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A Virtue Epistemology of Trust


PI: J. Adam Carter
Co-Is: Christoph Kelp and Mona Simion

Postdoc: Angela O'Sullivan

PhD student: Ísak Andri Ólafsson
Funded by: The Leverhulme Trust

This research project runs from 2020 to 2023 and is financed by a Leverhulme Trust grant (GBP 254,871).

One of the most serious challenges faced by philosophers of trust is to understand why, and under what circumstances, we should trust as opposed to distrust others and what they tell us. Even though philosophical theories of trust have offered insights into what trust is , they have yet to tell us what qualities make someone a good or bad truster, and how they do so.
     This project introduces virtue epistemology to address this issue for the first time. It offers a novel method for theorising about what dispositions trusting well requires, and it uses this method to explain why certain forms of skilled trusting are more valuable than others.
    The project is also designed to break new ground in debates about trustworthiness by showing that skills needed to be a good truster, as well as to be reliably trustworthy, are importantly related. Further, the project connects these results more widely to debates in social epistemology by showing how trusting well provides a constraint on three key aspects of social life: assertion, action, and practical reasoning.
     An important payoff is an understanding of how skilled trusting can help build and sustain more resilient trust networks. It is urgent that we gain such answers and insights: according to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, UK public trust in social media and online news has plummeted to below 25%, and trust in government is at a low 36%. This present crisis in trust of corresponds with a related crisis of distrust, in that the dissemination and uptake of fake news, particularly on social media, have risen dramatically the past few years. Public policy regulations can at best treat the symptoms of these problems in the absence of a deeper understanding of their sources in our own agency.

Questions that the project will seek to answer: 

Q1: What kind of traits make a person a good truster, and how do they do so?

Q2: What is the relationship between being a good truster, and having the kind of traits in virtue of which one is trustworthy?

Q3: How can thinking about what’s involved in trusting well help us to build more resilient and healthy trust networks?

Getting clear answers to these questions would constitute a much-needed breakthrough in the philosophy of trust, one that is analogous to the breakthrough that the virtue-theoretic framework has already provided epistemologists for thinking about knowledge. And, practically speaking, rigorous and principled answers to Q1- Q3 will go a long way to helping us to isolate key sources of trust’s erosion that lie within our own agency and control.


The core hypothesis to be tested is that insights from virtue epistemology can transform our understanding of what it is to trust well, and in a way that will help us make needed traction on each of Q1-Q3, questions which are philosophically important and—given the widespread erosion of trust—politically and socially timely. The proposed project offers—in a way that is informed by cutting-edge work in virtue epistemology and the philosophy of trust—a novel virtue-theoretic account of: 1. the nature and value of trust; (in connection with Q1) 2. its structural relationship to trustworthiness; (in connection with Q2) 3. its normative connections with the social-epistemic practices of assertion, action and practical reason (in connection with Q3). 
     In a bit more detail, we investigate for the first time how trusting, like believing, corresponds with certain kinds of trust-specific dispositions to manage interpersonal risks in ways that can be more or less reliable. Focusing on what these dispositions look like (both generally, and when they manifest in successful trust) will tell us a lot about what specific shapes trusting well will take, why some are more valuable than others (epistemically and morally), and how skilled trusting connects to other things that are vital to successful social and political life, such as being a good asserter, agent, and deliberator.
     We take as a starting point in our attempt to understand trust a key analogy between trust and belief that has not been suitably developed, and which concerns their respective constitutive aims. A widely-shared view in epistemology, and in the literature on norms of belief, is that belief aims at truth in the sense that a belief that is not true is, as such, in some sense defective—viz., it misses its mark. Does trust constitutively aim at anything? A prima facie case for thinking 'yes' is that trust has clear fulfillment conditions in paradigmatic cases of interpersonal trust: X's trusting Y to do some action is fulfilled only if Y has taken care of things as X has entrusted them. There is much discussion about what it would be for the trustee to take care of things as entrusted—viz., what additional attitudes and/or beliefs this may involve, including attitudes and beliefs about the attitudes (e.g., goodwill) and beliefs of the trustee. But however these details are filled out, it remains that when one trusts another to take care of things as entrusted, there is a clear sense in which the trust succeeds only when the trustee actually does take care of things as they are entrusted, perhaps compresently with certain attitudes or beliefs. Accordingly, just as belief is successful only if it is true (e.g., when mind fits world), trust is successful only if it is fulfilled (e.g., when that trust is not betrayed).
     This initial analogy between belief and trust lends itself to interesting further development through the application of performance-theoretic virtue epistemology, which maps out the normative structure of performance-types with aims that are internal to that type of performance. For instance, following Sosa, we can think of the normative structure of a belief along three dimensions: success, skill, and aptness. A belief, successful if true, might nonetheless be successful through sheer luck. It is skillful only if it issues from dispositions that would ordinarily generate true beliefs when the subject is in proper shape and properly situated. But even successful and skillful beliefs can fall short of a higher grade of assessment—aptness—if the success does not manifest the skill exhibited, but is instead due to luck. The idea of apt trust takes us beyond previous assessments of trust’s nature and value. Even more, there is scope to investigate within this normative framework how the more sophisticated aim of apt trust (and not merely the aim of successful trust) might itself be attained in ways that manifest our higher-order trustrelevant abilities, e.g., abilities to monitor for risk of inapt trusting, and not merely risk of betrayed trust. Along with providing an entirely new virtue-theoretic account of trust, we will show how this account naturally complements a virtue-theoretic account of trustworthiness, and also how it comports well with three key aspects of social-epistemic practice: assertion, action, and practical reason. In particular, we explore how our core notion of apt trust plausibly functions as a norm governing certain kinds of assertions and actions internal to the practice of giving and receiving trust, and we articulate the conditions under which violations of this norm, as we characterize it, may or may not be blameless.


Project Outputs:


  • Carter, J. Adam. Chapter 1 of monograph A Virtue Epistemology of Trust, “What is Good Trusting?”  

  • Carter, J. Adam. Chapter 2 of monograph A Virtue Epistemology of Trust, “Trust as Performance”  

  • Carter, J. Adam. Chapter 3 of monograph A Virtue Epistemology of Trust, “Forbearance and Distrust” 


Project Events

  • Project Workshop 1: 15 October, 2020: Speakers: Ernest Sosa (Rutgers University), Nick Hughes (Oxford), and Anne Meylan (Basel). 


  • Project Workshop 2: 2 November, 2020: Speakers: John Greco (Georgetown), Orestis Palermos (Cardiff) and Catarina Dutilh Novaes (Amsterdam & St Andrews). 


  • Project workshop 3: 27 January 2021:  Speakers: Katharine Hawley (St Andrews), Martin Smith (Edinburgh), and Richard Pettigrew (Bristol). 


CLICK HERE for a link to our project blog, which includes posts (written in a non-technical way) aimed at communicating some of the ideas we are thinking about over the course of the project. 


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