The Four Pillars of Trust

Daniel Tippens

Before Roosevelt passed the Glass-Steagall act, and during the Great Depression, the American economy suffered from a number of “bank runs.” A bank run took place when depositors, from fear that a bank was going to fail, would withdraw their deposits en masse and so would ‘run’ from the bank. Sometimes this happened due to fluctuations in the stock market, and other times because rumors would circulate about. Sometimes the former led to the latter. But the point is that when people lost trust in the bank, they pulled out. 

Of course, trust in a bank is of a different sort than trust in a person, and in this essay I’ll be interested in trust between family, friends, and acquaintances — personal trust. But considering how corporations are legal persons these days, and many institutions — like mine of the University of Miami — claim to care about their customers, much of what I’ll have to say has implications for fidelity between the modern business and its customers or employees. 

To trust someone, let’s say, is to be motivated to act for her in speech and sentiment — these phenomena have force. Suppose your friend says that she will meet you at a bar this weekend. Setting aside extraneous conflicts, if you trust her then you will go to the bar; you will act on the basis of what she told you. Her word is her bond.

To trust someone also means that her sentiments are motivational. If your friend is sad and you see this, then you want to be with her. even if she doesn’t ask you to, you want to feel downtrodden with her. To break trust, on this account, is to lose motivation to act for another in one or both of these ways. Trust, then, is incredibly important, for if people do not trust each other or institutions, then their motivation to act for others is eliminated. They will pull out from their relationship(s).

I want to give a quick sketch of the virtues that establish and maintain fidelity, and what can lead to its being eroded, by outlining what I’ll call the four pillars of trust. These pillars are honesty, earnestness, transparency, and discretion. If someone manifests these virtues, then he is trustworthy; his speech and sentiments will carry force. Under ordinary conditions, if someone loses any one of these pillars then he will forfeit the impetus behind both his speech and sentiment. At the very least, he forfeits one of them, and so may not have completely broken trust, but eroded it. 

The Four Pillars

  1. Honesty 

To be honest is to have a disposition not to say what one knows to be false, and to say only what one knows to be true or will be true.  This isn’t to say that the honest individual need be a dry dispenser of factual information in order to have this virtue — being honest of course isn’t incompatible with being sarcastic or humorous. It’s simply that when one does speak in circumstances under which transactions of truth are presumed, he will only say what he knows to be true.

If I lie often, my speech and sentiments will certainly lose motivational force, and people will tell me why — I am not honest. But also, if I am capable of speech but don’t speak at all, people won’t be able to evaluate whether I’m honest or not, and certainly can’t be motivated to act on the basis of what I say. I am, after all, silent. 

It is only when I have the capacity to speak, engage in the practice, and am disposed to say only what I know to be true or will be true that I will be considered an honest person. If I am criticized in this domain, I may be called at best dishonest and at worst a liar or a bullshitter.

  1. Earnestness

Somebody is earnest when she is disposed to act on what she states with conviction. Sometimes we speak with intention to act. For example, if I say in class that treating people as ends in themselves and not as mere means is important — inflecting my voice with a sentiment behind it — then I have spoken with conviction. People will expect me to act in line with what I’ve said. If I fail to treat people as ends on a routine basis, then I would be aptly called insincere or weak-willed at best, and a hypocrite at worst. The earnest person has a disposition for his convicted speech and actions to fall into alignment.

  1. Transparency

An individual is transparent when his public and private images are not incongruous with one another. Bill Cosby had the most reputable public image in America, being called “America’s Dad” for a number of years after the success of The Cosby Show. But around 2014, it became clear that what the public believed about him, and what those who knew him intimately did, were very, very different. Cosby had been committing the worst of sexual crimes for years, dating back to possibly to the 1960’s when his career was in its infancy. He had kept these deeds a secret from the public, and while the public at large believed him to be decent and admirable, those who knew him personally took him to be aggressive and perhaps disgusting. Since it would be bizarre for someone to be both admirable and heinous, his public and private images were incongruous with one another. If people are led to question who you really are, or are prone to saying it couldn’t be true upon finding out a secret, then that is reason to think that you are manifesting an incongruity.

An important upshot from the downfall of Bill Cosby is that if someone is transparent, he has a disposition not to keep inapt secrets about himself. An inapt secret, we’ll say, is one that creates an incongruity between one’s public and private images. Sometimes secret keeping is nothing to worry about, and we take no issue with it. Suppose that when you go to work you’re ordinarily quite talkative, being described as loquacious. But you really like to sing in the shower and also happen to find it a bit embarrassing. It’s unclear how — under ordinary circumstances — someone from work finding out could lead members of your community to question who you really are, and they certainly wouldn’t raise hell saying, “dear lord, no! It can’t be true!!” Your public and private images might be a bit different, but there is no incongruity between someone being loquacious and being a bit self-conscious. Indeed, if the person who found out were to gossip about this, we’d likely criticize her, instructing her to quit being so nosy and petty. If one is transparent he is sometimes described admirably as being authentic. If one is not virtuous in this regard, he is criticized as being inauthentic, phony, or a fake.

  1. Discretion

Discretion is sometimes associated with questionable behavior, being asked for on websites that advertise illicit activities like backroom gambling, or taboo sex sites. But this strikes me as incidental to the times, and not a defining feature of the individual who exhibits discretion. The discrete individual qua character trait is he who is disposed to keep and reveal secrets when appropriate. 

If your close friend confides in you about long-past dealings with sexual abuse, since you respect her you will be disposed to keep this between the two of you, and not reveal it the next day at the office. You will exercise discretion. If a 12 year old confides in you that he is being sexually abused, then since you respect him you will disclose this to the relevant parties.To be discrete is to exercise good judgment about which disclosures and secret-keepings treat the one confiding in you as an end in himself. As a person with respect and dignity.

An individual can fail to exercise discretion in a number of ways. He can flippantly disclose or fail to disclose something in a thoughtless fashion. He can also reveal a secret and publicly shame the individual who confided in him. Relatedly, he might use a secret in a fight to be hurtful. The worst sort of indiscretion, I think, is the rat, who betrays another with his revelation to some unjust and more powerful entity. 

We count something as a failure of discretion when we intuitively think that his secret-keeping practices showed a failure of respect for another. You might think that failures of discretion often are those inapt choices we make that allow someone’s incongruous public and private image to manifest or persist. To be without the virtue of discretion is to be a loudmouth at best, and abusive or a rat at worst. 

The four pillars, I think, are the virtues or vices of trustworthiness. When an individual manifests these dispositions, we praise his character, and should he fail to manifest them, we criticize it. To lose trust through one of the pillars, then, is to fail to be the sort of person who people want to act for, and so people pull out — your speech and sentiments will no longer have force. People will be unmoved by what you say, do, or feel.

But to manifest these virtues and have complete trust from others is a delight. Aside from the fact that manifesting these virtues means you are never worried about being ‘found out’ — about a lie, inapt secret, or incongruous private life, for example — people will heed what you say, gather around you in times of violent sentiment, and act on the basis of your speech, recognizing its earnest nature. 

15 thoughts on “The Four Pillars of Trust

  1. A small point in an otherwise fine essay, “Earnisty” should be “Earnesty“. Normally one would use the term “earnestness” but “earnesty” is allowable, if unusual. I suppose you wanted the word to harmonize with honesty and transparency.


  2. Hi Dan:
    Nice essay on the 4 pillars. If you were Kant you would have 3 and a flutter of antinomies. And be right as a trivet. I think you are perfectly correct about the virtue of discretion or being discreet. Webster and the Oxford dictionary agree that there is a difference between ‘discreet’ and ‘discrete’. The latter means separate, as in ‘buildings at the back discrete from the main block’, or ‘a discrete investigation from the one followed by Detective Smith’. My etymological dictionary tells me that the word started originally from ‘discrtus’ (separate) and then late Latin has the word ‘dicretio’ (discretion). A person is discreet when he habitually keeps knowledge that he is privy to away from, separate from, common knowledge.

    “She thought, he must have trusted her a lot to tell her that. And now she tells me.”

    If you are known to be discreet; there’s a paradox, you will often be used as a vault for the deposit of secrets with the implication of an invitation to complicity in some cases.

    Samuel Johnson in his Rambler essay of Tuesday, May 1, 1750 writes about secrecy:

    The whole doctrine as well as practice, of secrecy, is so perplexing and dangerous that, next to him who is compelled to trust, I think him unhappy who is chosen to be trusted; for he is often involved in scruples without the liberty of calling in the help of other understanding; he is frequently drawn into guilt, under the appearance of friendship and honesty; and sometimes subjected to suspicion by the treachery of others, who are engaged without his knowledge in the same schemes; for that he has one confidant has generally more, and when he is at last betrayed, is in doubt on whom he shall fix the crime.

    A final pedantic note (between ourselves):
    There is no no such word as ‘earnisty’. Perhaps there should be but up till now ‘earnestness’ has served well and ought not to be lightly discarded. The firm emphasis on the last syllable gives an impression of downright adherence to a position.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Ombh,

    “A person is discreet when he habitually keeps knowledge that he is privy to away from, separate from, common knowledge.”

    I really like this way of defining the discreet individual. I’m writing an essay shortly on lying vs. secret-keeping. One of the things I want to argue is that the famous holocaust case is a case of secret-keeping, not lying. The case is just this: ought you tell the nazi officer hunting for the jew in your basement that you have him there? Kant seemed to have to answer in the affirmative — tell on the Jew. But this was because he thought that the individual hiding the jew by saying “I have no Jews here,” was lying. I think the individual hiding the jew isn’t lying. He’s saying something that he knows to be false, but his intention is to *keep a secret*. This act of discretion, I think, is universalizable.

    I also think you’re very right that sometimes individuals can be treated as “vaults” or receptacles of secret information. Indeed, in this way, people can be treated as a mere means.

    “here is no no such word as ‘earnisty’. Perhaps there should be but up till now ‘earnestness’ has served well and ought not to be lightly discarded. ”

    Thanks to both you and peter for raising this point. Brain fart on my part.


  4. Ah thanks for the correction. Do you have any pillars to add to the list?

    You can always count on one member or another of the grammar police to pop up 🙂

    Yes, I do have another view of the pillars but before I get there I want to draw your attention to this in-depth report on global trust in different segments. It is well worth studying carefully. I should bring out some highlights but there is so much good material that I can’t do it all justice.

    2019 EDELMAN TRUST BAROMETER Global Report

    Click to access 2019_Edelman_Trust_Barometer_Global_Report.pdf

    The results are quite striking.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Gosh, that is interesting but unexpected, Wordperfect embeds the pdf viewer in my comment so that the pdf can be read in the comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The requirement for trust orginates in a need based on a dependence on someone else. Almost all knowledge is based on trust since most knowledge is acquired from sources other than ourselves. Most of our actions are based on trust since they almost always depend in some way on the reliable performance of other people. In intimate relationships we entrust others with our emotional wellbeing so that we may flourish. Trust is a foundational need in our society and trustworthiness is the foundational virtue. All other virtues may be seen as means by which we signal or detect trustworthiness.

    But how do we recognise trustworthiness? At a minimum the following five elements must be present:-

    1) Plausibility, the agents’s claims are believable because they are rational and evidence based.
    2) Credibility, the agent is competent and has a performance record that justifies trust.
    3) Authenticity, the agent is virtuous, displaying virtues that cohere with trust, especially honesty, sincerity and transparency.
    4) Responsibility, the agent takes full responsibility and in fact can take responsibility for the fulfillment of the claims.
    5) Accountability, the agent is prepared to be held accountable for the performance of the claims and may in reality be held accountable.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What is interesting is that the betrayal of trust is arguably the most damaging of all social acts. It arouses strong animosity. Sexual infidelity is such an example. It almost always results in the breakdown of a relationship. Liars are intensely disliked. All forms of deception are regarded as gravely damaging. Failure to perform a promised action carries severe social opprobrium. The law has strong sanctions for the breach of contract and the giving of false testimony. The failure to pay debts is strongly punished by the law. Intellectual dishonesty will result in professional ruin.

    Opprobrium, ostracism and the law are the tools that society uses to punish untrustworthy behaviour. Untrustworthy behaviour is intolerable in a healthy society.


  8. Further to my list of five essential elements I think I should add a sixth, commitment. For us to trust an agent it is necessary that the agent displays commitment to performing the task.

    So my take is this. A trustworthy agent displays:
    1) Plausibility
    2) Credibility
    3) Commitment
    4) Authenticity
    5) Responsibility
    6) Accountability.


  9. Peter, I really like your list. Each one strikes me as another good candidate. Do you mind if I add the list into my post at the end, citing your comment?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. People take their news from sources they can trust. There’s the rub. There are no independent purveyors of news anywhere so people go with the particular slant that they like. Just on the topic of trust I read in ‘First Things’ a conservative webzine (firstthingsdotcom)an article by Peter Leithart called Common Objects of Trust. He questions the sensationalist treatment current in the media which is of course correct but tends to go the other way into insouciance. He writes:

    When Sweden refused to impose mandatory lockdowns, it attracted the ire of the global media. Once the Swedish strategy proved fairly effective, it’s no longer a popular topic.

    The Swedes are not very happy with the way things went and stand out as an object lesson in how not to deal with covid. The truth is :

     Per million people, Sweden has suffered 40 per cent more deaths than the United States, 12 times more than Norway, seven times more than Finland and six times more than Denmark. (Irish Times report)

    same reportSweden’s central bank expects its economy to contract by 4.5 per cent this year, a revision from a previously expected gain of 1.3 per cent. The unemployment rate jumped to 9 per cent in May from 7.1 per cent in March. “The overall damage to the economy means the recovery will be protracted, with unemployment remaining elevated,” Oxford Economics concluded in a recent research note.

    Peter Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute and certainly has not been inoculated against the Sweden meme the symptoms of which are senseless maundering and fluent gibberrish.

    On a lighter note the head of the Irish Tourist Board (Failte) has resigned after it became known that he holidayed in Italy. The government had advised that only essential travel should be undertaken. The ex head has proclaimed that he will take holidays in September and October in Ireland. With the ‘little people’.

    Can it be that when you get to a certain elevation the thin air of power causes you to cash in your established trust?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Peter, I really like your list. Each one strikes me as another good candidate. Do you mind if I add the list into my post at the end, citing your comment?

    Thanks. Please use them as you see fir.


  12. ombhurbhuva
    Can it be that when you get to a certain elevation the thin air of power causes you to cash in your established trust?

    The resulting hypoxia acclerates senile decline.

    the symptoms of which are senseless maundering and fluent gibberrish.

    Lovely turn of phrase.


  13. But to manifest these virtues and have complete trust from others is a delight.

    To be trusted by others is a powerful affirmation of one’s value.


  14. Peter:
    My reading for today: Ps.146:

    Put not your faith in princes,
    In a son of man, in whom there is no help.
    When his breath departs he returns to his earth,
    on that very day his plans perish.

    The Sanskrit word ‘sraddha’ is often translated as faith which is objected to by some Hindus who tend to append ‘blind’ to faith. ‘Sraddha’ they say is more akin to ‘trust’ or a growing confidence in the power of God in one’s life. Faith they see as a once and for all leap in the sense that William James characterises it in his essay The Will to Believe. They are both wrong in my view. Faith, trust or confidence starts out as in the parable like a tiny mustard seed that is carefully nurtured which eventually it becomes an enormous tree.

    Trust in politicians: how shall we characterise it? A sickly shrub or a poorly plant that might live, probably won’t but it’s cheap.

    Liked by 1 person

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