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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Integrity: The Ethics of Being Whole -- A proposal


After a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease, my father died.  One of the calls of condolence I received was from the director of the Cleveland Foundation where Dad had volunteered on community projects after his retirement.  “I’m sorry he is gone,” he said. “He had integrity.”

Is this the best you can say? I thought.  What about what a good businessman or civic leader he was?   Yet over and over the words I heard most often about Dad: he was a man of integrity.  And then I realized that was the best you could say about my father.

Not that he was a good family man or a good Catholic or effective or loving or generous—though he was all that too.  Not that he was always correct in his judgments either.  We had sharp running disagreements on science and religion and politics and the economy. Articulate, smart, persuasive, successful?  Perhaps, but not that extraordinary.

But integrity, yes!  And I realized that was for sure the best thing you could say, not only about my father, but about anyone.  And that is what I would like to have said of me—above anything else.

What is integrity?  Why is it so important?  That’s what I will discuss here.  I will argue that integrity is the source, the means, the goal, and the highest characteristic of our humanity.  It is the ethical principle par excellence.

We sure know integrity when we don’t see it especially in leaders who don’t “walk their talk.” We see it in overly righteous preachers who pass by strangers.  In priests who molest children, bosses using their position to get sex, politicians making false statements to get money and votes, professors who do not foster a critical attitude in students.  We expect a lack of integrity in “used-car salesmen” whose income relies on commission.  We see it in scientists and other professionals who are working for private interests and use their skills to advance causes (cigarettes, suburban sprawl, unregulated carbon production, cures, tax policies) that are aimed for private profit.  We see it everyday on email as people pass on trash they know to be incorrect, or refuse to check out whether they are correct, simply because it fits with their own prejudices.  Deception, including self-deception, seems to be a part of our nature.

At the same time we know that integrity can be present in persons who make mistakes, fall into sins of the flesh, fail to achieve certain goals and standards of excellence, lose or never gain fortune, and are quite ordinary in all other aspects (like most of us).   We are sometimes too quick to judge persons as without integrity or name them or blame them as evil just because we disagree with them and without carefully considering the evidence and our own prejudices.  And that speaks to the lack of integrity we find in ourselves.

Read a novel by Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard and, besides laughing at the dialogue and crazy situations, you will meet the most unsavory characters, 90% of them without integrity.  But you will also meet a few that may be a little crazy and maybe a little crooked; but they have a sort of integrity that you admire and pull for.

We know that we are sometimes fooled into thinking that persons have integrity because they are so sincere, so convinced they are right, treat us so nicely, speak or write so persuasively, hold such a position or office, are so smart and good looking, and have lots of money and friends.   But usually not forever.  There is something in us that recognizes the con, even if they do not, the fact we are being used, the contradiction in the core—although sometimes too late to avert harm.

We can never be sure if lack of integrity is a choice or a sickness.  But most of us are sure that we want to avoid those without integrity as dangers to us and to our society.   

So we know integrity by its absence and we know that its dearth is evil (if chosen) or at least wrong (if a sickness).  I will argue that the lack of integrity is the ultimate, that is, “core” or “source,” illness of human persons, their associations, and their nations. 

More positively, I will argue that integrity is not necessarily the truth, but the source of the true; not necessarily perfection, but the source of the good; not necessarily agreeable, but the source of beauty; not necessarily health, but the source of healing; not necessarily heroic, but the source of courage, the source of justice, the source of virtue, the source of the meaning of existence.  I will argue that integrity is the cardinal principle of our ethics and politics, the behavior of us humans in person and in community.

But what is it?  How do we recognize it?  How do we get it?  How do we foster it? Why is it the cardinal virtue, the source of justice and the good?

Integral means “whole,” as an integer is a whole number.  And in simple arithmetic the whole is the sum of its parts.  But in the math of postclassical science, especially quantum mechanics, biology and Gestalt psychology, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  The whole is the dynamic union and interaction of all its parts.  And so it is with humans as persons and as societies.  And so it is with the worlds within which humans interact.

Integrity in human affairs, therefore, is the dynamic unity of all the interacting elements and dimensions that make a person and a social order whole.  “Whole,” we remember, is the root notion for “healing” and “health.”  But that still begs the question.  We cannot understand integrity unless we understand the elements that need to be integrated.

I propose to do that in the first part of this essay by proposing a model for integrity starting with the various dimensions in the human phenomenon and condition.  I rely on the tradition of philosophy beginning with the pre-Socratics but also on the major religious and spiritual traditions in our development but informed, tested, and corrected by science and in particular evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. 

In the second part of this essay, I propose to show how this model of integrity compares to other ethical models that have developed in human history.  Those models have used the images of tool or utility, contract or covenant, law or prescription, scale or balance, cornerstone or foundation in order to advance their theories.  All have made a contribution to ethical and political inquiry.  I want to acknowledge their contributions, but also understand and critique them with the model of integrity.

Finally I want to apply this model to real life situations.  For that will ultimately be the test of the model’s usefulness and veracity.  Does it fit our experience?  Will it work to guide our behavior into the future?  Can it claim universality? 

Essay Outline:

Introduction: A question of integrity

Part One:  A Model of Integrity

I lay out my method, my sources, and my formulation of the theory or model of integrity.  I explain my method of experimental philosophy, an inquiry into experience as it is occurs in human interaction with each other and the universe, with the findings of philosophers and scientists, especially in the area of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, whose conclusions shape my formulation of the model.

My method: experimental philosophy, the analysis of perception and consciousness as it appears in human communication.

Three dynamics in the human condition: time, space, and association

  •          The experience of time:  temporal dimension:  history, tradition, culture, vision, transcendence .
  •      The experience of space:  spatial dimension:  intentionality, inner and outer reality, subjective and objective, presence, spatial dimension of time.
  •          The social dimension:  social reconstruction, personal development in interaction, the development of the self and other, social dimension to time and space.
And a fourth dimension: integrity:  unifying the other three.

The theory:  Ethics, politics and the meaning of justice, truth and the good. 

Part Two:  Ethical Models Compared and refined

I review the major and most influential ethical theories or models that have been handed down to us and still exert influence on our thought and behavior.  Each of them has a dominant metaphor.  I attempt to compare, critique, and complement them with the theory and model of integrity.

1.    The Parental Command (family and tribe):  Divine and Natural Law Theory:  Theology and the Religions of the Book.  Purity and Loyalty.

2.    The Foundation (civilization):  Theory of First principles:  Classical Philosophy (Plato to Hegel); Authority and Respect.

3.    The Balance (trade market):  Practical Ethics: East and West (Pre-Socratics, Skeptics, Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Jesus); Care, Reciprocity

4.    The Tool (industrialization):  Theory of the best for the most:  Utilitarianism (Bentham, Hume); Equality Matching

5.    The Deal (capitalism):  Contract theory and Fairness (Locke, Rawls)

6.    The Organism (evolving complex systems):  Relational theory:  Pragmatism, Existentialism, Postmodernism, Rational Choice (Nietzsche, Dewey, Heidegger, Sen)

Part Three:  Questions of Ethics and Politics here and now

I identify the major ethical issues that confront us: those events and trends about which we must make choices simply to endure.  I do not pretend to settle them, but to show how the ethics of personal and interpersonal integrity might provide a path in dealing with them now and in the future.

  •          The Singularity:  Artificial Intelligence; Everlasting life; Cloning (Bio-ethics).
  •           Truth in Politics and the Possibility of Civil Discourse (Political ethics). 
  •           Social inequality and fairness (Social ethics).
  •        Punishment, Social control, and Justice--consequential, retributive, restorative (Criminal and Civil legality).
  •         Religion and Politics; Postmodernism, relativism, and universality (Culture and Ethics)
  •         Population control, Earth change, and urbanism (Eco-ethics) 
  •        Nationalism and Globalization; Role of the corporation (Economic Ethics)
Conclusion:  The challenge for post-tribal, post-modern, post-industrial, post-national humanity.  Choosing integrity.

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