What is Integrity? What is it Not?
Myths about Integrity
In the blog entry of November 15, 2018 I asked this question:
”If you’re going to practice integrity, you will have to resist the habits of a culture that treats embarrassment, not truthfulness, as the
touchstone of integrity; that deploys a rich vernacular of self-interest to override duty; and that embraces rampant promise-breaking as inconsequential.”
In other words, I suggested that to act with integrity, you will have to defy a cultural environment that encourages you to breach integrity, even as it proclaims its importance. How do you do this?
Well, the way to start is addressing common myths we have about integrity. Myths compete with truth and cast a spell over our capacity to act with integrity. This is the first in a series of posts on Myths About Integrity.
Myth No. 1: "Integrity is something I 'have.'"
Does anyone really “have integrity?” Is integrity something that can be claimed as a permanent fixture of character? Or, is integrity displayed, or not displayed, in the innumerable “small” decisions we make every day? In other words, sometimes we act with integrity, sometimes we don't? It just isn't accurate to say we “have” integrity because we simply don't act with integrity all the time.
What we "have" is the opportunity to discern promises and fulfill duties in a given situation, or fail to do so. The practice of integrity relies on the possibility of missing the mark as much as hitting it.
Viewing integrity as something we have or don’t have forces us into confining dualities of judgment: praise and blame, right and wrong, good and bad, love and hate, acceptance and rejection, and success and failure. These extremes of judgment lead us inevitably to proclaiming our beliefs fiercely rather than questioning them mercilessly. This is why many of us equate integrity with the boisterous assertion of belief rather than the calmness of deliberation.
Instead of viewing beliefs as objects you must hold on to at all costs, think of them as rest stops on a pathway toward greater understanding, like stepping-stones in a river we are trying to cross. Sometimes getting across is effortless. Other times it can be terrifying; we know we must keep moving but find ourselves unable to move because we are afraid of falling.
Myth No. 2: "Integrity is something you can’t teach or get better at."
Imagine running a marathon without practicing every day to gradually build mileage. Imagine walking into Carnegie Hall attempting a Beethoven sonata without having worked on every measure. Imagine trying to lose weight by starving yourself a few days before a deadline instead of eating mindfully for months.
Somehow we think acting with integrity is different. We think that the right thing is something that comes to us automatically, and that we "just do," without practicing. If integrity were so easy, why are its breaches so widespread? Is it just a lot of clueless people making a mess of things all around us, or are we contributing to the mess?
For example, let’s say you make a lunch date, then, getting a better offer, you cancel with the first person, telling a white lie about the reason for cancelling. Is that a breach of integrity, or is that too small to matter? If you think it's too small to matter, ask yourself, "If I condone lying about something as small as canceling a date with a friend, why should I expect a president to act truthfully?"
I know some of you may think, "that's different." Well, maybe it is, but I'm not so sure. Isn't the root cause the same? In the moment we deploy a white lie, we habituate ourselves to making excuses. Integrity is a skill in avoiding excuses. It is a skill in truth telling gained in the course of making decisions large and small throughout the day. For this reason, it is accurate to say that it is a practice, and like any other practice, it can be improved.
Myth No. 3: "I have integrity. The problem is other people who don't."
If everyone possesses integrity, why do we see breaches of integrity all around us: in politics, business, sports, academia, and organized religion? Is it really the other guy who lacks integrity or do we need to look closer into our own practices?
When we commit a breach of integrity that we criticize in others but tolerate in ourselves, we often say: "it's different." Here are some examples of ways we think we’re different:
- We may denounce the “old boy” corporate network as corrupt, but would not hesitate to ask an influential friend to obtain a job for our child.
- We may insist on our capacity to stand up for what is right, but at work we defer, out of loyalty, to bosses who manipulate company policies and exploit subordinates.
- We may make money on mutual funds that comprise companies engaged in practices we say we abhor.
- We may be appalled by sexual harassment we see at work but leave it up to others to report it.
- As motorists, some of us text while driving, forcing others to be more cautious.
- Most of us say we support environmental protection, but few can cite actual steps we’ve taken to further that goal.
“It’s different” is a refrain most of us have used to dismiss the comments of others rightfully calling us to account for our actions. The tendency we have to find fault with others while ignoring our own identical failings was captured brilliantly in Scripture.
“How canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Luke 6:42
Since we tend to be so sure that we "have" integrity, we resist viewing our actions as breaches of integrity, even though we point fingers at others for doing the same thing.
Here are seven more misconceptions about what integrity is:
- Integrity is the bold assertion of conviction (rather than the weighing of competing obligations.)
- Integrity is about right and wrong (rather than multiple “rights”).
- Integrity is built on a strong belief system (rather than a disposition to question beliefs).
- Integrity, or “doing the right thing,” is obvious and something you just do (rather than the product of deliberation).
- Integrity is a matter of instinct and will (rather than practice and habit).
- Breaches of integrity are usually the product of corrupt intent (rather than failures of “discernment”).
- Integrity is synonymous with ethics (rather than a unique feature of moral conduct).
This User's Manual will sift through these and other misconceptions to root out our illusions about our moral capabilities and in the process enhance not only our personal authenticity but also our national well-being.