top of page

"Trust and the Plea for Recognition": An Essay by Johnny Brennan (Keywords: Trustworthiness; Character; Personhood; Security; Human Nature)

Eslabón by Carlos Martiel

From The Philosopher, vol. 112, no. 1 ("Punishment").

If you enjoy reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

“Trust is built in drops and lost in buckets.” Kevin Plank, founder of the sports apparel company Under Armour, said this memorable line in a 2014 interview with USA Today following a poor performance by the US speed-skating team in the winter Olympics. As the manufacturer of the team’s suits, Under Armour had become an easy scapegoat. Whether or not the suit was the cause of the team’s underwhelming performance, the suggestive association between the suit and the lackluster results was enough for at least some consumers to sour on the company. Plank hit on something important about the phenomenon of trust: trusting is a risky business, and our sensitivity to risk primes us to abandon trust when there is a hint of untrustworthiness. For the most part, this is a good thing; as Onora O’Neill wrote in her 2018 paper “Linking Trust to Trustworthiness,” trusting intelligently means trusting the trustworthy and distrusting the untrustworthy – and it’s not always easy to tell them apart. If trust is the action through which we make ourselves vulnerable to others by relying on them, trustworthiness is the set of character traits that makes the act of trust warranted and relatively safe. Typically, trustworthiness is understood as a combination of competence (at least within a specific domain) and sincerity (a broad term that has been used to cover anything from feelings of goodwill to a general sense of accountability to or respect for others). Having a trustworthy character, however, is not enough. Trustworthiness needs to be signalled to others, and here’s the rub. In an ideal situation, one’s trustworthiness would be readily apparent to others, making trusting an easy thing. But conmen drape themselves in the garments of trustworthiness without any substance underneath, and truly trustworthy people often go unnoticed because they don’t make it outwardly clear. Trusting intelligently thus becomes a problem.


Despite the risks involved in trust, it is necessary for social life. Trust greases social wheels. Cooperative social relations depend on trust, if for no other reason than the asymmetry in when and how we exchange goods and services. If we are to solve complex problems, we need to cooperate, which requires that I trust you to hold up your end. This, of course, says nothing yet about the role of trust in fulfilling and meaningful personal relationships. Whatever other idiosyncrasies or motivational nuances may be involved, trust is at root a willingness to depend on other people. As Sisela Bok remarked in her oft-quoted book Lying: Moral Choices in Public and Private Life, trust is necessary “just as much as the air we breathe or the water we drink. When it is damaged, the community as a whole suffers; and when it is destroyed, societies falter and collapse.”


In the United States, evidence that trust is waning across important dimensions is already at hand: a 2022 Pew research poll reported that only a quarter of adult Americans say they can trust the government. The number of respondents who reported that they have little or no confidence in doctors, scientists, police officers, public school principals, and journalists has noticeably increased between 2016 and 2021. In the same poll, most adult Americans were reported as believing that low levels of trust make it harder to solve problems. Assuming most Americans are right, the inference is clear: if low trust makes it harder to solve problems, and if most of us have low trust in the government and each other, then solving problems will be harder. What, then, are we to do when trust breaks down? How do we rebuild trust? Intuitively, and recalling O’Neill’s prescription for intelligent trust, if we want to generate more trust it seems the best path forward is to focus on increasing trustworthiness. If more people are trustworthy and can signal that trustworthiness, it will invite more trust, and that trust will be more willingly given because we can feel confident in others’ help. The most efficient and measurable way to increase trustworthiness is to increase monitoring and to stiffen penalties for failures. In short, to increase compliance.

If more people are trustworthy and can signal that trustworthiness, it will invite more trust, and that trust will be more willingly given because we can feel confident in others’ help


(All this language is very bureaucratic, fit more for trust in institutions or strangers than friends and family. And there is a large grain of truth in this. But while compliance measures look different at the interpersonal level, they are often still there. Making a friend feel guilty or disciplining your child for breaking trust can be as effective as a fine or the loss of a professional certification for increasing future trustworthiness. Ideally, in interpersonal trust the trusted person’s desire to live up to the trust placed in them will obviate the need for sanctions – but personalized compliance measures are still available.)


This intuitive view certainly works, and I don’t want to suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with it. But O’Neill has already complicated this picture. In her book Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics, she calls the trust-building compliance procedures an “audit agenda.” Ever-growing requirements to check compliance and sanction non-compliance may “succeed on their own terms, [but even then] they will at best produce trustworthiness rather than trust.” What does it mean to produce trustworthiness but not trust?  This is not simply an issue of producing a signal of trustworthiness without backing it up. Increasing compliance, when successful, directly increases competence, a core aspect of trustworthiness. Those who adhere to an audit agenda really are more trustworthy. So long as the standards for compliance are generally known, that increased trustworthiness is effectively signalled to others. So, why wouldn’t trust be produced? And how can we increase trust when trustworthiness fails to produce it?  O’Neill does not give much of an answer.

Trust is a significant dimension of both our agency and our humanity, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that even when trust is a means to other ends


I want to explore an additional route to generating trust, one that focuses on trust’s intrinsic value rather than on its instrumental value. Trust clearly has instrumental value. It is a means to obtain the many goods of social life that cannot be attained individually – from travel to banking, from pet-sitting to intimate relationships. But in addition to being instrumental, trust is also valuable in itself. Trust is a significant dimension of both our agency and our humanity, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that even when trust is a means to other ends. If we can focus more on the value that trust has for us as social beings – even if nothing further is gained by that trust – we can hone in on a new path toward generating trust that is not based on compliance.



Trust is an incredibly diverse and flexible concept. It can serve as a needed bridge to cross gaps of uncertainty when dealing with people we don’t know very well; it can be a vital tool for building and maintaining relationships; it can manifest as the comforting knowledge that others are able to care for things that are important to me; it can be an instructive tool for nudging others to develop good characters; it can serve as the ground for evaporating doubts and questions. In the philosophical literature on trust (to say nothing of the psychological, sociological, or economic literatures), there are many different theories of trust that at first glance appear to conflict with one another. Annette Baier depicts trust as a dependence on, and vulnerability to, the goodwill of others; Katherine Hawley views trust as rooted in commitments that others take on, regardless of their goodwill toward us; Russell Hardin’s theory describes trust as little more than a matter of nested interest – I can trust you only if I believe that my interests are included in yours; Philip Pettit argues that trust functions because we have a self-serving desire to be thought well of by others; whereas Eric Uslaner suggests that broad social trust requires a moralistic worldview of optimism regarding others’ intentions. This is a smattering of the myriad theories on offer. For what it’s worth, I think they are all right. Rather than competing general theories, each one explains a particular form that trust takes, each one answering a different need in our complex social lives. All this is to say, I can’t hope to give a single, exhaustive list of characteristics necessary to trust – and I don’t mean to.


Trust has value for us insofar as it helps us secure some further end: the care of goods, trade, cooperative achievements, the development of character and education, and so on. In its most basic social function, trust is the necessary glue that makes joint action across time possible when other options to guarantee compliance (e.g., contracts, rewards, threat of force) are unavailable. In his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume extolls the usefulness of the social practice of promising, a system that relies on trust in the absence of enforcement. He claims it is a natural feature of humans that we are selfish and will not be inclined to help others without some benefit in return:

Now as it frequently happens, that these mutual performances cannot be finish’d at the same instant, ‘tis necessary, that one party be contented to remain in uncertainty, and depend upon the gratitude of the other for a return of kindness. But so much corruption is there among men, that, generally speaking, this becomes but a slender security.


If we relied simply on our natural passions, we would rarely come through for others and could rarely expect them to come through for us. Hence the social usefulness of something like promising and trust that others will follow through on their promises: “Your corn is ripe to-day; mine will be so to-morrow. ‘Tis profitable for us both, that I shou’d labour with you to-day, and that you shou’d aid me to-morrow.” And yet, without this trust or any kind of natural sentiments of fraternity between us, both of our projects will fail: “I have not kindness for you, and know you have as little for me…Here then I leave you to your labour alone: You treat me in the same manner. The seasons change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security.”

If we relied simply on our natural passions, we would rarely come through for others and could rarely expect them to come through for us


Trust is socially useful, there is no denying it. In perhaps the vast majority of its everyday uses, the value that trust holds for us as social beings is instrumental: trust is a willingness to depend on others as a means to acquire or protect something else that we find important. Even morally laudatory cases of trusting as a way of bringing about a transformation in others – so-called “therapeutic trust” discussed by theorists like Victoria McGeer – are instrumental. We rarely, if ever, trust simply for its own sake. To do so is to open a path toward unchecked gullibility.


And yet, if we think of trust as only an instrument, we risk reducing trust to reliance. Trust involves reliance, but goes beyond it. Precisely what distinguishes trust from reliance is a contentious topic. Some, like Baier, see the possibility of betrayal as the key ingredient to trust. I take no stance here. I simply want to provide some examples to suggest that there is an appreciable difference. One reason I may rely on someone without trusting them is because, despite the fact that I think they have no sincerity or good will for me, I believe them to be sufficiently constrained by formal sanctions that they will act in the way I rely on them to. I may tentatively rely on a co-worker who consistently tries to undermine my work because I’ve lodged a formal complaint and their supervisor is monitoring their behavior. I don’t trust the co-worker, but can get by relying on them to pull their weight and not try to undermine me because the threat of being fired is sufficiently strong to put them on their best behavior.


Another way I can rely on someone without trusting them is because they don’t know that I am relying on them. Pettit’s example of following a bus because you don’t know your way around a new city yet but believe that the bus route will eventually take you to the city center demonstrates this kind of reliance. Yet another way we sometimes rely on others without trusting them is because no commitment or tacit acceptance of an obligation has been made. Hawley uses the example of a generous co-worker who often brings in extra food for lunch and lets you eat what he doesn’t finish. You may begin to rely on him for food and subsequently stop bringing in your own lunch, but if one day he doesn’t bring in extras it wouldn’t quite be on the mark to confront him angrily and say that you trusted him to bring you food. Alternatively, I might rely on someone without trusting them because I simply have no other choice. We see this all the time in popular media: the protagonist finds themselves in a position where they need the help of their adversary to succeed in their mission. We may use the language of trust (“you’re just going to have to trust me”), but I think it’s more accurate to say that the protagonist simply has to rely on their adversary rather than fully trusting them.


So, what’s missing if we concern ourselves only with trust’s instrumental value as the way toward generating trustworthiness? In short, we lose sight of the fact that there is something about the very act of trust itself that is valuable. Trust also has intrinsic value for us. Trust has value in itself because it reflects our nature as dependent, social beings. It is itself an expression of our agency, even of what we might call our personhood (with the moral connotations such a term evokes). The act of trusting reflects the qualities that make us the kind of being we are.

Trust has value in itself because it reflects our nature as dependent, social beings. It is itself an expression of our agency, even of what we might call our personhood


In another paper, I used the term “recognition trust” to describe the kind of trust that we (must) have in others to recognize us as persons to whom they are accountable. I must trust you to see me as a person, as the kind of being capable of mutual engagement, negotiation, and accountability. I can’t force you to recognize me (indeed, compulsion would defeat the purpose), but meaningful social interactions in which one person does not view the other as an object (and hence as something that can be arbitrarily controlled, manipulated, owned, or dominated) can’t happen unless you do. It is a basic form of trust that serves as a foundation for other forms. By trusting others – either because we believe they have goodwill for us, or because we believe them to have taken up a commitment to us, or because we can predict that they will act in some reliable manner – we also trust that they see us as the kinds of beings they are accountable to, that they owe us some basic decency and regard. To put this another way, it is often claimed that trust is an attitude that occurs within what P. F. Strawson called, in his seminal paper “Freedom and Resentment,” the “participant stance” – the stance from which we see others as liable to reactions like gratitude and blame. But, as I have argued elsewhere, “notice that in order to inhabit the participant stance at all, I must already trust (at least implicitly) that others will also inhabit the participant stance. The participant stance presupposes a measure of trust, because I cannot inhabit the participant stance all alone and yet others taking up this stance with me is not within my control.” The kind of trust it takes to see others as recognizing you to be a limit on their actions, a potential source of accountability and obligation, is recognition trust.


By tying trust to recognition, we can reveal what the intrinsic value of trust is: rather than being just a useful tool for securing social cooperation, trust is intimately tied to our sense of what it means to be a person – to be worthy of love, esteem, and care. Trust, and not just reliance, reflects what is human about us. The act of trust itself is a mode of expressing the very personhood we want and need others to recognize in us. Recognition trust involves a plea for others to recognize us – because recognition confers on us a status and authority of being able to hold others accountable, but it is a status that is not within our control. We are at the mercy of others to confer this status on us (hence the plea, hence the trust). Yet the plea for recognition is not just a plea.


I have written before that the plea included when we trust others to recognize us is “also an assertion of the very features we want recognized. By trusting you to see me as a person, I am also taking you to be a person with the capacities and authority to recognize me…. This incipient recognition of you lodged within my act of trust demonstrates my personhood to you and hopes that the demonstration will be seen for what it is.” Trust can be a tool, yes, but it is more than that. Trust has value in itself as a connecting social activity that both expresses and recognizes personhood.


Increasing compliance may boost trustworthiness, which in turn may invite trust. But it is not guaranteed, and, as O’Neill pointed out, may fail on its own terms. When it does, another path we can pursue to generate trust is to take actions that promote its intrinsic value. To generate trust, we can signal to others that we recognize their personhood.


The details of this recognition will of course be context dependent. Typically, signalling a recognition of personhood will involve definitive steps to secure needs and values such as basic security. For instance, in his paper “Trust as Noncognitive Security about Motives,” Lawrence Becker argues that trust is a disposition to rely on or take for granted others’ motives – in particular their motives toward benevolence, conscientiousness, and reciprocity. When we feel that others will act benevolently toward us, that they will be conscientious in their dealings with us, and that they will reciprocate our advances, then we feel secure in our dealings with them. Security for Becker is basic; trust can only arise on a groundwork of security about others’ motives. At the bare minimum, this is security regarding our physical beings, what Karen Jones calls “basal security.” Basal security is a kind of psychological heuristic regarding one’s vulnerability in a social setting – how attuned we are to the threats that surround us. High basal security allows us to move around our social spaces with ease, maybe even a carefree attitude. Low basal security reduces us to vigilance and constant anxiety about our physical safety in relation to others.

If we want to increase trust by promoting its intrinsic value, the way forward is not to increase the competence and compliance of those around us, but to increase the conditions of our security in social settings


If we want to increase trust by promoting its intrinsic value, the way forward is not to increase the competence and compliance of those around us, but to increase the conditions of our security in social settings. Of course, one important way of increasing security is to crack down harder on transgressions, i.e., to increase compliance with non-violence. But heightening compliance measures can only take us so far. Focusing on punishing those who would threaten the security of others is not the same as, and does not send the same message of, positive recognition of others’ personhood. Put another way, if we want to demonstrate trustworthiness, we should focus less on demonstrating competence and more on demonstrating our recognition of others – at minimum supporting their physical security but in addition by supporting their identities, both inherited and self-chosen. (The two are not entirely separable; a demonstrated lack of support of an individual’s social group often also demonstrates an unwillingness to support their basal security.) By demonstrating that we recognize their personhood through concrete actions, we signal to others that they can trust us in this fundamental way, which signals as well that they can trust us more generally.


My goals in this paper have been theoretical; the claims I’ve made do not stand or fall on empirical evidence. And yet, if they are to be useful in any meaningful way, they should be readily applicable to actual cases. So, to end I’ll spotlight two cases where experts in their respective fields have made concrete recommendations for building trust that align with what I have written about recognition.


The first case involves police reform within the context of racism and brutality. Jack Glaser, social psychologist and expert in police practices, has suggested changes in policy that reflect deeper changes in mindset. In a 2020 article for University of California Berkeley Research written by Edward Lempinen, Glaser remarks that police officers are most often trained on a warrior model. Such a model heightens perceptions of others as dangers or threats and primes readiness for pre-emptively aggressive behavior. This mindset reduces the effectiveness of efforts to reduce instances of racism and brutality, such as training to combat implicit bias. Instead, Glaser suggests training officers from the start using a different model, one where officers see themselves as protectors of public safety. At a structural level, this may mean reducing funds for militaristic equipment and programs and reallocating those funds toward social services like support for mental health. On the more immediate, practical, and small scall this could mean changes like not wearing combat boots, speaking in a calm voice, or removing helmets and lowering batons. To bring this back to recognition, a warrior mindset that perceives others as threats is an effective way of othering them – potentially leading to dehumanizing them. But seeing oneself as a protector of others casts them in a positive light that upholds their humanity as something worth protecting and encourages officers to act in their interest.


The second case involves health care system reform. In a 2022 Harvard Business Review article, Richard Isaacs suggests that, among other things, the US should move away from a “fee-for-service” model of healthcare. On this model, medical procedures are individually priced and charged only when (and each time) they are prescribed. This can certainly incentivize more care, but the quality of care is not necessarily better and it quickly becomes opaque whose interests are at the heart of that care: the patient’s or the hospital’s. It is easy to feel devalued as a patient when it feels like the care isn’t really, or entirely, about you. Instead, Isaacs encourages a pre-paid “value-based” model that focuses on quality of care – by enabling hospitals operating on this model to invest in patient-centric initiatives that emphasize respect for their time and dignity, such as technology for virtual visits, cultural competency training and resources, robust in-home care, and cutting down on administrative hoops.


If implemented (no small feat), I think it likely that these measures would be effective, and precisely because they emphasize the dignity and personhood of the individuals placing trust in the respective institution.


Johnny Brennan is the Assistant Director in the Office of Institutional Support at Bard College, where he also teaches in the First-Year Seminar and Philosophy programs. His research focuses on trust – what it is, its social importance, and what significance it has for issues of moral status, moral injury, knowledge, and expertise. His work has been published in Philosophical Studies, Journal of the American Philosophical Association, European Journal of Philosophy, Philosophy & Technology, and Social Epistemology.



From The Philosopher, vol. 112, no. 1 ("Punishment").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


bottom of page