Bioethics Blogs

Trust and Institutions

Last week I attended part of a fascinating conference on Trust, organized by the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford. In her opening paper, Katherine Hawley raised many interesting questions, including those of whether trustworthiness is a virtue and whether it can be a virtue of institutions.

As an Aristotelian, I think we have to say it’s a virtue if it involves certain actions central to human life. And being reliable does seem basic to the better forms of human relationship. So a trustworthy person will be someone who’s reliable when she should be, in the right way, for the right reasons, for the right people, and so on. The not uncommon deficient vice would of course be untrustworthiness. But there will also be an excess: being reliable when one shouldn’t be.

What would be an example of that vice? Consider the Great Train Robbers, who reliably showed up at Sears Crossing, on the West Coast Main Line in the early morning of 7 August 1963. It would seem odd to say to Ronnie Biggs; ‘Well, pretty well everything you did that morning was wrong. But we’ll give you some moral brownie points, at least, for being reliable’. We might call this kind of reliability merely ‘descriptive’ reliability, rather than a virtue. Biggs was the kind of person his fellow conspirators could justifiably believe was likely to turn up on time.

What about institutions? Again, the natural answer is affirmative – they can have at least some virtues, including reliability. Should we understand such apparent virtues as, really, individualistic?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.