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Part II: Trusted institutions. Appropriatness and rationality of trust in institutions

Trusting anonymous institutions

The case of the Swiss National Bank
Jens van ‘t Klooster
p. 69-82


Democratic societies are rife with talk of trust in institutions such as governments, banks, news agencies, medical practitioners, nuclear power plants, weather forecasters and social network sites. These institutions are anonymous in the sense that citizens tend to know very little about them. Philosophers have argued that trust in the absence of sufficient evidence may fit a child who trusts its parents but is inappropriate for the vigilant citizens of a democratic society. In this article, I defend the appropriateness of trusting anonymous institutions against its critics. To this end, I develop two principles of appropriateness that apply to a wide range of trusting attitudes. First, the principle of epistemic duties according to which the truster should not be culpably ignorant about the trustee, where, what constitutes culpable ignorance will depend on the relationship of trust. Second, the principle of appropriate normative expectations according to which a truster should have normative expectations that fit the relationship with the trustee and the valued outcome at stake in the trust relation. I then show that it is often appropriate to trust anonymous institutions. In fact, the evidential requirements on trust are sometimes so low as to allow citizens to trust institutions which they know literally nothing about.

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I want to thank Boudewijn de Bruin, Tony Booth, Jacopo Domenicucci, Richard Holton, Marco Meyer, Alex Oliver, Onora O’Neill, Chris Thompson and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.

1. Introduction

1Consider trust of citizens in diffuse, anonymous institutions such as governments, banks, news agencies, medical practitioners, nuclear power plants, weather forecasters and social network sites. Not only is talk of trust in such institutions widely prevalent, the term is also used in moralized ways that bar a reading in terms of mere dependence or reliance. A brief internet search for ‘restoring trust in …’, will reveal that for all these examples there are projects and initiatives that attempt to restore trust, suggesting a prior relationship of trust that has been damaged.

2The topic of this article is the relation of trust between citizens and large, anonymous institutions. In January 2015, the Swiss National Bank (Snb) became the target of wide ranging moral emotions in wake of abandoning its policy to stabilize the Swiss Franc to Euro exchange rate. As the Financial Times reported on the event:

  • 2 Financial Times January 19, 2015.

Snb president Thomas Jordan said Swiss companies had years to prepare for the removal of the currency peg. The opposite is the case: the mere existence of the peg in the first place discouraged Swiss businesses from hedging their currency risk; now the Snb has pulled the rug from under them. Talking to folks in Switzerland, some describe it as a feeling of betrayal.2

3A feeling of betrayal, of course, suggests a prior relationship of trust. This is a striking claim as the Snb is a large, anonymous institution that citizens do not have any direct dealings with. Most do not know very much about its existence and its role in issuing the currency and securing the operations of the payment system. But if citizens indeed trust the Snb, it would be interesting to know more about this. What sort of trust is it? Is it like interpersonal trust? Does it make sense for citizens to have such forms of trust? Or is it an irrational anthropomorphism, akin to ascribing intentions to the weather and beliefs to coffee machines?

  • 3 See Holton 1994: 63; O’Neill 2002: 13; Baier 1986: 235; Faulkner 2007: 884.
  • 4 Baier, 1986; 1991: 113; Jones 1996.
  • 5 O’Neill 2002; 2014; Hardin 2002; Cook, Hardin, Levi 2005.

4Philosophers attempt to capture the norms that govern our everyday talk of trust. One topic of debate concerns the evidential requirements of trust. A widely held view within these debates is that trusting someone to do something does not require believing that he or she will do it.3 Annette Baier even takes lack of good evidence regarding trustworthiness, and associated vulnerability to abuse, as defining of trust.4 But, not all philosophers agree with this analysis and it is particularly controversial where it concerns institutions. Onora O’Neill and Russell Hardin both argue that trust that is not based on solid evidence has no place in the interactions of citizens with institutions.5

  • 6 Becker 1996; Walker 2006.

5In this article, I argue that these authors are wrong. Trust is often an appropriate attitude for citizens where it concerns institutions. My aim is not just to point out that citizens are factually disposed to trust institutions and to feel resentment when these institutions against their expectations.6 Rather, I argue that citizens are often right to trust institutions and entitled to resent them for failing to live up to that trust. Trust, on my account, is appropriate where we are as informed as anyone can expect us to be and where the normative expectations we have towards the trusted institution are appropriate. When these conditions are met, trust is appropriate, even when the institution is anonymous in the sense that access to information about its operations is very limited or even non-existent. The upshot of all this is that we can trust institutions of which we do not even know that they exist.

6After outlining the distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive accounts of trust (Section 2), I discuss the anonymity of central banks to explain in what sense citizens trust anonymous institutions (Section 3), I then review the claim of Hardin and O’Neill to the effect that non-cognitive trust is an inappropriate attitude towards anonymous institutions (Section 4). Their argument, as I point out, rests on the assumption that the appropriateness of trust is to be evaluated by evidential standards. In Section 5, I propose alternative criteria for the appropriateness of non-cognitive trust. According to these criteria, trust is appropriate when (a) the truster is not culpably ignorant with regard to a valued outcome and (b) it is appropriate to have normative expectations towards the trustee. In Section 6, I show that anonymous institutions often meet these conditions.

2. Belief and accepted vulnerability

7The conception of trust that informs this article fits in the family of views known as non-cognitivism about trust. I will introduce this conception by contrasting it with cognitive accounts.

  • 7 For an entirely different way of thinking about trust, see Domenicucci, Holton 2017.

8Cognitivist analyse trust as a belief concerning the trustworthiness of the trustee. Philosophers disagree over the exact nature of this belief. To bring out a clear contrast with non-cognitive forms of trust, I will understand A trusting B in a cognitivist sense to mean that A has a belief that B is motivated and competent to secure a valued outcome.7 What is important is that cognitive forms of trust are epistemic attitudes. Whether cognitive trust is appropriate can be evaluated in terms of the evidence that is available to the truster. The trust is also something for which the truster should be able to give reasons. The cognitivist believes that all forms of trust can be understood in this way and that it is therefore always inappropriate for A to trust B without evidence.

9For non-cognistivists, in contrast, it is exactly defining of trust that it does not require such evidence. The non-cognitivist does not need to deny that some instances of trust do involve detailed beliefs about the trustee. Clearly, most cases of trust will involve at least some beliefs about the trustee. But, according to the non-cognitivist, it is entirely possible to trust without sufficient evidence for believing that the trustee will secure a valued outcome.

  • 8 Baier 1986; Luhmann 1989; Jones 1996.

10The non-cognitivist account that I will rely on in the following is that of Annette Baier. On her account, trust is a complex mental attitude that involves acceptance of the discretionary power of the trustee with regard to a valued outcome.8 As she formulates the core idea:

  • 9 Baier, 1991: 113.

Trust is an alternative to vigilance and reliance on the threat of sanctions; trustworthiness is an alternative to constant watching to see what one can and cannot get away with, to recurrent recalculations of costs and benefits. Trust is accepted vulnerability to another’s power to harm one, a power inseparable from the power to look after some aspect of one’s good.9

11This account of trust, then, has two features. First, it involves an attitude of accepted vulnerability with regard to a valued outcome. Accepting vulnerability is not the same as being unable to avoid being subject to such power. If one is disposed to undermine this power, or would prefer to do so in more favourable circumstances, one does not trust. Rather, it involves allowing the trustee to exercise discretion with regard to one’s interests. Moreover, accepted vulnerability also implies an acceptance of one’s limited epistemic position vis-à-vis the trustee. Accepted vulnerability involves voluntarily refraining from checking-up, inquiring, investigating and to some extent even thinking about the trustworthiness of the trustee. If one prefers more information, but cannot do so for exterior reasons, one does not trust. To accept vulnerability is to be unperturbed by having limited information concerning the trustee’s fidelity.

  • 10 Holton 1994; Walker 2006.

12The suspension of distrust involved in trust is closely associated with a second feature, which is the experience of moral emotions when trust is betrayed. On the non-cognitive account, trust involves a disposition to feel resentment if the trustee fails to sufficiently secure that valued outcome. Instead of active enforcement, trust involves a disposition to feel anger and resentment when the trustee does not act in line with the trust placed in him or her.10

13My aim in the following is to explore under what conditions a non-cognitive attitude of trust is appropriate. This exploration is motivated by the idea that there are such attitudes, but my argument does not rely on the cognitivist claim that trust is always such a non-cognitive attitude. Rather, I will show in the next Section that there are cases where trust in institutions is non-cognitive. I then use the rest of the article to put forward conditions of appropriateness for such attitudes.

3. Anonymous institutions

14So, can citizens indeed have attitudes of non-cognitive trust where it concerns anonymous institutions? I will now try to convince the reader that the relationship between citizens and central banks is best understood as a form of non-cognitive trust.

15Baier has wavered in her writings on whether her account of trust applies to attitudes of citizens towards institutions. In her first article on this topic, she writes:

  • 11 Baier 1986: 240.

Trust, on the analysis I have proposed, is letting other persons (natural or artificial, such as firms, nations, etc.) take care of something the truster cares about, where such ‘caring for’ involves some exercise of discretionary powers.11

16But in a recent reply to O’Neill, Baier writes that her account is meant to apply to individual persons only (2014, 176). In my view, the earlier statement is correct. It makes sense to think of the relation of citizens towards institutions as potentially one of trust in the meaning that Baier gives to this term. To bring this out, consider the role of trust in central banking.

  • 12
  • 13 Dods 2014.
  • 14 McLeay, Radia, Thomas 2014.

17First, concerning accepted vulnerability. Most citizens do not know very much about central bank. Many citizens do not know the mandate of the central bank, nor how and why they trade in financial markets. In a recent survey of Dutch households, even respondents who rate their understanding of the European Central Bank as good or very good largely fail to answer questions on core aspects of the mandate correctly.12 While politicians and other officials will as a rule be better informed, a recent survey of British MPs showed that 88% did not know basic facts about money creation in a modern economy.13 Because monetary policy implementation is tightly connected to money creation, this means that MPs also know very little about monetary policy. The Bank of England has recently published a brief explanation of money that distances itself from explanations in economic textbooks.14

18The central bank does not only act in anonymity where it pursues the public interest, but also has extensive room for deciding what the relevant interests are. The timing of interest rate policy aimed at preventing inflation has direct distributive consequences, because wages, profits and product prices change at different points in an economic recovery.

19Most citizens accept that they do not understand monetary policy. Citizens initiatives aimed towards the reform of money such as Positive Money in the UK or the political campaign for Fed transparency of Rand Paul or FedUp remain. The same goes for epistemic vigilance. There is almost no popular literature on the topic and public interest is limited. Citizens know that there is an institution that makes decisions on monetary policy and some may even know that this institution is not under substantial democratic supervision. Nonetheless, they do not feel that this is a situation that is defective. Rather, citizens accept the discretionary power of citizens over monetary policy matters and put little or no effort in being better informed about its operations.

20The second component we need to talk about non-cognitive trust is the disposition to feel betrayed. The feeling of betrayal that the Financial Times documents for the Snb is uncommon. However, dispositions can be present even if never exercised. Lack of anger, therefore, does not mean that such dispositions are not present elsewhere. The question is what would happen should the central bank fail in its duties. Surely, public anger could easily result.

21Support for central banks can go far beyond mere grudging acceptance. An example of a central bank which enjoys strong popular support is the German Bundesbank. Its former board member Otmar Issing talks of attitudes where “the borderline between trust and quasi-religious faith, indeed, becomes very hard to make out” (2000). While the German case may be seen as an exception, the wide room that citizens leave central banks in pursuing their mandate is best understood as one of accepted vulnerability: Citizens know that money is important for them but leave the duties in defending their interests to an institution that is placed best to look after them. Insofar as they do this, they trust central banks.

4. Inappropriate trust

22Even if the attitude that individuals have towards central banks is one of trust, it could still be inappropriate to trust institutions, as philosophers have repeatedly argued. While they do not deny that an attitude of trust can be present, they question whether citizens are entitled to such attitudes. For, so they argue: Why should we trust institutions when we know little or nothing about their operations and the intentions of officials?

  • 15 Hardin 2002, 2007; Cook, Hardin, Levi 2005.

23Russell Hardin has been the most outspoken of such sceptics, claiming that trust is widely agreed to be an inappropriate attitude towards anonymous institutions.15 Hardin then claims that, because crucial information about anonymous institutions is generally not available to citizens, agents are hardly ever justified in trusting anonymous institutions. For this reason, Hardin thinks that the concept of ‘trust’ can do little work in explicating the relation between citizens and non-personal entities:

  • 16 Hardin 2002: 172.

Most citizens cannot be said to trust government in any of the standard senses in which individuals can trust one another. This follows for simple epistemological reasons. Most of us most of the time cannot know enough to trust government (or other large institutional) agents or agencies to judge their fit with any of the standard conceptions of trust. These conceptions are that trustworthiness is a matter of character or brute dispositions, of moral commitment, or of encapsulated interest.16

24In arguing against the appropriateness of citizen trust, Hardin sometimes, as in the quoted passage, makes the stronger claim that there cannot be any trust of citizens in anonymous institutions. But as trust is on his account an attitude of individuals, it would be very odd to claim that cannot be directed to obviously unsuitable candidates (i.e. a banana). Rather, in such passages, I take Hardin to make the claim that trust in such objects is an inappropriate attitude. This is the claim that I will discuss in the following.

25O’Neill’s worries are like those of Hardin, in that she too is sceptical about the appropriateness of trust based on very limited or even no information about the trustee. O’Neill does not reject non-cognitive forms of trust outright. Rather, her claim is that it can only have a place in personal relationships. Non-cognitive trust is characteristic of a child who trusts its parents or other close interpersonal relations, but inappropriate outside that context.

26Like Hardin, O’Neill does not want to do away with trust in anonymous institutions altogether. Moreover, like Hardin, she rejects the appropriateness of trust on which ‘those who trust are often depicted as immature or deferential, and as risking disappointment, if not betrayal’, referring to the non-cognitivist accounts of Baier (1986), Jones (1996) and Holton (1994). For O’Neill, trust can involve taking risks and being vulnerable to abuse, but it should be placed based on an appropriate evidential basis; it should be ‘intelligent’, rather than ‘stupid’ trust. Still, like Hardin, O’Neill claims that a non-cognitive attitude of trust is inappropriate for the relationship between citizens and institutions:

  • 17 O’Neill 2014: 273; 2002: 13f.

If we receive of trust simply as a matter of blind acceptance or deference, and similar attitudes, we can reasonably conclude that trust should play little part in the public life of a mature democracy, or in its institutional and professional life, or anywhere else where relationships are no longer personal.17

27I think Hardin and O’Neill are right to worry about how the information that citizens have about their institutions. It is surely part of a well-functioning democratic system that citizens are adequately informed about important political issues. I also agree that trust should not be placed randomly. Still, some trust is unavoidable and the challenge this raises is to say where it is appropriate and where not. I disagree with their assumption that available evidence should be decisive. Insofar as trust is indeed evaluated in this way, it is almost by definition inappropriate towards anonymous institutions of which citizens know next to nothing.

28The standards that apply to belief are only one way to evaluate trust and, if trust is itself not a cognitive attitude, not the most appropriate. For cognitive forms of trust, we can say that it is only appropriate to feel betrayed if our trust was based on sufficient evidence. But, if trust is not a cognitive attitude in the first place, then we need a different way to evaluate its appropriateness. This is the topic to which I will now turn.

5. Epistemic duties and normative expectations

29On any account, trust can have been appropriate even if it later turns out that a trustee is in fact untrustworthy. A central bank can do reckless monetary experiments, a pilot may be drunk, and a local deli may fail to live up to basic hygienic standards. In such cases, it turns out that through no fault of the truster, trust was placed in the wrong agent. But this by itself should not affect appropriateness.

30For cognitive trust, the difference between appropriate and inappropriate trust is easy to explain: Whether it is appropriate for A to trust B merely depends on whether A has sufficient evidence to believe that B is trustworthy, not whether B is actually trustworthy. Just like other beliefs, cognitive trust can be justified but false. Trust is appropriate when it is justified in light of the available evidence. It is appropriate for A to trust B if A is justified to believe that B is motivated and competent to secure a valued outcome C.

31In the following, I develop a similar account of appropriateness for non-cognitive trust. Here too, appropriateness concerns the question whether it was prudent given the circumstances, or rational, or whether it made sense for A to trust B, just like we can ask whether it is appropriate for A to have the relevant beliefs.

32What determines appropriateness is less straightforward for the non-cognitive than for the cognitive account. The reason for this is closely tied up with the peculiar attitudes that characterize non-cognitive trust. First, non-cognitive trust does not need to involve the belief that is central to cognitive accounts. Rather, to trust is to suspend epistemic vigilance and to let things happen until something happens that creates a need to revise attitudes. Second, non-cognitive trust is not, like cognitive trust, easily subsumed under, or even subject to, the standard of appropriateness that applies to a more general type of attitude. Accepted vulnerability does not necessarily involve evidence for any particular belief, nor does it need to involve doing things. For trust to be appropriate, it merely needs to be appropriate to suspend distrust.

33So, when is accepted vulnerability appropriate? I will explore this questions by using contrastive thought experiments. By asking what it is that makes different attitudes appropriate or not, I argue for two conditions of appropriateness. The first concerns the epistemic duties of individuals. In placing trust, the individual should not be culpably ignorant about facts that would invalidate trust. If there are such facts, trust is inappropriate. The second condition concerns appropriate normative expectations. In placing trust, individuals must not expect more of the trustee than is morally required. It should be appropriate to expect someone, it may be unclear who exactly, to secure the relevant valued outcomes. The nature of this expectation, however, is not moral. Rather, it is a belief that somehow, a moral wrong would be committed if that outcome is not secure. To see that appropriate trust indeed has these two dimensions, I will now discuss cases in which one or the other condition is missing.

34First, consider a case of appropriate but misplaced trust: Imagine that I win a bet, and now you have to pay me 10,000 Swiss Francs. Knowing that you are easily able to give me SFr 10,000, I go ahead and spend the money on wine and cheese. In this case, I take it, my trust would be appropriate. I’ve done what I needed to do to know and I was right to expect you to pay SFr 10,000. My circumstances made accepted vulnerability appropriate, even if it later turned out that you will not, in fact, give me SFr 10,000.

35Consider a different case. Imagine that there was no bet and that, though nothing in your behaviour suggests this is true, I still come to trust you to give me SFr 10,000. As a result, I spend money, only to become furious when I realize that you will not pay me. It is clear that this attitude is an inappropriate form of trust. In fact, I think it is inappropriate for two different reasons.

  • 18 There are of course many different accounts of the nature of belief. It is possible to think of an (...)

36First, I am responsible for my own disappointment because I should have known that you would not give me SFr 10,000. This shows that there are certain duties of information that apply to the decision to trust. If a truster should have done more to verify their expectations, the placing of trust is inappropriate. Non-cognitive trust does not require a belief that, all things considered, it was appropriate to believe that you would pay. It may have been wrong for me to assert it or to testify to others about it.18 Yet, though trust only involves modest epistemic demands, in this case, my belief should have been better grounded. Because I am culpably ignorant, my trust is inappropriate.

37Culpable ignorance is not the only thing that makes the above example odd. Trust can also be inappropriate where the truster has fulfilled all epistemic duties, but places trust in a way that involves inadequate normative expectations. Consider the case where I am a pathologically gullible person and someone has tricked me into believing that you will pay me SFr 10,000. Because I am simply unable to be better informed, I have done all that can be reasonably asked of me to make sure that you will give me SFr 10,000. But I have merely been informed that you will in fact transfer SFr 10,000, not that you have promised to do so or given and other reason to think you should. In this case, it does not make sense to say that it was appropriate to trust you. Given that I lacked reasons for thinking that you should give me anything, there is no way in which you betray my trust. Even if you felt pity and, in fact, did transfer SFr 10,000, this would not have made trust appropriate. My trust should not just be epistemically grounded, it should also be based on appropriate normative expectations.

38Finally, to show that epistemic and normative expectations are distinct, we must also consider a converse case. Imagine a case where I should have known that you would not pay because you do not have the money. Again, I go on a spending spree, but, as I could have expected, you do not pay. I have a reasonable normative expectation to receive SFr 10,000. Nonetheless, trusting you to transfer the money was inappropriate because, clearly, I should have known that you would not pay. The same would be true if, rather than not being able to pay, you were not willing to pay and I had good reasons to know this. In either case, I should not have trusted you to pay me. If I should have known that you could not pay, my placing of trust was inappropriate.

39These contrast cases bring out two independent criteria of appropriateness on trust: First, while trust is always placed in a situation of uncertainty, the truster should not go against the evidence that they can reasonably be expected to have. Thus, what I take to be the defining condition for appropriate trust is that the truster is not culpably ignorant about the trustee, where, what constitutes culpable ignorance will depend on the relationship of trust. I will refer to this condition as the principle of epistemic duties.

  • 19 I want to thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this objection.

40Second, relations of trust must be based on adequate normative expectations. In a relation of trust, the truster relies on a trustee to do something that the trustee can be expected to do. The question how to understand the nature of these normative expectations raises the following complication.19 It is possible to trust someone to do something that is not all things considered morally wrong. If you promise to murder someone and I trust you to do this, trust will only be appropriate if I have a normative expectation that you should murder someone. But as murder is wrong, it would not be right to think that you have a moral obligation to murder. This complication shows that the normative expectations that ground trust are generally internal to the specific relation between the truster and trustee. In the context of that relationship, it may be normatively appropriate to expect certain things, which it is not appropriate to expect all things considered. It may be appropriate given that you agreed to it and I paid you for it even if the required action is also morally wrong. If no such basis for expectations is present it is inappropriate to trust.

41The exact nature of the expectations depends on the trust relation. Baier, for example, claims that the specific relation of interpersonal trust ascribes the duty to act in the interest of the trustee. In other contexts, the relevant relation may be of a different sort. For example, rather than expecting a doctor to act in our interest, the expectation is more modest. To meet the relevant normative expectations, it is sufficient for the doctor to perform medical procedures correctly. What I take to be the defining condition for appropriate trust is that a truster has normative expectations that fits the relationship with the trustee and the valued outcome at stake in the trust relation. I will refer to this condition as the principle of appropriate normative expectations.

6. Anonymity and trust

42Citizens often rely on anonymous institutions without knowing very much about them. Their temporally-extended life plans place citizens in a position of vulnerability and dependence with regard to a wide range of institutions. Individuals rely on the governments, banks, news agencies, medical practitioners, nuclear power plants, weather forecasters and social network sites. Given their life plans, institutions can fail to live up to particular largely tacit expectations. Because there will be a fact of the matter about what a citizen expects given their plans, there will be a fact of the matter about which institutions it is that citizen depends on. In this way, citizens that do not know about the existence of an institution can still rely on an institution with regard to valued outcomes. If they then accept that relevant vulnerability, their attitude is one of trust.

43I will now argue that such attitudes of trust often meet the two conditions outlined in §5. The principle of epistemic duties states that citizens should not be culpably ignorant about an institution that they trust. This is surely often the case as epistemic duties tend to be limited. Advanced capitalist societies are characterized by a high degree of functional differentiation. Accordingly, what citizens know often does not extend very far beyond what they need to know to fulfil their professional and political responsibilities. It is this fact that make trust in anonymous institutions not only pervasive but also appropriate. Being a citizen of a democratic society arguably brings with it modest duties in forming a political opinion on the functioning of institutions. Representative democracy imposes on citizens some responsibilities concerning their vote, but what citizens can be expected to know is limited. Citizens do not have a duty to know what the best solution for every policy problem is. For things that extend beyond professional and political responsibilities, epistemic duties are minimal. More generally, it is difficult to see how citizens could have epistemic duties with regard to institutions without having practical obligations. Since, citizens often rely on institutions for they have neither formal nor informal roles in decision making, they will at best have very limited epistemic duties regarding anonymous institutions. They may not even be culpably ignorant when they do not know that an institution that they rely on exists.

44The principle of appropriate normative expectations states that citizen’s normative expectations should be appropriate. The real challenge for anonymous trust concerns the question how we should think of appropriate normative expectations where citizens have little or no information at all about an institution; how can one expect anything from something that one does not even know to exist? To understand the issues at stake, we must distinguish between the normative expectations of citizens and their beliefs about the agents who are to fulfil those expectations. It is possible that normative expectations are entirely appropriate even if citizens do not have any specific beliefs about the duties of anonymous institutions.

  • 20 Federal Act on the Swiss National Bank, article 5(1).

45A modest way to spell out the relevant expectations would focus on adherence to existing legal frameworks. Citizens can have a general normative expectation for institutions to adhere to the law without knowing what the law requires in every specific instance. Consider again the example of the Snb. The Snb derives its legitimacy from the Swiss National Bank act, which spells out its duty to ensure price stability while taking ‘due account of economic developments’.20 Given this mandate, citizens can reasonably expect the Snb to prevent disastrous economic events such as high levels of inflation or deep recessions. Accordingly, the normative expectation that these events do not occur will be appropriate. It far from obvious that this mandate requires the Snb to prevent wild swings in the value of the currency. But if such an expectation is appropriate, it can be so without knowing very much about the legal mandate of the central bank. Citizens may only have a vague sense that the economic circumstances they face are unfair and that someone should have prevented this from happening. This attitude is a feeling of betrayed trust and it can be an appropriate attitude given the reality of a complex functionally-differentiated society.

46Trust is not appropriate when citizens should have known better than to accept vulnerability. If an institution fails but does so in a way that should have been foreseen, trust is not betrayed. Rather, the institution simply fails to live up to the normative demands that apply to it. If, instead, the normative expectations of citizens do have a solid basis, lack of detailed factual knowledge does not invalidate trust. Given that citizens have appropriate normative expectations, their trust in institutions can be appropriate even if they know very little, if anything, about the institution that is to meet those expectations.

7. Conclusion

47Trust in anonymous is not an irrational anthropomorphism, akin to ascribing intentions to the weather and beliefs to coffee machines. Rather, it is often an entirely appropriate attitude. My argument against critics of anonymous trust has two steps. First, I argued that they use the wrong criteria to decide about the appropriateness of non-cognitive trust in institutions. Second, I argued that, when alternative criteria are used, their claim that such attitudes are inappropriate turns out to be false.

48I think that these arguments provide a new insight into the normative structure of the relation that normal citizens have towards institutions. Moreover, they put into question too light-hearted dismissal of such attitudes. Nonetheless, the second claim is independent of the first: Even if one thinks that, in the end, citizens have epistemic duties with regard to every anonymous institution, or lack the relevant moral knowledge, the framework put forward here still provides a better basis for judging, and then dismissing, such trust.

49All of this is not to deny that there is a clear tension between trust in anonymous institutions and the ideal of a vigilant democratic citizenry that Hardin and O’Neill invoke. There may be good reasons to worry about the anonymous institutions. Where I think Hardin and O’Neill go wrong is in their claim that whether trust is appropriate should depend on available evidence. Rather, I have argued that where citizens have no formal or informal roles in decision-making, as is the case in decisions on monetary policy, there is no ground to prohibit trust.

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Becker, L.C., 1996, Trust as noncognitive security about motives, “Ethics”, 107, 1: 43-61.

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Issing, O., 2000, Should we have faith in central banks?, speech by Professor Otmar Issing, Member of the Executive Board of the European Central Bank, St. Edmund’s College Millennium Year Lecture, Cambridge, 26 October 2000.

Faulkner, P., 2007, On telling and trusting, “Mind”, 116, 464: 875-902.

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Holton, R., 1994, Deciding to trust, coming to believe, “Australasian Journal of Philosophy”, 72, 1: 63-76.

Jones, K., 1996, Trust as an affective attitude, “Ethics”, 107, 1: 4-25.

Mcleay, M., Radia, A., Thomas, R., 2014, Money creation in the modern economy, “Quarterly Bulletin”, 54, 1: 14-27.

O’Neill, O., 2002, Autonomy and trust in bioethics, Cambridge - New York, Cambridge University Press.

O’Neill, O., 2014, Trust, trustworthiness, and accountability, in N. Morris, D. Vines, Capital Trust: Rebuilding Trust in Financial Services, Oxford, Oxford University Press: 172-189.

Walker, M.U., 2006, Moral Repair, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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2 Financial Times January 19, 2015.

3 See Holton 1994: 63; O’Neill 2002: 13; Baier 1986: 235; Faulkner 2007: 884.

4 Baier, 1986; 1991: 113; Jones 1996.

5 O’Neill 2002; 2014; Hardin 2002; Cook, Hardin, Levi 2005.

6 Becker 1996; Walker 2006.

7 For an entirely different way of thinking about trust, see Domenicucci, Holton 2017.

8 Baier 1986; Luhmann 1989; Jones 1996.

9 Baier, 1991: 113.

10 Holton 1994; Walker 2006.

11 Baier 1986: 240.


13 Dods 2014.

14 McLeay, Radia, Thomas 2014.

15 Hardin 2002, 2007; Cook, Hardin, Levi 2005.

16 Hardin 2002: 172.

17 O’Neill 2014: 273; 2002: 13f.

18 There are of course many different accounts of the nature of belief. It is possible to think of an account of belief that fits exactly the two conditions of appropriateness outlined here. My aim here is to reject the demanding norms of belief that inform objections to trust in anonymous institutions.

19 I want to thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this objection.

20 Federal Act on the Swiss National Bank, article 5(1).

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Jens van ‘t Klooster, «Trusting anonymous institutions»Rivista di estetica [Online], 68 | 2018, online dal 01 mars 2019, consultato il 23 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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