Public Trust

We often think of trust as an interpersonal relation, and of the distinction between trust and reliance as a distinction between kinds of interpersonal relations. Indeed this is often the case. I may trust one colleague but not find her reliable; rely on another but find him untrustworthy; both trust and rely on my best friend; neither trust nor rely on my dean. One of us has discussed the nature of such relations and distinctions at length. But trust is not only an interpersonal matter. Human society comprises not only individuals but also institutions, and indeed individuals who occupy crucial institutional roles. We often individually or collectively trust, distrust, rely on, or fail or refuse to rely on such institutions or institutional players qua players. In this essay we explore the structure, scope and value of such institutional trust and distrust, which we call “public trust.” Public trust, we will argue, plays a central role in constituting the public sphere and in structuring societies in which it is worth living.
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