are characterized by an affective base which gives rise to beliefs, desires and expectations about the trustee. This affective base may be described as security, confidence, hopefulness, or optimism, depending on the situation, but in all cases it gives rise to a view of the trusted as competent and benevolent. Understood this way, trust is a felt way of seeing which constitutes an active interpretation of interpersonal reality. ^ In Chapters Three and Four, I contend that discussions of the moral significance of trust must be reoriented towards an approach which makes the moral identity of the agent central to moral reflection and judgment. I argue that trust is a form of moral affirmation which is indispensable to strong moral self-definition, to having a good character (and thus a very good life), and to effective moral judgment. I conclude by analyzing the social and political consequences of trust and distrust between members of different social groups. ^