What Integrity Is

Tom Morris

Integrity. We're talking about it more and more these days. It's clear to most of us that it's really important. We're all for it. But what exactly is it?

In a recent book called Integrity (Basic Books, 1996), Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale University, presents a definition of that much admired but often vaguely defined moral quality, and then talks about its presence or absence in different domains of current American life. Early on, he says:

"Integrity is like the weather: everybody talks about it but nobody knows what to do about it. Integrity is that stuff we always say we want more of. Such leadership gurus as Warren Bennis insist that it is of first importance. We want our elected representatives to have it, and political challengers always insist that their opponents lack it. We want it in our spouses, our children, our friends." (6)

But what is it that we want? And exactly why do we want it? Carter wants to use this book to clarify, and explain the attractiveness of, this popular yet elusive characteristic.

Carter begins his discussion like many scholars do, by pointing to the etymology of the word he is seeking to elucidate. "Integrity" comes from the same root as "integer" - "whole number" - and "integrate" - "to bring together in unity." Integrity has something to do with wholeness, unity, or completeness. The closest Carter himself comes to a definition is to be found on page seven:

"When I refer to integrity, I have something very simple and very specific in mind. 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.

While not exactly a definition of integrity - he says what he thinks it requires, not what he thinks it is - this three part criterion is meant to help us identify whether an individual is or is not a person of integrity. And it is really all he gives us to go on for understanding the concept.

On Carter's understanding, then, we could say that integrity is thus just a matter of

(1) Knowing

(2) Doing


(3) Saying.

But it seems clear to me that integrity is first and foremost a matter of

(4) Being,

and that in addition to knowing, doing and saying, a man or woman of integrity is a human being with a particular sort of moral

(5) Feeling.

A person of integrity is a certain sort of person. He or she is the sort of person who engages in enough moral reflection to discover and thus come to know what he should do. He feels that this is the right thing to do. And he then acts in accordance with his insight, doing so openly. The ancients might have said that integrity is simply a matter of wisdom and virtue.

I would like to offer the simplest possible definition. Integrity is:
Personal wholeness and active oneness with the moral order.

There are two parts to this definition. The first has to do with the internal integration of the individual. Do you approach all your decisions in the fullness of who you are? Do you engage all your deepest beliefs and personal values when something important must be decided, never letting some of those values or desires temporarily eclipse other commitments? Do you refuse to compartmentalize your life morally? Do you believe that, ultimately, everything matters and that doing is always becoming? This is what is at stake in the first part of the definition.

Part two is about whether you have the right values and basic beliefs. Consistency is one thing. Correctness is something else altogether. The person of integrity doesn't just stick to his convictions, he also has the right convictions. He is plugged into the true moral order of things with genuine moral insight. He is at one with the moral order in his mind - he has wisdom; he is at one with this realm in his feelings and in his actions - he has virtue. The ideal person of integrity is at one with the true moral order of things in terms of






But of course one modern sensibility cries out to know whether there is any such thing as an objective moral order, a transcendent structure of rightness and goodness. It is difficult to examine closely all the world's major religions and philosophies without coming away with the conviction that down deep below all the surface differences, and beneath all the real divergencies, there is at rock bottom a common perception of an objective moral order sensed by all the wisest of people, regardless of their historical period or cultural surroundings. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain how some books written hundreds or thousands of years ago in extraordinarily different circumstances could reach out to us and touch us with their insights while books written last year can't seem to do the trick. The enduring wisdom has plugged into something that is not just passing and subjective. It has connected with an objective domain of truth, beauty, goodness, and unity that we ignore at our peril.

This is the nature of integrity and its importance. When I travel the country speaking about ethics and the importance of wisdom and virtue in the workplace, it is this connection with an objective moral order that I am trying to help people make. I don't say that we can't have any good work at all unless everybody at work is virtuous and wise. I do believe that wisdom and virtue are, as one ancient proverb says, "the two wheels of a cart" that can carry us forward in the best possible way. They are important foundations for long term excellence in our work. But I'm not saying that long term excellence cannot come about unless everyone is a moral saint. I'm not asking people to be self-consciously wholly altruistic or intentionally self-abnegating in their approach to work or life. But I do want to insist that it would very likely be an improvement over the current state of affairs if everyone acted on at least morally enlightened self-interest guided by enhanced common sense. We would all be better off if we were at least moving in the direction of integrity.

In his book, Carter goes even a bit farther and says that
"...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." (20)

But this does go a bit too far and poses false alternatives. Effort is not enough. A person who always made an effort to do the right thing but always failed through yielding to temptations of greed, laziness, and fear would not be an individual of integrity. The striving must be largely successful in order for the person to qualify as actually having integrity. You can have integrity without being perfect, without being a saint. But you can't have it without a good measure of moral success, success at mastering unruly emotions, inappropriate attitudes, and inconsistent desires.

A life of integrity may be hard at times, especially in the early stages of moral becoming. But according to the self-evaluations of many good people, it gets much easier once an individual has attained the high status of moral being. A settled character of ethical quality is just characterized by the attribute of integrity.

In another recent book, Piloting Through Chaos (Five Rings Press, 1995), international attorney and negotiation expert Julian Gressler writes as follows:

"Integrity is the capacity of every human being, indeed of any living system, to remain connected, coherent, whole, and adaptively alive. It can be understood on several levels:

First, it is a state of being. You know when you are in the state, and you know when it has been compromised.

Second, integrity is a principle of ethical and conscious action. Ethics flows from consciousness. When a person has integrity his or her actions will naturally be ethical ones.

Third, integrity is a principle for corporate and societalorganization. Companies and enterprises of every kind that build integrity will be those that are profitable, well run, and happy.

Fourth, integrity is a standard for policy making. In the area of environmental law, for example, integrity analysis offers a new way to reconcile conflicts and discrepancies among air, water, land use, endangered species and a host of other protective laws and regulations.

Fifth, integrity is a force of nature. If entropy is the power in the physical realm that pulls things apart and wears them down, integrity is the countervailing force that valiantly stands up to entropy and keeps us whole, joyous, and alive." (ix)

Gressler goes on later to state more succinctly that:
"By integrity, I mean a sense of connectedness, coherence, wholeness, and vitality. Integrity is the capacity of every living thing to maintain its hold in the face of entropy, disorder, and uncertainty, its link to the living world, its ability to carry on its life, however humble.

His view seems to be that what we normally refer to as "integrity," a state of moral wholeness and unity, is a species of a broader genus found throughout nature. In its broadest outlines, integrity is vitally important to survival and any form of success in the world.

Along similar lines, it is interesting to note that the ancient PreSocratic philosopher Heraclitus, who is well known for having articulated the insight that everything is always changing in the world around us, is also the sage know for stating that "Character is destiny." It may well be that in an ever changing world, integrity of character is the most important foundation for dealing with uncertainty, and securing success and excellence in what we do best.


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