Trust is an Ur-Phenomenon, Integrity is Not!

Trust as a phenomenon – in comparison with integrity as a concept

Some weeks ago, I attended a wonderful session in the #HumansFirst club EMEA call on the topic/subject of Integrity vs. Trust. One of the questions in a breakout session was: “Can integrity exist without trust and vice versa and which is most fundamental?”.

Discussion in the breakout room was highly reflective as was the debate when we returned to the main room. The real question from an ontology point of view is perhaps better posed as “the hen and egg” analogy as presenter Mark Jarvis also expressed it in the session. The proposition that integrity is a more basic phenomenon than trust, is equivalent to a dialogue I had 10 years ago – here the comparable opposing phenomenon, or rather concept was respect.

Supporting the title proclamation

Trust is a basic human trait, a born characteristic alike the capability to love. It has many of the same connotations and conceptual intrinsic nature as love does (it can be blind, naïve genuine (but you never know for sure), realistic and it can break in the same ways). Its perhaps most basic expression is that of the child reaching out to the world – perhaps in curiosity, in a trusting relationship both with the “It”, “She/He” and the “Thou” to frame it in Buberian terms.

In comparison integrity (and respect for that matter) are build phenomena formed through a) social constructs and b) inner perspective on the self – to talk about a born integrity can only concern the human life as an entity (existence as a bodily thing, a physical entity), we are not born showing or holding neither integrity nor respect.

The Child’s behaviour can best be perceived as a kind of naïve trust, but nevertheless a species of trust – not to be confused with blind trust (suppressing your own healthy scepticism, which can also be an expression of side-tracking your self-integrity, a species of self-deception).


As such Trust is a two-sided phenomenon as it can both be a feeling and a mental construct (a rationalization). Very few phenomena possess these two-sided qualities to a real extent (without pseudo constructive explanations of endless regress).

Danish theologian and philosopher K.E. Løgstrup examines this thoroughly in the classic “The Ethical Demand”.

“Initially we believe one another´s word; initially we trust one another. This may seem strange, but it is part of what it means to be human. Human life could hardly exist if it were otherwise. We would simply not be able to live; our life would be impaired and wither away if we were in advance to distrust one another, if we were to suspect the other of thievery and falsehood from the very outset.” (p.8-9).

The bit surprising thing here is also to discover, that distrust is a learned social and behavioural concept – at the outset, we simply trust each other (once bitten twice shy, expresses the former very well).

The general Trust continuum is a flawed perception

As such it can be claimed that distrust and trust are not in/on the same continuum, although they come to us in daily life as opposites. It can even be a figure of thought that “not to trust” is different than to distrust, the former being a sort of neutral liminal state (of potentiality, both positive and negative – the vibrant: I have not decided yet).

At the other end of the distrust continuum, we should better place “Healthy scepticism” (if scepticism can be predicated with positive connotations. See below intermezzo) a learned behaviour from interacting (trustfully) with the world.

Intermezzo – the meaning of sceptic/skeptic and scepticism

The noun stems from the Greek skepticos (plural skepticoi, the skeptics, followers of Pyrrho, that doubted the possibility of real knowledge). In adjective use, it actually means “inquiring, reflective” and is related to skeptesthai “to reflect, look, view”. Contemporary use also incl. “one with a doubting mind” is recorded in the 1610. Miguel de Unamuno in “Essays and soliloquies (1924)” phrase it “Skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found”. The fair use is equally positive as pertaining to “epistemic conscience” – realizing and keeping firm that we may all at times be wrong.

Like integrity, trust can be built, and integrity is a viable “tool” to do so. Here we enter the realm of virtuous behaviour, behaving with integrity must relate to some (cardinal and ethical) values, because such a virtuous behaviour is an expression of such values. As such it makes little sense to talk about integrity without relational subject, it is given/present only relative to something else. That is not the case with Trust as it also presents itself to us as a feeling, unlike integrity. In both cases, consistency is an element because both are highly dependent on degrees of continuity and permanence!

It also pertains to the idea of “walking the talk”. Which is born out of experiences and relates first and foremost to the concepts of distrust and healthy scepticism. In this case, they are the relatives of trust and a precondition for even making it relevant to debate the walking the talk in relation to any kind of leadership (incl. management).

Behaving with integrity is a fundamental element and supports building trust, but it can only come as a 2nd order concept (ontologically) to trust, also expressed in the perception that trust is a cardinal characteristic of (true) friendship (Aristotle). Trust functions as a complexity reduction mechanism in relationships (Niklas Luhmann). In common relationships the tension can increase in a split of a second if one side abuses trust, Løgstrup writes:

“To trust is to lay oneself open. This is why we react vehemently when our trust is “abused”, as we say, even though it may have been only in some inconsequential matter.” Ibid. p.9.

Which is why trust is a risky business, it can be abused but also fulfilled in genuine trust between humans. Trust can be lost and at the same time, it cannot be obtained if we don’t dare seek it – daring to lose our footing for a moment (Kierkegaard).

The nutty professor would dismiss the question equation by being comparing apples with oranges. Integrity is a performative and evaluative category, to compare we must then not look at Trust as a phenomenon but rather similar categories namely being trustworthy and trustworthiness. In my (limited) mind the real productive reflection would concern the birth of trust and curiosity and how the realistic skepticism develops in a healthy way, for it seems that both trust and curiosity are born almost simultaneously, and perhaps curiosity is the firstborn – the thing that makes us reach out to the world (in good faith – we simply do not know how to distrust the world).

Can Trust and integrity exist separately?

Can there be trust without integrity, yes, the simplest form is expressed through spontaneous trust (a non-reflective species) as is also the case with the child – that has nothing to do with any kind of integrity, and basically even not conscious existence in the latter case (one, of course, subscribes the body as having physical integrity).

Can there be integrity without trust, yes, because trust is also a feeling and hence in the realm of subjective thinking and feeling (element of trust), whereas integrity is an evaluative performance, it has the individual or entity as an object of evaluation, even when your self-evaluating your self-integrity (you become your own object as a subject). Integrity is built through acts (all types) and as such is not a prototypical “original” phenomenon, but rather a human-social construction (very similar to being trustworthy in its inner nature, but it is not Trust).

Strictly speaking is we acknowledge that trust is an ur-phenomenon and as such an existential category, and that integrity has always even the slightest relation with trust (if honest), then integrity cannot exist without trust. As integrity is not an existential category, but rather a performative category one can claim that it can be an expression of trust in the realms of the instrumental and functional.

It’s clear that this can be perceived as self-contradiction in statements, but one must remember that there’s a difference in the existential level of perception. Trust is first and foremost a phenomenon whereas integrity is a concept. The ultimate evidence of integrity existing without trust is deception, self-deception as an unconscious category (deviant behaviour and severe mental illness). In short, one could say that trust is an existential category, whereas integrity is an instrumental category – they can coexist, but they are neither born nor live on the same existential level (we cannot define trust on the basis of deception, but we can define and evaluate integrity). Less ultimate examples of our own ability to deceive ourselves are abundant in every one of us, both in a positive and negative sense.

The origin at the crossroads

This can lead in many directions, leadership, psychological safety, credibility, reliability, respect, recognition, appreciation (appreciative inquiry) … What I would claim is that both trust and integrity (to be honest categories) must pertain to the four cardinal concepts and normative foundation of western culture; The Good, The Just, The True and The Beautiful – their roots must be in their soil, safely guarded by phronesis and freedom. It is important to fully recognize and internalize the fact that all these concepts have both a strategic and a-strategic nature, a “skin” (play-acting and role play) we cannot shed because we cannot escape our “self” (our bodily integrity, incl. the concept of the BodyMind) and the beast within us that before anything else requires the survival of ourselves and those closest to our hearts – when pushed hard enough this becomes our micro-reality (Depending on the circumstances, eventology (the event of meaning, and the meaning of the event) and individual ethos, this can lead to hope, a search for meaning outside our “self” as vividly described by e.g. Victor Frankl, Erich Fromm and many others). This is also why we cannot find our authenticity solely within and from ourselves, it requires others (Charles Taylor).

A theo-practical example

We can (easily) evaluate the integrity and/or trustworthiness of a person and do it every day (whether it is a just exercise is a different question, most often it is probably not – it’s hard to “do” full justice to another when you’re not the other (empathy and sympathy is the closest we can get) and even so when you’re yourself).

As an oversimplified and perhaps banal example: I do think Jeffrey Pfeffer is a person with high integrity and trustworthy, but do “I” trust him? (Bourdieu argues that the written medium can produce trust, much by the same rationale “as laying oneself open”, but then we are talking about the personal correspondence, not books and articles). At the same time, I have no reason to distrust Mr. Pfeffer, to my knowledge he has always behaved with a high degree of integrity – whether he walks his own talk (also a species of integrity), I can only speculate – but I have faith and believe he does but do “I” trust him (I have sadly never met the guy)?

That pops yet another question: Is trust dependent upon physical meeting the other and is virtual trust (of some kind) a possibility? A question worth examining (considering the past 18 months of living to a significant extent in a virtual reality).

It is neither fair to Jeffrey nor my-“self” to say that I trust him, it would break the category of trust (laying oneself open, Løgstrup) – it would support the already and increasing dilution of the phenomenon of Trust in modernity.

Surfing the surface will at best make you speculate and imagine what is below and inside (if you’re not too busy multitasking) – that’s the realm of myths and fairytales. The wise skeptic is cautious about the naïve and blind trust species because they hold the potential for deception, the wise investigates and researches to build epistemic conscience – because without belief is empty.


  • Luhmann, Niklas. Vertrauen – Ein Mechanismus der Reduktion sozialer Komplexität, Stuttgart: Enke, 1968.
  • Luhmann, Niklas. Trust and power. John Wiley & Sons, 2018. (English translation: Trust and Power, Chichester: Wiley, 1979.) Somehow the subtitle is lost in the English translation – “A mechanism of reduction of social complexity” (my translation).
  • Løgstrup, Knud Ejler. The ethical demand. Oxford University Press, 2020. Used version is the 1997 edition from University Norte Dame (my preferred introduction by Hans Fink and Alasdair MacIntyre), and the original Danish Edition “Den Etiske fordring”, 1956/1958 Gyldendal.
  • Buber, Martin. I and Thou. eBookIt. com, 2012. (1923). 2013 edition with 1957 translators preface and postscript by Martin Buber, Bloomsbury Revelations.
  • Kirkeby, Ole Fogh. The virtue of leadership. Copenhagen Business School Press DK, 2008. Wirh reference to the four cardinal abstract concepts as the normative foundation for western culture “The Greek Square” based on Plato’s dialogue “The Sophist”.
  • Kirkeby, Ole Fogh. Eventologien: begivenhedsfilosofiens indhold og konsekvenser. Samfundslitteratur, 2013. (The Eventology: The philosophy of the event and its content & consequences, my translation)
  • Aristotle, The Eudemian Ethics, Loeb Classical Library, (1935/1952), Harvard University Press
  • Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Translated by W.D. Ross available text @:
  • Taylor, Charles. The ethics of authenticity. Harvard University Press, 1992. Originally published in Canada 1991 under the title The Malaise of Modernity.


Per Berggreen
Per Berggreen
Per is a truly hybrid profile with a background as BSc Production Engineering, Army officer, Master’s in Philosophy within Ethics and Values in organizations and IT within organisation, strategy, and governance. More than 20 years’ experience in large national, international and global organizations with a long-range of experiences within organisational, people and competence development, IT & technology strategy, governance & organisation in different roles focusing on collaboration, engagement, relation- & partnership management. A firm believer in decency & dignity, virtue ethics, and concepts of conscious capitalism and stakeholder theory. He has designed, developed, implemented, and lead global collaboration forums and Communities of Practice (CoP) within Renewable Energy (Wind), Fashion, and Software development companies and as a consultant within Food and FMCG, Financial Services & Banking, Pharma, Production and Auto industries. Extensive global experiences with cross-functional and -cultural collaboration within complex organisational environments and system landscapes. Experienced leader and project, program, and portfolio leader focused on individual, organisational, and business impact, change, and transformation. He has driven initiatives from a reverse impact & benefit perspective within IT/Digital & Organizational transformation & development, account management roles, established customer relations as engagement architect in companies like Vestas, Bestseller, Siemens, and SAP all kick-started by national liaison officer and international NATO liaison to the Partnership for Peace program. Focused on building trust and three key relationship states Transactional | Transmissional | Transformational and the potential to transition states and stretch the exchange economy from being predominantly focused on reciprocity to be about mutuality in both design, concept, and realization. We are humans before anything else and that’s the fundamental outset for all relationships and the ethical demand. A “philo” for philosophy and admirer of the ancient Greeks and the Stoics combined with contemporary thinking especially within organisational- and leadership – philosophy. He believes the foundation for all our activities are found(ed) in thought & reflection and nurturing that ability is as important as making yourself vocal. Values are cardinal to our existence and fundamental to who we are and how we act personally, privately, and professionally.

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  1. It is difficult for me to comment on this article full of fascinating philosophical considerations.
    Based solely on my work experience, I can say that a workplace characterized by mistrust and lack of values ​​is probably not a happy or productive place. A healthy workplace is created when managers and workers are consistent with their actions, when they are open and productive in their attitudes and honest in their dealings with others.
    Integrity is the first cornerstone of trust, the first constituent, the root of trust. If the other sees consistency in you, that is, the correspondence between your principles and your actions, then he will trust you.
    Acting with integrity therefore generates trust, protects corporate reputation, reduces operating costs and enhances shareholder value. Integrity is therefore one of the founding values ​​of the corporate culture that illustrates who we are, what we do and how we operate. Integrity is consistent with organizational success.