Integrity is so hot right now

In the last week the integrity of public figures have been variously lauded or derided. When  Australia’s Solicitor General resigned, he was described by the leader of the opposition as “a man of integrity.” His biting resignation letter defended the “integrity of his office.” When Jeff Kennett, the head of Beyond Blue (an organisation dedicated to improving the mental health of Australians) suggested that CEO’s bonuses should be linked not just to profits but also to the mental wellbeing of their respective workforce, his suggestion was described as ‘coming from a place of integrity.’

When we talk of integrity we are talking about something moral in nature. The word has become a kind of normative shortcut for a number of ideas, that we somethings run together. We use it to talk about a person’s character, to describe a decision they have made, or even the ‘wholeness’ of something else, like an artist’s body of work.

Integrity is something we find easier to describe in its absence. We know when it is missing. Someone is said to ‘lack integrity’ when they act first and foremost in their own interest, especially if their actions involve harm to others. We also talk about an absence of integrity when something seems to lacking wholeness or consistency or when someone appears to talk one way but act in another. Here, talk of integrity seems to be about character, particularly its strength or lack thereof.

Confused? If you are, you’re not alone.

Philosophically, integrity can be thought of in a few distinct ways. It can be  a kind of self-integration where someone acts purposefully and with a kind of mastery over their desires. They don’t seem to be influenced by whims and neither are their moods or desires fickle. Henry Frankfurt describes this as a kind of ‘wholeheartedness’ where we walk through life overcoming distracting desires and choose a clear direction for our conduct.

Some philosophers, like Bernard Williams, think of integrity as a more of consistency of action. Someone who espouses a set of values but seems not let these guide their everyday behaviour could be said to lack integrity as they would if their actions seemed generally out of step with their overall behaviour.

Writing about integrity in the 1990s, Cheshire Calhoun says that the self-integration view and the consistency of action views are more about an individual’s sense of their own integrity. While this is important, he argues, integrity is also a social virtue in that it defines your relationships with others. This is helpful. It gives us a way to understand why we generally regard those who lie or gossip, or who fail to act with the strength of their convention as ‘lacking’ integrity.

Philosopher Greg Scherkoske has more recently expanded on Calhoun’s approach adding that it seems to matter that the views that someone is committed to are well reasoned and thought out. Consistency is part of the puzzle, he says, but it isn’t the whole picture. We have to know that someone has thought about the values that guide their conduct, that they have been reasoned and well-considered. In this way they become convictions to which one’s actions can do justice.

Again, this is helpful. And for me at least, it helps to distinguish between integrity as a descriptor and as a virtue. We can say that some thing, or that some decision has integrity if it is ‘whole’ and generally in line with previous things or decisions of its ilk. We can say that someone has integrity when they commit to this ‘wholeness’ through their actions, especially with others. Sure, ‘talking the talk’ matters but ‘walking the walk’ is performative: it is behaving in a way to ‘do justice’ to our convictions.

Perhaps this is why Jeff Kennett’s call to measure bonuses according to wellbeing strikes us so particularly. A  corporate value such as employee mental health can only be espoused with integrity if the corporation is willing to behave as though this value matters. Really matters. Managers who resign a position in which they feel they have been morally compromised are doing justice to the convictions too. Neither of these actions are for the fainthearted, and we would be foolish not to acknowledge the extent of bravery that these commitments can demand.

Does it matter what philosophers think about integrity? Does it really matter whether we  have a handle on it? Yes, yes it does. It matters because this understanding helps us to understand ourselves, guide our path through the world and engage with others. As we become more sensible to the notion that we ‘bring ourselves’ to work and we demand (rightly) more consistency between our personal and public selves, understanding integrity is not just important it is imperative.

Perhaps that’s one reason integrity is so hot right now.

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