Trust, Distrust, and in Between

Edna Ullmann-Margalit

The springboard for this paper is the nature of the negation relation between the notions of trust and distrust. In order to explore this relation, an analysis of full trust is offered. An investigation follows of the ways in which this "end-concept" of full trust can be negated. In particular, the sense in which distrust is the negation of trust is focused on. An asymmetry is pointed to, between 'not-to-trust' and 'not-to-distrust'. This asymmetry helps explain the existence of a gap between trust and distrust: the possibility of being suspended between the two. Since both trust and distrust require reasons, the question that relates to this gap is what if there are no reasons, or at any rate no sufficient reasons, either way. This kind of situation, of being suspended between two poles without a sufficient reason to opt for any one of them, paradigmatically calls for a presumption. In the case in hand this means a call for either a rebuttable presumption in favor of trust or a rebuttable presumption in favor of distrust. In some of the literature on trust it seems to be taken almost for granted that generalized distrust is justifiable in a way that generalized trust is not. This would seem to suggest a straightforward recommendation for the presumption of distrust over the presumption of trust. Doubts are raised whether indeed it is justified to adopt this as a default presumption. The notion of soft distrust, which is introduced at this point as contrasted with hard distrust, contributes in a significant way to these doubts. The analysis offered throughout the paper is of individual and personal trust and distrust. As it stands, it would seem not to be directly applicable to the case of trusting or distrusting institutions (like the court or the police). The question is therefore raised, in the final section, whether and how the analysis of individual trust and distrust can be extended to institutional trust and distrust. A case is made that there is asymmetry here too: while it is a misnomer to talk of trusting institutions, talk of distrusting institutions is not.

September, 2001
Published in: 
In Russell Hardin (ed.), Distrust, New York: Russell Sage Publications, 2004, 60-82