Friday, February 09, 2007


No one has Integrity.

That may come as a surprise to you, but it shouldn't. It may be a surprise to you that I would start an essay about Integrity by claiming its complete absence from the world, but that absence should not be news. If you believe someone has integrity, either 1) you don't know them or 2) your definition of Integrity lacks clarity or 3) your standards for it are far too low.

Integrity, as some would say, is "doing the right thing when no one is watching". That's a useful description, but falls short as a definition. It also glosses over an alarming split in the meaning of the virtue of Integrity, and of all the virtues. The split generates a lot of confusion, and is at the heart of the culture war.

Integrity means being whole, as in "integrated", having one face in all circumstances, and putting no barrier between oneself and what one believes to be right. It is constancy. Integrity implies trustworthiness and incorruptibility, doing the right thing even at one's own disadvantage, not yielding to temptation.

While both modern American Liberals and Conservatives could probably accept those definitions, their understanding of them would be vastly different. The difference is in their respective views of Virtue. And in their opposition to each other, the Liberal and Conservative camps have each had their view of Virtue corrupted.

People often conflate Integrity with Honesty; though related, they are not synonyms, and may even conflict. To a person whose values require suppressing some piece of information, Integrity may trump Honesty. Ethics (whether for lawyers, doctors, or especially spouses) sometimes demand that we not answer a question forthrightly, which may consequently deceive.

As odd as it may seem, the Golden Rule is fundamentally about Integrity. If you have not heard, the Rule is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Implicit in it is a kind of cause and effect, the Law of the Harvest: our actions, good or bad, may influence the way others treat us. The subjunctive causative ("as you would have them do") indicates a likelihood, but also further implies that we will never be able to force others to treat us as we would like to be treated. The link with Integrity is that actions at one point in time may return to haunt us at another time, or can be the basis for later reward. Our lives are seen as connected in a web of tenuous strands, sometimes invisible, but unwise to ignore.

Liberals show a tendency to "speak out" about every issue, since apparently a failure to do so can harm credibility. Actually, speaking out on every issue just makes it clear that a person values speaking out. If one toes the party line when doing so, his credibility is actually decreased, since people tend to ignore a partisan as lacking any authority.

Integrity to a liberal can loosely be said to mean constancy, but constancy of purpose, rather than constancy of action. What a person does is not as important to liberal as what he says. At least anecdotally, it seems that Integrity to a Liberal means constancy in devotion to liberal causes. I'd be more than happy to be disabused of the belief that to a Liberal, Integrity means the urge to prove oneself Liberal.

Integrity may exist in the most evil: unwilling to admit error even in their most private thoughts, their inmost demons are unleashed on the world.

At any rate, when someone is described as having "integrity", remember what that really means: always true to one's values.

There's something missing from this piece. It doesn't feel finished, but I'm going to post it anyway. Maybe someone will show me what's wrong.

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