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JAN. 31, 2018

What is Integrity?

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What Is Integrity?

Roger Herbert, Outdoor Academy Director

A scheduling error during Semester 45 presented us with an opportunity to add an eighth meeting of our Ethics Seminar, which typically consists of seven gatherings.  How would we use this “extra” time, a rare and precious commodity at The Outdoor Academy?  We decided to grapple with a word that is so central to ethical discourse that its meaning has become imprecise, its usage sloppy.  Integrity.

What is integrity?  What does it mean to be a “person of integrity”?  What constitutes a “failure of integrity.” The discussion proceeding from these questions was so rich, so provocative, that we have added this topic permanently to the OA Ethics syllabus.

Our discussion focused almost entirely on defining this important but fuzzy term.  We started with etymology.  Our English word “integrity” comes from the Latin integritas, meaning wholeness or unity.  This prompted more questions.  Since unity implies the possibility of disunity, what are the parts that together constitute integrity (or apart constitute a lack of integrity)?

Semester 45 offered an intriguing answer.  Integrity, they hypothesized, entails a unity between our actions and our values.   A person of integrity acts in accordance with what she values.  She fails to act with integrity when her actions contradict her values.

Social psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman agree.  In their seminal work, Character Strengths and Virtues (2004), the authors define integrity as “A regular pattern of behavior that is consistent with espoused values.”

But Semester 45 challenged their own (and Peterson & Seligman’s) definition.  “What if a person values power over others or racial supremacy or violence for its own sake?”  Does acting in accordance with those values constitute integrity?  Certainly not.  Clearly our definition must account for the quality of values embraced. Peterson & Seligman contend that a person of integrity acts in accordance values that are “sensitive to the needs of others.”  Semester 45 improved on this.  A person of integrity, they argued, embraces values that do not interfere with the capacity of others to act in accordance with their values.

Still, Semester 45 concluded that their definition was incomplete.  They cited the “Ring of Gyges,” Plato’s allegory in which a shepherd (Gyges) finds a magical ring that gives him the power of invisibility.  Rather than using the ring for good, Gyges leverages his new powers to kill the king, steal his treasures, and seduce the queen.  Without the possibility of being caught and punished, Gyges saw no reason to act with integrity.

Drawing on Plato, Semester 45 concluded, that our definition of integrity had to include an element of motivation.  Persons of integrity act in accordance with their values not because they fear punishment, not because they fear public censure, but because they embrace their values as ends unto themselves.  A person of integrity’s motivation to act morally, in other words, is intrinsic, not extrinsic.

To conclude, I will summarize Semester 45’s conclusions regarding integrity:

Persons of integrity 1) act in accordance with their values, 2) embrace values that do not interfere with the capacity of others to act in accordance with their values, and 3) do so regardless of public acclaim or reproach.

Pretty cool what can be accomplished at OA with an “extra” hour.