Towards trustworthy blockchains: normative reflections on blockchain-enabled virtual institutions

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Abstract

This paper proposes a novel way to understand trust in blockchain technology by analogy with trust placed in institutions. In support of the analysis, a detailed investigation of institutional trust is provided, which is then used as the basis for understanding the nature and ethical limits of blockchain trust. Two interrelated arguments are presented. First, given blockchains’ capacity for being institution-like entities by inviting expectations similar to those invited by traditional institutions, blockchain trust is argued to be best conceptualized as a specialized form of trust in institutions. Keeping only the core functionality and certain normative ideas of institutions, this technology broadens our understanding of trust by removing the need for third parties while retaining the value of trust for the trustor. Second, the paper argues that blockchains’ decentralized nature and the implications and effects of this decentralization on trust issues are double-edged. With the erasure of central points, the systems simultaneously crowd out the pivotal role played by traditional institutions and a cadre of representatives in meeting their assigned obligations and securing the functional systems’ trustworthy performances. As such, blockchain is positioned as a technology containing both disruptive features that can be embedded with meaningful normative values and inherent ethical limits that pose a direct challenge to the actual trustworthiness of blockchain implementations. Such limits are proposed to be ameliorated by facilitating a shift of responsibility to the groups of people directly associated with the engendering of trust in the blockchain context.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages13
JournalEthics and Information Technology
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Keywords

  • Blockchain ethics
  • Blockchain technology
  • Trust
  • Trust in institutions
  • Trust in technology
  • Trustworthiness

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