Trust: A Fragile Thing

“I thought I knew him. Wow, was I disappointed!” If you were the him to whom this person’s thoughts and feelings were directed, how would you feel? Not good, right? But how did it come to this? Where did things break down? 

Kinds of Trust

Trust is what’s called a “thick” concept in moral philosophy and ethics[1]. It’s multilayered and is known first through feeling. Only later, upon patient reflection, is it articulated with adequacy in words. And even then, the description is really more a means of evoking something of the original felt sense, which gives it moral weight and richness of meaning.   

By contrast other terms in moral philosophy, such as truth, justice, and right and wrong, are “thin.” Their meaning is more univocal, it registers more clearly, without ambiguity and needs for elaboration. It may seem rationally clear and crisp by comparison. Achieving a clear sense of words like trust requires more effort. It’s descriptive and evaluative meaning is more complex. 

So, let’s try to unpack a bit of its thick meaning. I will do so first by considering the objects of our trust:

  1. We want to trust the integrity of others to keep a confidence, to act with respect and concern for our welfare – it’s something we want to believe, have faith in, and be assured of.

  2. We want to trust the competence of others to do what they’ve promised to do and what we expect them to do – it’s something we look for in their actions.

  3. We want to trust the veracity of others to be honest and truthful in their communications and dealings with us and for us.

  4. We want to trust the fidelity of others, the abiding qualities that indicate they are there for us in good times and bad, always knowing they have our back.

  5. We want to trust the sensitivity of others, knowing that we can openly express vulnerabilities freely with a sense of emotional safety.  

Across all these modes of trust, what’s essential is the wanting and felt strength of the relationship, the assurance that our reliance upon others to act with integrity, competence, veracity, fidelity, and sensitivity is warranted. This is what people mean when they say that they trust someone implicitly. Initially, expectations may have been communicated explicitly. Over time, trust grows and becomes warranted, and then it becomes implicit.  

How Trust is Broken & Restored

Trust can be broken by a primary moral failure. But it can also be broken by means of a more insidious process of deteriorating communications, which we might call a secondary breach of trust. While the primary failure may be driven by fear, self-interest, or some other motivation, it is a conscious act of compromise. The secondary breach, on the other hand, can happen without deliberate moral intent.  

We can simply become worn down, by stress, strain, and exhaustion, or by other major life events, which interfere with our conscious awareness of commitments and moral consequences. We may neglect our duties of care, our communications with colleagues, friends, and significant others. We may simply lose track of commitments. But they still may register as breaches of trust with others.  

In any case, communication – acknowledging what’s happened, apologizing, explaining our actions – is important. To go silent is to only make things worse, to convey no regret. Regaining trust is always best done through actions. It’s a good time to under-promise and over-deliver. Most people are forgiving. Repairing relationships and restoring trust is foundational to our capacities to sustain trust over time.

[1] For a full-length discussion see “Thick Ethical Concepts” (2016) in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.