The Topology of Communities of Trust

Russian Sociological Review 15 (4):30-56 (2016)
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Hobbes emphasized that the state of nature is a state of war because it is characterized by fundamental and generalized distrust. Exiting the state of nature and the conflicts it inevitably fosters is therefore a matter of establishing trust. Extant discussions of trust in the philosophical literature, however, focus either on isolated dyads of trusting individuals or trust in large, faceless institutions. In this paper, I begin to fill the gap between these extremes by analyzing what I call the topology of communities of trust. Such communities are best understood in terms of interlocking dyadic relationships that approximate the ideal of being symmetric, Euclidean, reflexive, and transitive. Few communities of trust live up to this demanding ideal, and those that do tend to be small (between three and fifteen individuals). Nevertheless, such communities of trust serve as the conditions for the possibility of various important prudential epistemic, cultural, and mental health goods. However, communities of trust also make possible various problematic phenomena. They can become insular and walled-off from the surrounding community, leading to distrust of out-groups. And they can lead their members to abandon public goods for tribal or parochial goods. These drawbacks of communities of trust arise from some of the same mecha-nisms that give them positive prudential, epistemic, cultural, and mental health value – and so can at most be mitigated, not eliminated.

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Mark Alfano
Macquarie University


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