Officeholders' commitments and the endogenous dynamics of institutional trustworthiness

In How to be Trustworthy (OUP 2019), Katherine Hawley claims that what makes certain people trustworthy is the fact that they don’t leave their existing commitments unfulfilled. As she writes, “[t]o trust someone to do something is to believe that she has a commitment to doing it, and to rely upon her to meet that commitment” (p. 9).

We trust people, for example, when they keep their promises. And we distrust people when they feed us with false or distorted information. The commitments people have might differ in nature and origin. Certain commitments are important, others trivial; some commitments might be personally undertaken, others derive from someone’s professional role. For Hawley, none of these differences bears on whether people are trustworthy.  We trust others only when and because we believe they have a commitment to doing whatever we trust them to do.

Hawley developed her view of trustworthiness to characterize interpersonal relations of trust in ordinary people’s interactions. But her commitment-based view offers also a fruitful starting point to analyze relations of trust in an institutional context.

Institutions are systems of interrelated rule-governed embodied roles to which normative powers are entrusted with a mandate. The interrelated actions of those who occupy institutional roles (the officeholders) constitute institutional action. Institutional action is not the mere result of the officeholders’ mechanical execution of pre-fixed tasks in compliance with certain regulative rules. For institutional action to be operational, officeholders must share a commitment to exercising the normative powers (the rights and the duties) entrusted to their role in keeping with their mandate. To wit, institutional action is operational when officeholders share the commitment to acting according to a rationale justifiable as coherent with their power mandate (thus realizing the normative property of office accountability. This commitment is important because and to the extent that officeholders also share the awareness that institutional roles are interrelated in such a way that the action of any officeholder in the exercise of her powers of office depends and impacts on the actions of the other officeholders in the institution (Ceva and Ferretti 2021). A certain degree of mutual trust between officeholders is therefore necessary to sustain institutional action and make it operational over time.

Is the condition that officeholders are accountable to each other for the uses they make of their power of office sufficient to establish the kind of trust relation Hawley had in mind as a prop for institutional action? If, as Hawley writes, “trust is standardly thought to involve reliance, plus some extra factor,” what is this extra factor in the context of institutional action? Although Hawley’s primary interests lay in the trust dynamics at the individual level, we think that her commitment view offers the most promising existing approach to investigate the endogenous dynamics of institutional trustworthiness. Our only regret is that she won’t be there to lead this investigation side by side with us.

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