Reflecting on Trust and Social Justice in the thought of David Hume and John Rawls

Trust is a bond, among others, that helps to tie society together. Citizens trust every day; when we choose to put our money in a bank, or when we provide personal information to guarantee a service, for example. We routinely place trust in other people and institutions to perform everyday practices. More, we just as often trust ourselves to take appropriate actions in the countless scenarios we confront daily. Without self-trust, it would be hard to rely on our ability to behave as moral agents. Without interpersonal trust, it would be difficult to believe that other individuals would not trespass on our rights and liberties. Without institutional trust, the laws and principles of justice adopted by our society could not be upheld. Trust is, therefore, multilayered and arises in part from the condition that the persons or institutions with whom one interacts act in an expected or agreed upon manner, independently of one’s capacity to monitor their actions (Gambetta, 1988, p. 217). Trust requires a solid basis upon which a person may expect that another person or organization accorded it will not violate it.

This essay briefly explores the intersection of trust and justice in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, first published in 1971 and revised in 1999 (1999) and David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, originally published in 1740 (2000). Hume and Rawls reflected on the attributes and conditions necessary to produce an ideal moral agent and social justice system. I argue that while Rawls emphasized institutional trust as an important element of social justice, Hume focused on interpersonal and self-trust. Neither philosopher offered a multilayered ‘trust-justice’ model. I contend that a combination of Rawls’ and Hume’s conceptions of justice would better capture the complexities of trust as a vital component of human interaction and of an ideal justice system. Although not explicitly detailed in their theories, trust implicitly plays a crucial role in ensuring the stability of justice in both Hume’s and Rawls’ theorizations.

Thick and Thin Interpersonal Trust

Khodyakov (2007) has offered a three-dimensional view of trust that distinguishes among trust arising from strong ties (thick interpersonal trust), weak ties (thin interpersonal trust) and institutions (institutional trust). According to Khodyakov (2007), thick interpersonal trust is most likely to arise among people with the same or quite similar characteristics and backgrounds. Their shared attributes make the development of trust among such groups less risky for their members. However, this human inclination produces tight-knit networks that may exclude those who do not share the dominant/shared characteristics. In this view, thick interpersonal trust arises from familiarity and similarity with another individual. People who hail from common backgrounds, know each other well and share beliefs and principles are more likely to trust each other. For Khodyakov has argued that thick interpersonal trust of this sort within groups often becomes automatic and those according and receiving it in such networks often do not even perceive their ties as trust.

In contrast, thin interpersonal trust arises when individuals trust others with whom they may not share conceptions of justice or of behavior. This scenario can create a complicating expectation that others will share the same principles as one’s own, which may not obtain. These premises “depend on the notion of morality, commonly shared ‘ordinary ethical rules’, or they can also be of a more pragmatic nature” (Khodyakov, 2007, p.121). The key point, however, is that trust may arise even when those interacting are otherwise dissimilar across commonly differentiating characteristics.

Thick interpersonal trust was implicitly significant for both Hume and Rawls in their conceptions of social justice. For instance, Hume contended that individuals can sympathize better with others who share strong associative ties. Indeed, both philosophers described ideal agents in their theories, who in principle would share moral beliefs with others. For Hume and Rawls alike, thick trust arose from the capacity of individuals to behave as agents acting in accord with shared principles and mutually accepted rules. Rawls and Hume posited that that possibility in turn could be constructed on the basis of shared ideals and a capacity for reasoning and reasonability.  Indeed, for both Rawls and Hume, an agent without a sense of justice could not be considered trustworthy. However, for Rawls, one needed to be a liberal agent of a certain kind; one who respected the priority of justice claims in moral reasoning, while for Hume, what mattered most was that individuals agreed on commonly shared principles that constituted justice and just action in their shared territory.

Institutional Trust

According to Fukuyama if a society has a narrow radius of trust, which he defined as “the circle of people among whom cooperation and mutual understanding exist,” it is characterized by ‘low trust’ (1999). In such societies, people tend to trust only those similar or identical to themselves, i.e. by race or tribe or ethnicity. In contrast, in societies with a large radius of trust or ‘high trust,’ citizens develop trust in the public sphere and social institutions as they actively engage with other individuals in those spaces. For Fukuyama, trust in agents is a necessary condition for the development of trust in institutions, meaning that institutional trust arises from interpersonal trust. However, the relationship between trust in people and trust in institutions can go in both directions. That is, in Fukuyama’s view, institutional trust can also promote, or hinder, the development of interpersonal trust.

For their part, Hume and Rawls offered different views of institutional trust. For Rawls, trust in organizations can occur irrespective of whether individuals trust one another:

Those who hold different conceptions of justice can, then, still agree that institutions are just when no arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties and when the rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life. Men can agree to this description of just institutions since the notions of an arbitrary distinction and of a proper balance, which are included in the concept of justice, are left open for each to interpret according to the principles of justice that he accepts (Rawls, 1999, p.5)

That is, Rawls contended that although individuals might hold different conceptions of justice, institutions can enact principles of justice and ensure access to basic rights and duties acceptable to all citizens. For Rawls, institutions play a crucial role in representing principles of equality and in establishing a climate of trust among agents. In this sense, it can be argued that institutional trust plays a critical role in his conception of justice. Rawls contended that organizations are regulated by moral agents and he suggested that “a person taking part in an institution knows what the rules demand of him and of the others. He also knows that the others know this and that they know that he knows this, and so on” (Rawls, 1999, p.48). Hume, meanwhile, saw individuals as self-interested and he explained their willingness to obey government institutions on that basis:

Tho’ the object of our civil duties be the enforcing of our natural, yet the first motive of the invention, as well as performance of both, is nothing but self-interest: And since there is a separate interest in the obedience to government, from that in the performance of promises, we must also allow of a separate obligation. To obey the civil magistrate is requisite to preserve order and concord in society. To perform promises is requisite to beget mutual trust and confidence in the common offices of life. The ends, as well as the means, are perfectly distinct; nor is the one subordinate to the other (Hume, 2000, p.348)

Hence, while Rawls argued that institutional trust was necessary to ensure interpersonal trust, Hume contended that interpersonal trust was foundational to trust in broader society. More, he contended that it arose directly from human self-interest.

Rawls and Hume on climate of trust

Interpersonal trust and a shared belief in the social structures and political mechanisms those individuals construct and control are at the heart of what keeps a society together (Mitchell, 1994). Rawls’ principles are political, and not social. His aim was not to regulate broader social life, but to create a well-ordered democratic society of justice predicated on a principle of fairness. Hume was concerned with what he saw as humankind’s natural inclination to pursue its self-interest and how and whether that proclivity could result in shared just action.

Mitchell has argued that for Rawls, “the widespread existence of what might be called a civic virtue: trust,” constitutes the glue that joins citizens into a society (1994, p.1920).  Rawls acknowledged the difference in points of view and applications of justice among individuals in a free society. However, he nevertheless argued that as reasonable and rational moral agents, citizens are capable of making just decisions. Mitchell has contended that Rawls suggested that individuals develop trust and confidence in just and fair arrangements when they see other citizens complying with decisions arising from them. Trust and confidence strengthen and develop as “cooperative arrangements” (Mitchell, 1994, p.1922).

For Rawls, citizens mutually gain benefits from behaving as morally just agents:

Thus a desirable feature of a conception of justice is that it should publicly express men’s respect for one another. In this way, they ensure a sense of their own value. … For when society follows these principles, everyone’s good is included in a scheme of mutual benefit and this public affirmation in institutions of each man’s endeavors supports men’s self-esteem (Rawls, 1999, p.156).

Ultimately for Rawls, respect and compliance with institutional rules understood in this sense builds trust among individuals. Hume similarly argued that people will cooperate with others whom they believe will not break commonly accepted and enacted rules of behavior. That is, shared norms of moral action build and sustain cooperation and trust among citizens. As Hume observed,

After these signs are instituted, whoever uses them is immediately bound by his interest to execute his engagements, and must never expect to be trusted any more, if he refuse to perform what he promis’d (Hume, 2000, p.335).

Nonetheless, Hume placed far less emphasis on the role of institutions or rulers than Rawls, since he believed that, in the long run, individuals would cooperate with one another because it was in their self-interest to do so. Hume conceived of trust as linked tightly to human pursuit of self-interest, as the quotations above suggested.

In many respects, Rawls can be said to have further developed Hume’s argument concerning social trust. Nonetheless, while both thinkers agreed that trust is crucial to the establishment and maintenance of social justice, Rawls argued that institutional and interpersonal trust are mutually reinforcing, while Hume viewed interpersonal and self-trust as foundational. A multi-level trust in society is so important that its absence, as Rawls put it, would “corrode the ties of civility” while tempting agents “to act in ways they would otherwise avoid” (1999, p.6).


Trust is multi-layered. As an individual, I trust myself and that I will behave as an inevitably at least partially self-interested, but in the end moral agent. I trust that others will do the same, and I trust that social institutions will safeguard the systems of justice arising from and regulating these behaviors and guarantee equality to all members of society. My goal in this short essay was to highlight the significance of the concept of trust in both Rawls’ and Hume’s political thought, and to argue that a society that evidences trust at all scales is likely to evidence more just behavior and outcomes than one that does not.


Fukuyama, F. (1999) “Social Capital and Civil Society,” Accessed September 14, 2018.

Gambetta, Diego ed. (1988), Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations, Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publishers.

Hume, David (1739/40), A Treatise of Human Nature, David F. Norton and Mary J. Norton (eds.), 2000, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Khodyakov, D. (2007). “Trust as a process: A three-dimensional approach.” Sociology, 41(1), 115-132.

Mitchell, L. E. (1994). “Trust and the overlapping consensus.” Columbia Law Review, 94(6), 1918-1935.

Rawls, John (1971), A Theory of Justice, revised edition, 1999, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Nada Berrada is a Ph.D. student in the ASPECT program (Alliance for Social Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought). She previously earned an M.A. in Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech and a B.A in Political Science and Economics from Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie de Rabat (EGE) in Morocco. She currently teaches for the Political Science Department at Virginia Tech and serves as a board member of the International Student Advisory Board (ISAB). Her research interest revolves around youth and their agential capability and exercise in the MENA region.

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