Integrity - by Stephen L. Carter

Integrity, as I will use the term, requires three steps: (1) discerning what is right and what is wrong; (2) acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost; and (3) saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right from wrong. The first criterion captures the idea of integrity as requiring a degree of moral reflectiveness. The second brings in the ideals of an integral person as steadfast, which includes the sense of keeping commitments. The third reminds us that a person of integrity is unashamed of doing the right.

In order to live with integrity, it is sometimes necessary to take that difficult step--to get involved--to fight openly for what one believes to be true and right and good, even when there is risk to oneself. I would not go as far as to insist that morally committed citizens living integral lives must fight their way through life, strident activists in behalf of all their beliefs; but I worry deeply about the number of us who seem happy to drift through life, activists in behalf on none of our beliefs.

Integrity is not in and of itself a sense of right and wrong; rather, integrity is the faculty that enables us to discern right and wrong. Integrity is not by itself a guide. It is a guide to being guided. It does not so much tell us right and wrong as it helps us to see the truth of right and wrong. And at the center of that integrity lies a willingness to be open in our discernment of the right. And if that is the meaning of uncorrupted, it is one that we can, in our human fallibility, surely endorse: the life that is lived with integrity is a life of striving toward the good and the true. Integrity, in that sense, may be conceived as a journey rather than a destination, an effort to live according to one's sense of duty rather than a sinlessness reserved for a handful of saints--and precious few of them.

The philosopher Lynne McFall has argued that there is no integrity without risk of loss: "A person of integrity is willing to bear the consequences of her convictions, even when this is difficult, that is, when the consequences are unpleasant." And if we are never tested, we never really know how deeply we believe: "Where there is no possibility of its loss, integrity cannot exist." In short, we can never really know whether we are acting from deep and steadfast principles until those principles are tested.

The notion that compromise is inimical to integrity is as common as it is wrong. Integrity, especially on the part of a leader, should not be a recipe for going down to one glorious defeat after another. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin pointed out that it is not possible for an individual person, living a single life, to realize in that life all the positive values. Trade-offs and compromises are an inevitable part of living. True, all of us should be steadfast and uncompromising about something, but only the fanatic is steadfast and uncompromising about everything.

As my mother used to say, you don't have to tell people everything you know. Lying and nondisclosure, as the law often recognizes, are not the same thing. Sometimes it is actually illegal to tell what you know, as, for example, in the disclosure of certain financial information by market insiders. Or it may be unethical, as when a lawyer reveals a confidence entrusted to her by a client. It may be simple bad manners, as in the case of a gratuitous comment to a colleague on his attire. And it may be subject to religious punishment, as when a Roman Catholic priest breaks the seal of the confessional, an offense that carries an automatic excommunication. In all the cases I just mentioned, the problem with telling everything you know is that somebody else is harmed. Harm may not be the intention, but it is certainly the effect. Honesty is most laudable when we risk harm to ourselves, but it becomes a good deal less admirable when we instead risk harm to others and there is no gain to anyone other than ourselves. Integrity, in other words, may counsel keeping our secrets in order to spare the feelings of others.

Sometimes, despite the best will in the world, a marriage that began in love and optimism does become a prison. Sometimes one spouse suffers horribly, even if through no fault of the other. Sometimes both do. Those, I think, are the circumstances in which keeping the vow might become "impossible." I emphasize the word might because the occurence of none of these events forecloses altogether the existence of the obligation to try. The conflict is classically Kantian. Kant viewed the human mind as locked in a struggle between inclination, which one could not help feeling, and duty, which was done by choice. Thus, to Kant, the statement "I cannot remain married to you" would always be a triumph of inclination over will, a triumph he condemned. Yet here, as so often, Kant in his idealism demands too much of mortal humans. Instead, I would here argue that discernment is of first importance. Recall the careful definition in chapter 2 of what one must discern: not What are my most basic needs and desires? but What is the right thing to do? And recall, further, our specification, following Lynne McFall, that doing what is right will often be painful; indeed, that the test of integrity comes only when doing the right entails a significant cost. But after the discernment is done, the spouse who desires to leave might still say, in effect, "I am sorry, but I know that what I am doing is right." And it is a decision that nobody else can make.

The vices feed in herds. We forget this not only when we commit small wrongs, thinking we can avoid big ones, but also when we stand by and allow others to do it. When Hannah Arendt wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem about the banality of evil, she was actually writing about what we have called integrity. Arendt pointed out that even huge evils--like the Holocaust--result from many seemingly small decisions by ordinary individuals. One need only look the other way one day, order a particular piece of equipment the next, and one is compicit. There is no need for grandiose conspiracies, or even for massively evil individuals, but only for everyday thoughtlessness. That is the point: our obligation to integrity is to think about all the little decisions we make each day, because those decisions, if made recklessly rather than deliberately, can lead to evils far greater than any one of them alone. Evil, like good, has its synergy, and all of us can play our parts--will play our parts--unless we think before we act, rather than later.

In Aristotle's Ethics, people would do good because doing good was a habit of the virtuous. In Thomas More's Utopia, people would do good without even thinking about it. But we live in a psychologically more complicated time. Doing the right thing rather than the wrong is neither habit nor instinct. It is will. How can it be otherwise? Aristotle understood the point. So did Plato, so did Aquinas, so did Locke, so did Rousseau, who probably put it best when he wrote that by moving from the state of nature to the civil state, we find that "the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right of appetite," so that man "is forced to act on different principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations." This approach provides the foundation of integrity as I have discussed it in this book: we must make the effort to learn what is right (rather than what we desire) and then to do it. Aristotle placed the intellect over the appetites, Rousseau placed reason above inclination, and the theologians placed God's will above our own. What one sees in every case is the refusal to accept as the measure of morality our choice to do the things that most attract us. To make satisfaction of our desires the only morality is to choose the path away from civil society--away from civilization--and back to the state of nature. Valuing the appetites above reason is the path, in fact, toward evil. And that path integrity forbids us to take.