39. Integrity

I have been increasingly disturbed by the steady erosion of that most important but highly complex concept with multiple definitions and interpretations called: Integrity. Those in politics rarely employ it except in the negative sense when, during election campaigns, one party will challenge the other for lacking integrity. In everyday usage the police, the bankers, or the politicians are often described as faltering on integrity. It is rare to hear a leader use the word in a positive sense as President Dwight D. Eisenhower did half a century ago:

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible , no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”

To be sure, “integrity” can be perceived in different ways: there is personal integrity, public integrity, creative integrity, etc. Today some will describe it as an adherence to moral and ethical principles, others as a concept of consistency of actions, methods, principles, and values. Providing a definition for Wikipedia, Dr. Barbara Killinger described it as “an uncompromising and predictably consistent commitment to honor moral, ethical, spiritual and artistic values and principles.”1

The word actually stems from the Latin adjective integer (meaning whole or complete) and in this context it expresses that sense of “wholeness” or overall consistency of character in which people act in accordance to the principles, beliefs and values they aspire or claim to hold. How far we have come from the times of Plato who regarded commerce in terms of acquisitiveness and therefore an occupation of limited value. Need one say more than that Plato valued integrity above solutions. Today “the market,” in which the almost undisputed values (profit being a given) are choice and efficiency, drives the capitalist system. Even hardened commentators, like those of the Economist, would have to admit that integrity is seldom associated with our globalized corporations.

Leaf through the financial pages of the New York Times, London’s Financial Times or the Guardian newspapers and you will find yourself confronting endless reports of collusion, corruption, deception, duplicity, embezzlement, evasion, falsification, graft, lies, subterfuge, theft and a string of other misdeeds being exposed about corporations, banks, institutions, management funds, individuals and various nations. The lack of the positive use of the word in the media says a lot about the progressive decay of moral standards throughout our economic structure.

At the most basic human level it was Immanuel Kant who first maintained that all values are created not by some heavenly powers but by rational and free human choice. Following this tradition, Professor Stuart H. Brody recently examined “how the conflict of personal interest drives many to guiltlessly engage in common breaches of integrity that they would deplore in others.”2 Few initially intend to resort to various dodges, deceits, or falsehoods which ultimately end up as crimes. “Still many engage in behavior that deepens the ethical crisis caused by such conduct without doubting their own integrity.”

The global crisis which is associated with the fall of Lehman Brothers was precipitated by the thousands of individual financial professionals – the bankers, stockbrokers, insurers, analysts, rating agents, financial advisers and corporate executives – whose collective negligence, ignorance, deceits, subterfuge and outright corruption resulted in economic panic. No one admitted to the global shortage of integrity.

It is important to understand what values and priorities we share in the 21st century. Most of us have a built-in sense of fairness and justice. We are born with an innate need to belong and to make attachments. Our identity as human beings is to a large extent based on our own and society’s values.

The closely held values such as integrity very much define the meaning of our lives. It is therefore essential that we reaffirm the importance of values and their place in our age of amoral capitalism.

We are experiencing a serious and fundamental conflict between our market economy and our heritage of personal values. The “me first” rampant competitiveness of capitalism is destructive of our human dignity. The wealthy are already buying themselves longer lives than the poor. The desire of those trying to make health care a market transaction is just part of their desire to make life and death more profitable.

Every society has a set of largely tacit assumptions about what it values and what is important. Relativism, however, holds that all value systems are bound only to their time and are no more than a measure of the outlook of a specific era. Because basic conventions are in turmoil, our prevailing relativism appears no better than an ethical cop-out. At the same time we must recognize that change itself is being held by many in higher esteem as a value than stability. The younger generations also tend to value and embrace what is different, new and highly touted.

In the 21st century much of our heritage seem up for sale; those concepts that cannot be seen to turn a profit are relegated to the moral scrap-heap. The concepts of civic virtue and the public interest have practically vanished. The irony is that capitalism provided much of prosperity for society even as it undermined the very values, like integrity, that made such improvements in the standard of living worthwhile. The strangleholds of money and consumption may give us the freedom to choose but not to BE. At the popular level what matters is what automobile you drive or what clothes you wear. Focusing on the tangible ultimately leads to the devaluation of all values.

The philosopher John Rawls noted that “in times of social doubt and loss of faith in long established virtues, there is the tendency to fall back on the virtues of integrity: truthfulness and sincerity, lucidity and commitment, or, as some say, authenticity.”3 And yet, for many Americans, what goes on in Washington D.C reveals the ultimate breakdown of integrity. The politics in this ethical pressure cooker of pernicious lobbying, political bickering, endless debates and overwhelming opportunistic self-interest all tend to drown integrity.

The author Thomas Frank declared five years ago that: “There is no higher claim to journalistic integrity than going to jail to protect a source.”4

The great French scientist, Jacques Monod, held that “No system of values can be said to constitute a true ethic unless it proposes an ideal reaching beyond the individual and transcending the self to the point even of justifying self sacrifice – if need be.”5

However, the integrity of our actions is not always accepted nor clear. While Edward Snowden’s forced exile in Russia was seen by most of the world as a commendable example of how integrity can motivate the individual, to many Americans his revelation of the extent of unrestricted snooping by various arms of the US intelligence network appeared as a denial of loyalty, patriotism, institutional commitment and integrity. Alas, such splits in judgment clearly show how our differences in heritage and perspective can affect our conceptual values.

Most religions have embraced the transcendent standard that the values conferred upon the life of man come from above. In the decades ahead, as the apps develop further, we shall have the challenging task of learning to distinguish not only what is ephemeral and what has consequence but also what is of value and what is virtual.

Our global societies must incorporate ways which recognize our need for one another. We must consciously and deliberately move towards an ethics based on affiliation and care. Every society has formed value judgments which have rapidly become the criteria for deciding what kinds of behavior will be approved. As values are generated by the creative human will and by the struggle of conflicting individual and collective wills, it seems self-evident that we have the potential to establish a new edition of values for the 21st century and that these will, in large measure, be selected from the traditional ones formulated by previous generations. It is thus to be hoped that the quality of life on this planet shall be such that humanity shall re-enlist integrity as one of its highest social values.


1Dr. Barbara Killinger, Integrity: Doing the Right Thing For the Right Reason, 1995

2Stuart H.Brody, “Why public integrity fails,” The Journal of Academic and Business Studies, September 2012, p. 1

3John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (1971) p. 519

4Thomas Frank, The Huffington Post, Posted October 28, 2009

5Jacques Monod, “Chance and Necessity,” (1971) p. 178