Keeping One’s Bearings in a World Gone Mad

The following paper was presented at Saints and Madmen: Integrity at its Limits, at the Einstein Forum in June 2014. Transcript below. Additionally, listen to the post-paper discussion.


2012-13 was a good year for the hypocrite, the spineless, the shallow, the venal; it was a good year for the zealot, the fanatic, the freak, and the fool.

Wherever we looked – in literature, in history, in the newspaper, to say nothing of closer to home – we found excellent examples of hypocrisy, corruption, plagiarism, fabrication, selling out and compromise. But then there were also the rarer cases of integrity maintained under extraordinary circumstances, but at the cost of all the nicities of social life.

Perhaps even more interesting was the rhetoric of integrity – and especially its abuse. We can largely tell that integrity still matters to people by the constant and varied forms of calling out its absence. While some of these are appropriate, many are contrivances – tools for excluding opponents from a discussion. One form this takes are the accusations or (more often) insinuations of hypocrisy, of compromise, of selling-out or inconsistency used deliberately to undermine the authority of someone’s voice, so as to dismiss the validity of their claims without actually acknowledging them. Another form, more a part of ordinary exchange than of political discourse, is the relegation of anyone of outstanding integrity to the realm of fools, madmen, or connivers with secret ulterior motives. We are surprisingly adamant that we will not allow an actual case of someone who genuinely has integrity in an outstanding way; and we will not admit that someone who appears to be showing outstanding integrity is in fact doing just that.

Then there is the curious invisibility of the lack of integrity to the person acting without it, and often to those around them. If someone lies or deceives, they generally know that they are doing so, and have a phenomenology of what they are doing as of lying or deceiving. Similarly with theft, fraud, and the more violent sins. But generally, someone acting without integrity doesn’t notice that they’re doing that at all. They will have some perfectly straightforward and innocuous understanding of their action as one in which the opportunity for integrity or compromise does not even arise.

And because both of us work in the increasingly coercive and corrupting institutional context of UK higher education, we were interested in the institutional structures and social contexts that undermine integrity – make it not just impossible to maintain, but make it vanish altogether as a quality of persons, their work and their shared world. What happens when ‘integrity’ gets replaced with ‘transparency’ as the cardinal umbrella virtue of institutions and persons’ work within them? What, if anything, has been lost?

So we found ourselves with a web of questions related to integrity: what does it do to a person to have integrity, or to lack it? What effect does it have on others? What qualities of character and circumstance enable one to maintain integrity, and which undermine it? Do institutions have integrity and, if so, does that integrity somehow cut against personal integrity? Does the integrity of something created bear any interesting relation to the integrity of its creator? What would we do without integrity – what do we do without integrity – and should we do without integrity? After all, it seems to make people pretty disagreeable to those around them.

Whatever the answers to these questions, it became obvious early on that integrity is too important to be left to the philosophers.

Here’s what happens if you hand integrity over to the philosophers:

First, they are still strangely wrapped up in Socrates’ “What is X?” question, and so pretty much the only question the philosophers put is ‘What is integrity?’. Then, they have a perverse way of going about answering the question. Anglophone philosophers, at any rate, will first ask for your necessary and sufficient conditions; then they will seek counter-examples to throw at it – until they’ve shown that the most appalling people have integrity, and the best lack it. (This is one of Anglosaxon moral philosophy’s more disreputable uses of the argument ad Nazium: the standard introductory and abiding question is: “But why couldn’t there be a Nazi with integrity?”)

So if you hand the topic of integrity to the philosophers, they will in this way demonstrate that integrity is not a virtue – and in any case, there are no virtues; in fact, it is not even a character trait (and no, there’s no such thing as those, either) – thereby utterly, culpably, missing the point.

So we’ve thrown the project open to the world – an invitation to come together with others who want to think hard and to think seriously about the value of integrity and the cost of doing without it, its place and its out-of-place-ness; its demands and its extravagances. We need historians who can illuminate the changing nature and place of integrity in popular discourse; political theorists who can think through the nature of the political realm, its integrity, and its relation to individual integrity. We need social scientists who look at the effect of institutions and mores on people’s actions and self-conceptions; psychologists who study how groups of people create, enforce and challenge norms among themselves; literary and cultural theorists and art historians to share their thinking on making things with integrity – in both senses of the phrase. And we need people willing to simply draw on their own experience of being in all the various contexts studied, to think about what integrity and the lack of it means.

We have found a few of these people, gradually building a community people interested in continuing the conversation, using the Integrity Project website as a resource and place of exchange. And we are continuing to find opportunities to encourage others to think with us and speak about the topic, from a variety of directions.

As the analytic philosopher’s latest refinement on a definition of integrity dies the slow death of a thousand counter-examples, one thing we notice is that for some reason their candidate necessary and sufficient conditions always have a devil of a time distinguishing the person of integrity from the fanatic.

For some reason?

My analytic colleagues may be starting in the wrong place, and going about it in the wrong way. And yet, it is not accidental that the fanatic keeps turning up wherever we look for the person of integrity. This reflects our lived experience.

§ So where should I begin? And how should I presume? Shall I say:

Integrity is what Job has when his world collapses around him, and still he refuses to curse god.

Integrity is what Socrates has when he rejects any plea bargain that would require him to leave off philosophizing, and refuses to flatter his jurors that they cleverer and more powerful than they are, so that he might get off more lightly.

Integrity is what Antigone has when she insists on a proper burial for her brother who took up arms against their city, instead of standing silently by as Creon decrees the body be left for the dogs.

Whatever it is, we admire them for it; we might wish that we had the same, though doubt whether we would prove up to it, when it came down to it; we would not want them to lack that quality, not for their sakes nor for our own, yet we might wonder whether we would really want to be friends with them – it seems too dangerous, too awful. Yet for such a person to call us ‘friend’, to count such a person as a friend, would be profoundly heartening.

But notice: Job’s tenacity earns him the contempt of his wife. Socrates’ oddness causes Alcibiades violent consternation, and annoys Callicles no end: he will insist on being so odd – can’t he just be normal? And Antigone’s sister, Ismene, is dismayed by her sister’s “fiery mood”, and offers to at least discreetly keep it secret – to which offer Antigone replies “Speak out – please! Silent you will be more hateful to me than if you told everyone what I did.”

§ Integrity as a quality of persons has a longer history in English-language popular moral discourse than in German. In fact, I don’t know how I would have this conversation in German. I wonder whether I could have it in French, or in Polish, or in Swedish – and I wonder how much that matters. Does one need a word in order to collect phenomena together in a certain way, in order to make certain experiences possible at all? The Greeks, I know, had no word for integrity; yet this hasn’t stopped them profoundly shaping our own thinking about it.

In 18th-19th Century English public discourse, there was a bit of a run on integrity – you can see evidence of it all over tombstones and memorials from the period. It was how any man would want to be remembered. Samuel Johnson includes integrity in his dictionary (1728/1768, 3rd ed.):

“honesty, uncorrupt mind, purity of manners; purity, genuine unadulterate state; entireness, unbroken whole”.

And the interest in integrity hardly began then. Where Luther’s 1534 Bible has Job maintaining his Frömmigkeit, the King James translators in 1611 have him holding fast to his integrity.[1]

By the time of the King James, ‘integrity’ was already in use for perhaps 200 years to mean a kind of unbrokenness or intactness of person, of character and purpose: The first English dictionary (1604) of only 2,543 words (mostly Greek-, Latin-, or Hebrew-based words, the title tells us, collected especially for assisting “ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskilful persons”) includes ‘integrity’ with the meaning ‘pureness’, ‘innocency’ – integrity for ladies, then!; and it is used in 1548 to praise Henry VI along with his liberality, clemency and courage.[2] But attaching the word to Job’s reaction to his misfortune in the most widely shared book in the English-speaking world must have contributed significantly to its currency and connotations in English-language moral discourse since the early 17th Century. It made Job, for English speakers, a model of integrity.

Although it sounds strange to us now to say ‘Job held fast to his integrity’, the translators of the King James were onto something. Through the literal sense of untouched and unbroken, they were picking up on a long Platonic-Stoic tradition of thinking about a certain kind of unity and wholeness of person that is not a given but an achievement – a kind that sticks out conspicuously, and often antagonises people; a sort of unity and wholeness which both relies on its inter-personal conditions and social context, and often stands painfully against those.

What kind of wholeness is relevant here?

What is it that Socrates had? That Antigone shows? That Job holds onto?

§ The touchstone: unified psyches and consistency in action [preconditional unity and emergent unity]

Here are two rather different approaches to that wholeness characteristic of integrity. Let us call them ‘preconditional unity’ and ‘emergent unity’. Both of them return to the core meaning of integrity as ‘intactness’, and bring out why such a thing might be immensely important to us, both in ourselves and others, and not just a kind fetish.

1. ‘Preconditional’: Bernard Williams says it is not a virtue, because it is a pre-condition for human agency.

Integrity lacks both the motivational force and the characteristic thoughts typical of virtues. Kindness for instance is that virtue by which one tends to see the world as opportunities for being kind, and to thereby be moved to act accordingly. So similarly with courage or justice.

But integrity, as alluded to before, has a curiously invisible quality both to those that have it and those who lack it.

And while it makes perfect sense for someone to think to herself, “I must try to be kinder”, it doesn’t sound quite the same for someone to think to himself, “I must try to have more integrity”. We might even wonder whether someone capable of having such a thought is in fact capable of the thing itself.

This difference between integrity on the one hand, and courage, justice, kindness on the other, may arise because integrity is prior to any virtue; it does not describe a quality of character, but that which enables one to have a character at all. In order to act meaningfully, one has to have a sense of being somebody – perhaps even have some sense of who one is. But in order to have such a sense, there must be commitments – Williams prefers the word ‘projects’ – with which one identifies strongly, and in such a way that to violate or abandon them would leave one disoriented. Identification with some such core commitments, or ground projects, is what orients one in particular actions and in organizing one’s life as a whole. Staying true to them is what holds a person together.

Such a view can be, and has been, criticized as a complete account of integrity – not least because of the frighteningly neutral character of the ‘ground projects’ on account of which one counts as having or lacking integrity. But taken simply as some observations about integrity (its role and importance) rather than a philosopher’s definition (with necessary and sufficient conditions), there are several aspects worth noting. Here are three:

i. Integrity is related to that wholeness of character and person which orients one’s outlook, enabling one to make sense of the world, and so of oneself – to make sense of one’s actions and choices, and to make sense in action.

ii. Although described in individualistic terms, integrity is an individual quality only had in a social context and in relation to others. Having projects, and being committed, and the meaningfulness of a life that this enables, only makes sense in a social and inter-personal context, through people living together.

iii. And finally, and more formally, if one wants to speak of consistency or inconsistency in character or action, there must be something that establishes that with which one is (or fails to be) consistent. We can use ‘integrity’ to refer to that which makes it possible for actions to be evaluated as consistent or inconsistent at all. And so one might call this ‘preconditional integrity’.

2. ‘Emergent Unity’: Let us take another way of characterizing the wholeness of integrity, one which locates the relevant unity at the opposite end, so to speak, and thus gives a different explanation of why integrity does not look like the other virtues, and yet would be something of vital importance to human life.

Rather than being fundamental and prior, integrity is what emerges from all the virtues taken together. Choosing ‘integrity’ in 1611 to describe the kind of wholeness that Job maintains was, I suggested, a choice informed by nearly two-thousand years of Platonic and Stoic thinking about unity of the person, its value and relevance. If we turn to look at the Stoics themselves, for instance, we see that the vital unity of the psyche that might be called integrity is unlike other virtues because it is a quality of those virtues.[3]

On the Stoic account, different aspects of virtue can be characterized in their different familiar ways; but there is really just virtue and the lack of it. Any single virtue – say, justice or kindness – will not be present until it is in the presence of all the other virtues. Now this can sound like just the sort of high-minded optimism that the Greek moralists are notorious for, until we realize that we are not discussing the accumulation of different things which only reach their magic perfection, Aristotelian-wise, when sound judgement comes in to use each to limit the others. Rather there is just one thing – just one good, virtue, or living in accord with rational, providential nature. Once one has that, we could break up different aspects of feeling and behaviour, and file them under familiar categories – that kind of virtuous action we call justice; that kind, we call ‘courage’. But they cannot help but form a complementary unity, since they are various expressions of this one thing: living rationally, according to the rational, good order of the universe. Integrity is just what the fact of their original unity is called; it emerges as a quality of the whole. The virtues cannot help but be unified in the sense of all pulling in the same direction, and that direction is towards according with something which itself is ordered for the best. One aims to make oneself accord with the integrated – providential unity – of reality; and it follows seamlessly that ones actions and emotions reflect this unity – for there is nothing left in a person’s soul to pull them in another direction.

There are reasons we are not all Stoics: the fatalistic flawlessness of the arrangement of the universe is not something many of us have much appetite for. And that our appetites and aversions should all be fully amenable to reason can hardly be taken seriously. Still, the Stoics offered our most plentiful supply of exemplars of integrity; and their view captures important features of our inherited thinking about integrity:

i. the person of integrity is intelligibly good in other ways: integrity is incompatible with being vicious, and yet it is not just a generic term interchangeable for ‘all-round decent’

ii. Integrity has to do with unity and wholeness – and not with its insipid brethren ‘consistency’ and ‘coherence’. That unity worthy of the name ‘integrity’ must be one which is reality-oriented and aiming at the good.

iii. And, as Plato already saw, the person of integrity is not weighing up alternatives and balancing competing desires in a series of moments-of-choice. Integrity is something one does with one’s whole soul; and for that reason we can expect a kind of clarity and harmony within the person of integrity from which, in many cases, action and appropriate feeling just follow as a matter of course.

These two different ways of capturing integrity as intactness approach the area of concern from opposite directions.

It is important to hold on to the first, minimal, bottom-up approach: it is a special kind of harm to violate that in a person; a sort of harm for which we lack an adequate name. But if we can identify this foundational integrity as the precondition for personhood and agency, we can at least begin to appreciate the depth of the harm done by forcing people to compromise or violate their integrity.

But while it indicates why it might be so vital to an individual to maintain integrity, it does not even hint at why we generally should value integrity in others – and in particular why we deplore hypocrisy and venality, cynicism and duplicity. In fact, it’s a way of thinking about integrity where compromising and selling-out simply look like changing one’s mind.

At the same time, the Stoics’ top-down integrity illuminates something important about what we might grant is genuine unity of a person, rather than the order within a preference-set that happens to hold. But conceiving of integrity as a property of the virtues demands a kind of perfection that is not just rare and difficult – but also demoralizing.

If integrity requires perfection, then no one can really be blamed for lacking it – for being disingenuous or selling out or cooperating with arbitrary power because it is more convenient to do so. Or alternatively, one implicitly appeals to such a demand for perfection in order precisely to lay blame as a distraction and deflationary device, so that the imperfect need not be attended to in any respect.

So we might ask ourselves: Do we have to choose? Can we cherry-pick, and take from each what we like? Or is there perhaps some relation between these two apt ways of characterizing a valuable unity and wholeness of persons?

Plato certainly thought so: The Republic in effect argues that the integrity that is a precondition for any meaningful life is the same thing that, pursued to its logical conclusion is the consummate integrity of a soul fully unified by its appreciation of the perfect integration of the intelligible in the light of the good.

And Kant inadvertently draws the two views together (in a distinctly Platonic move) when he claims that orientation in thinking gets its bearing from the highest good.

§ On the elusive nature of integrity: Let us start with all the things which might look like integrity, take away what doesn’t belong, and see what we have left.

Integrity is not a matter of having principles, and sticking to them – though of course the person of integrity will have principles, and stick to them.

Integrity is not being unwavering – although much behaviour that displays integrity is indeed marked by a noteworthy steadfastness.

Integrity is not a matter of having the right values, although the person of integrity will indeed have values intelligibly worthwhile to others, even if those others disagree about them.

Integrity is not honesty, though the person of integrity will be honest as a matter of course, as well as forthright. It would be more apt to say that the person of integrity is ‘a man of his word’ – can be relied upon to mean what he says, and to take responsibility for following through with whatever actions his words imply.

The constancy or steadiness of integrity is the sort that comes from deep self-knowledge; the honesty of integrity is a kind of presence in one’s speech and action that stands out, and inadvertently calls attention to how much most of us are not at all properly present in our words and deeds. And if the person of integrity has the right values, this is not primarily manifested as unwavering adherence to principles. This is where the Stoics, and Plato on the one hand, and Bernard Williams on the other, unexpectedly agree.

The constancy and correctness of integrity is more aptly thought of as the constancy of vision – if you like, of perspective. It is the unflinching appreciation of which goods are commensurable with which, at which exchange rate, and which are not commensurable at all; and it is the steadfast unwillingness to ever enter into bargaining any amount of the former for the latter. It is unflinching because sober enough to have considered already whether one is prepared to be answerable to these commitments. It is, then, finally, seeing one’s field of options and necessities in this light (from this perspective).

Seeing the field in this light means, for instance, that some things will show up as options, and others do not.

Epictetus recounts the tale of the Stoic advising his friend, who is deliberating about whether to act in one of Nero’s dramatic performances.             “By all means, go act in the play,” advises the Stoic. The friend asks, “why aren’t you going to, too?” “Because,” the Stoic replies, “I do not even ask myself the question”.

“For he who has once brought himself to deliberate about such matters, and to calculate the value of external things, comes very near to those who have forgotten their own character.”

Seeing in this light means precisely not engaging with life as if everything were a matter of balancing, or choosing, or deliberation. This is not of course to say that the person of integrity never deliberates; but what they deliberate about, under what conditions, what considerations come into the deliberations are different – and will not appear as a choice between ‘the moral’ and ‘the prudent’.

Once one starts deliberating between the moral and the prudent, one has already lost sight of that unifying perspective, and that unity of purpose characteristic of outstanding integrity. [4]

And here it is important that the only thing that can serve as the focal point for that unity of purpose is the good itself, or god – which we can never know in full, never be confident of knowing, and yet for which we can accept no substitutes.

When Plato looks as if he is indulging in the most extravagant metaphysics with his ‘Form of the Good’ that is ‘beyond being and better than it’, he is in fact just trying to articulate what is so wondrous about the disconcerting Socrates.

I hesitate to use the word perspective. The metaphor is apt in some respects, and I will use it again. Perspective takes in whole sets in their relations to one another. It emphasizes a pervasiveness and mutual coherence. At the same time, the metaphor carries some particularly inappropriate connotations here:

–          perspective is something you can adopt or change at will, both in the literal and the moral sense of ‘adopting a perspective’

–          it may even be fully appropriate to encourage the practice of changing and adopting different perspectives.

–          A perspective implies a point of view, and so implicitly draws attention back to the pinpoint of the isolated, featureless ego that looks at the world, chooses and acts.

–          Since perspectives are multiple, to think in terms of perspectives is to think in terms of my perspective, which is different from your perspective, and yours and yours. I think of what I see as mine, as my way of seeing it.

–          All perspectives are partial, in such a way that it cannot be a criticism of a perspective that it is partial.

–          And inasmuch as perspective is tied up in the metaphor of vision, it can imply passivity, or at least neglect the active engagement of the person.

So let us think of integrity rather as a way of inhabiting the world. It is a way of conducting oneself – relating oneself to oneself, to the world, to others. It is a way of being which at the same time reveals the contours of a world that is more than just a series of episodes and accidents.

This will, in one sense, characterise anyone capable of meaningful action, and having a life with meaning that is meaningful to that person herself. They will value; and they will be committed to valuing. That commitment will be expressed not just in which options are attractive to that person, but in which options are even conceivable.

The integrity that stands out, however – the fearsome integrity of Antigone, for instance, or the humbling integrity of Job – is not content to live in some world or another. It inhabits and constructs a world around a commitment to appreciating the true value of things, and not being deceived or distracted by mere appearances. It is this commitment that determines what could count as a meaningful life, and what within a life is meaningful. It determines which options make sense, and which arise for consideration at all.

But this is where the difficulty comes in:

Let integrity be a matter of seeing the world in a true light; striving to maintain that grasp through all one’s interactions, activities, emotions, ambitions; knowing what matters and what does not, refusing to accept the lesser as commensurable with the greater (Symposium, Phaedo); let it be characterized by an undistracted commitment to the real weight of things.

It is a perspective from which most of the world seems mad, bad, and unutterably sad. Integrity can be a lonely and discouraging business.

That is bad enough, when we are thinking about whether to recommend integrity to our children. But it gets worse than that.

Integrity is a way of being – being oneself, being with others, being in a world, inhabiting a life; but it is one radically at odds with most of the world. It cannot but be so, since the understandings under which one acts and makes sense of oneself and the world are so different; the categories one appeals to, the considerations taken to be relevant, are just orthogonal to one another. This is why Socrates looks so atopos, strange, out of place. The person of integrity has a way of inhabiting a life, interpreting and presenting it, which does not fit, and this lack of fit antagonizes others. It disrupts the smooth running of things, and makes people uncomfortable.

Integrity is a dangerous thing.

Still worse, let integrity be an ability to keep one’s bearings through all the confusions and messiness of life. One keeps one’s bearings precisely because one has a steady commitment to what really matters, which – in all its richness – stays reliably as it is, even if one’s apprehension of it is always incomplete. This forms the categories through which one sees life, and finds the world meaningful. Yet one also needs others to keep one sane. It is not enough to be grasping after an elusive Good. Other people, how our interactions with them go, whether we find we can make sense to them, and them to us, is the ballast that keeps us from listing every which way with the wind.

The person of integrity needs those very same people with whom she shares no perspective, and to whom she can therefore only appear mad, in order to stay sane.

It is not possible to be committed to valuing things in a true light, to give things their proper weight, to do justice to how things are, without persisting in trying to inhabit some one world with others.

Yet the predicament of the person of integrity is that people who do not already share her commitment are singularly unmotivated to try to see the world her from her perspective; and at the same time, she cannot relinquish that perspective in order to find common ground. She can only persist in expressing it, and articulating what matters and how things look from there, in the hope of generating some confirmation of her sanity in the form of recognition.

This is why Antigone vehemently rejects Ismene’s offer of protection through silence, “Speak out! Silent you will be more hateful to me than if you told everyone”. And when the two sisters part, it is with Ismene telling Antigone that it is not possible to do that which Antigone knows is necessary, and will be done.

Post-paper discussion

[1] The Great Bible of 1540 has at Job 2:9 “Dost thou continue yet in thy perfectness?”

[2] Edward Hall · The vnion of the two noble and illustrate famelies of Lancastre [and] Yorke · 1st edition plus variant, 1548 (1 vol.), cited by the OED

[3] Christopher Gill

[4] Williams quote: if it appears to him that way, the game is already lost

About Amber Carpenter

Amber Carpenter is Associate Professor at Yale-NUS and also works at the University of York. She works primarily in ancient Greek and ancient Indian philosophy, focusing on ethics and on metaphysics and epistemology as relevant to ethics.
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