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
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.
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.
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.
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.