In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Trust

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Anthologies
  • Accounts of Trust

Philosophy Trust
Judith Simon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0157


Imagine a world without trust. Without trust, even the simplest actions in our lifeworld would hardly ever happen: we would never enter a taxi, never pay with coin, or believe in what our doctor says. We would not know when or where we were born and might even still believe that the sun rotates around the earth. Trust is an essential trait of our social life and our relation to our environment. Given the pervasiveness of trust in our lives, it comes as a surprise that trust has only very recently started to receive attention in philosophy. Apart from some early consideration on trust among friends, on trust in God as well as some contributions regarding the role of trust in society by Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, trust emerged as a topic of philosophical interest only in the last decades of the 20th century. As pervasive as trust appears as a phenomenon, as elusive it seems as a concept. What is trust? Is it a belief, an expectation, an attitude, or an emotion? Can trust be willed or can I merely decide to act as if I trusted? Moreover, while the intrinsic as well as the instrumental value of trust for cooperation and social life is almost commonsensical, trust always carries the risk of being unwarranted. Trusting those who are not worthy of our trust can lead to exploitation and betrayal. Yet, not trusting those who would be trustworthy can also be a mistake and cause harm. It has been particularly feminist scholars who have emphasized the Janus-faced nature of trust. How trust is defined and characterized depends strongly on the examples chosen. It makes a difference whether we analyze trust relations between children and their parents; between humans of equal power; between friends, lovers, or strangers. Trust in other persons differs from trust in groups; trust in a specific representative of the state differs from trust in more abstract entities such as governments, democracy, or society. Technology is yet another important if neglected patient of trust as well as a mediator of many human-to-human trust relations in our contemporary world. Instead of distinguishing proper and improper uses of the term trust, we should carefully attend to these different meanings of the word “trust” to provide a rich and multifaceted perspective on this complex and important phenomenon.

General Overviews

Kohn 2008, an essay on trust, is a concise and well-written starting point to get an overview on the topic of trust, while Govier 1997 offers a particularly deep and nuanced analysis of social trust in its manifold forms and appearances. Hardin 2006 and O’Neill 2002 focus specifically on public trust and the lack thereof, respectively. Baier 1986 is probably the single most influential article on trust in philosophy and is a must-read (see also Accounts of Trust). The important paper Gambetta 1988 serves as an introduction to game-theoretic accounts of trust. As a concluding chapter of Gambetta’s important anthology, it also serves as a pointer to other papers of this anthology (see also Anthologies). Hollis 1998 proposes a communitarian account of trust explicitly against game-theoretic considerations. Finally, the account of trust in Luhmann 1979, although rooted in sociology, has been highly influential in philosophy and is therefore a must-read.

  • Baier, Annette C. “Trust and Antitrust.” Ethics 96.2 (1986): 231–260.

    DOI: 10.1086/292745

    One of the most influential philosophical papers on trust. Criticizes contractualist fixation in philosophy and emphasizes the relevance of power inequalities for trust. Her focus on the distinction between trust and reliance has remained a dominant theme ever since. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Gambetta, Diego. “Can We Trust Trust?” In Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations. By Diego Gambetta, 213–237. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

    This concluding essay of Gambetta’s seminal anthology serves as a good introduction to cognitive accounts of trust highlighting the relationship between trust and cooperation.

  • Govier, Trudy. Social Trust and Human Communities. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997.

    Detailed examination of the manifold roles of trust in social life by a prolific writer on trust. Explores a wide range of issues from trust in testimony to trust in civil society.

  • Hardin, Russell. Trust. Key Concepts in the Social Sciences. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2006.

    Overview on trust by probably the most prolific writer on trust. Focuses on trust in public life. Attacks empirical research on trust as being misguided.

  • Hollis, Martin. Trust within Reason. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511612244

    Challenges purely game-theoretic and predictive accounts of trust and defends a communitarian account of trust. Introduces a principle of generalized reciprocity.

  • Kohn, Marek. Trust: Self-Interest and the Common Good. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Brief and well-written essayistic primer into the complexities around trust. Good starting point and easy to read.

  • Luhmann, Niklas. Trust and Power: Two Works. Translated by Howard Davis, John Raffan, and Kathryn Rooney. New York: Wiley, 1979.

    Starting point for modern examinations of trust in sociology; highly influential also in philosophy. Focuses on the function of trust to reduce complexity and uncertainty in social systems. Originally published as Vertrauen: Ein Mechanismus der Reduktion sozialer Komplexität (Stuttgart: Enke, 1968).

  • O’Neill, Onora. A Question of Trust. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    Challenges the proclaimed contemporary crisis of trust and accuses the media of fostering public distrust. Criticizes increased amount of bureaucratic controls and panacea of formalized accountability procedures; proposes that we need to restore trust instead.

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