Rejecting Integrity, Choosing Humanity

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


Integrity maintains the connotation of being untouched. Two of its prominent images — that of upholding norms or of being idealistic — reinforce that connotation through the concepts of rules and of forms. Incorruptibility is then found in being rigid or absolutely being. I believe there is an undemocratic politics and a stulifying view of moral education in this nest. I would prefer something humane: a trustworthy goodness comfortable in anarchy, disobedience, non-conformity and becoming, stuff of the comedy of life. What happens to what we want out of integrity when we begin with the assumption that the good part of life — and also the moral — involves being in touch with life and with people? Secondly, what happens to the good stuff of life — and the moral — when we avoid being normative or being ideal, that is, when we turn away the very concepts of norms and of ideals? Thirdly, what happens when good people aren’t seen as undeviating or absolute but are seen as in the process of becoming/ What is incorruptibility when we reject integrity and prefer humanity?


I want to redescribe integrity through the virtue of humanity. In the process, I want to minimize and contextualize integrity. I don’t want to have absolute integrity. I want to have humanity with moments of integrity in it. Considered absolutely, the concept of integrity is about remaining untouched, intact, a one, whole. If we have absolute integrity with the concept of integrity, integrity ends up being rigid and conformist in its moral architecture. It would privilege absolute being over becoming. It would imply a hierarchy of form over matter, and the power of rules cutting through recalcitrant cases. It would be conservative and judgmental. Being absolute about integrity creates a reactionary, conformist, perfectionistic, power-charged, hegemonic, and purist ethos. But being humane with integrity sets integrity within its limits and discloses its temporary uses. Humanity provides a critique of integrity, a critique even in a Kantian sense.

My worry about integrity today comes from what can become of integrity when it is unmoored from humanity. We live in a frequently inhumane culture, one that -at least in globalization- involves strong incentives to make ourselves perform perfectionistically and to purify ourselves at many turns -in status, health, ethnicity or in our emotions. Unmoored from humanity, in what David Harvey has analyzed as neo-liberalism, integrity can become a performance ideal and play into the kind of narcissism that Klaus Theleweit analyzed in his exploration of the Freikorps. This would involve a case of what Kant called “self incurred immaturity,” where our moral ideals internalize a dehumanizing hierarchy in the objects of our will. Enlightenment, in Kant’s sense, would then involve critiquing integrity through humanity -the power of subjectivity where each of us can become by being free to think for ourselves as persons. If absolute integrity inhibits our freedom to process life as people, it must be critiqued, especially in a performance culture. I think the concept of humanity can do this.

I do not want to exaggerate the risks of integrity. But I also think its moral architecture goes deeper than performance culture. It seems to me that integrity is bound up with two objectionable moral concepts -the norm and the idea- the first of which is judgmental, hierarchical and rigid; and the second of which is conformist, hegemonic, and purist. Just as I think it is a task of enlightenment to critique integrity through humanity, I think it is a task of our democratic age to style another sensibility of moral guidance than the normative or the idealistic. My talk today is an exercise in the critique of integrity using non-normative, non-idealistic reasoning.

Let me start with the concept of integrity , exploring its connotations. We know the word comes from the Latin “to remain untouched, or intact.” While I dislike conservative reliance on etymology -as if meaning must remain untouched!- it is surprising how much integrity has maintained its linguistic roots. For instance, in my country, one of the most common synonyms for “integrity” is incorruptibility. To be incorruptible is to be unable to be corrupted. To be corrupted is to decay -to disintegrate. It is to lose form or intactness. Incorruptible people cannot be touched by something that would make them lose their moral form. The image is of absolutely being, apart and entire. The threat is contagion, imperfection -rendering what is intact incomplete- and wavering, slackness, weakness, sickness, unhealthiness, indulgence, mutation, decay, disintegration. People with integrity would then keep their oneness with respect to the terms of integrity. They would not be broken or disturbed. They would be self-enclosed moral unities, absolute densities, unbending normative centers. True to form and when taken purely, integrity does not stray far from its roots. It has not decayed!

Now my Oxford American Dictionary lists “moral uprightness” as the firstdefinition of integrity. Think about uprightness. You should not be caught lying down! You should not be queer, for queerness means to swerve, to go wiggly, to lose the perpendicular to the ground, the harsh crossing with anything stooped, lying, sleeping, sexing, dying, sneaking or crawling. But what if human life is mostly curves? What if the best part of human life is in the grass? With one’s lover, with one’s child?

We might suspect a view of moral life that begins by warping human life, telling us to “Straighten up!” What should the relation be between morality and humanity? What aesthetics of morality is truly humane? Straightness, especially in a performance culture, implies disvaluing our stooped disability, as if those of us who are struggling instead of upright are less moral. Do we want to embrace a picture of an authoritarian school-master pointing a straight finger at a child who needs to move around, who is frustrated by the rigid lines of the seats and desks of his school: “Straighten up!”-? Is morality best figured through the authoritarian school-master admonishing a non-authority? Once again, self-incurred tutelage looms large. Why would we accept straightening and sitting up as our moral aesthetic in a democratic age? Why would we not ask the child, “What are you feeling? What intelligence is your agitated, moving body trying to show us obtuse adults?” Why wouldn’t we insist on the child as a source of intelligence, a growing power of subjectivity, of agency, an authority in many things of its life, as the Reggio Emilia preschools, for instance, do? But then we would need a different aesthetic than uprightness. “What warped wood is man” -exactly. The queer warp is human.

The aesthetics of integrity in ordinary language lead us into the deeper problem I mentioned earlier. Norms themselves are straightening devices that keep areas intact. The very concept of the normative -so loved by ethicists today since Christine Korsgaard’s The Sources of Normativity- is rife with the connotations of integrity. A norm is most plainly a rule. It sets things in order, as they should be. There is a ruler, and there is the stuff of life –potentially messy. That stuff needs to be straightened out. It needs to be ordered. Norms are intrinsically hierarchical. They assume authority and order people around. They are ordering tools. They make sure that we fit a pattern, that what we make is straightened according to rule.

The problem does not stop there, though. The aesthetics of the norm lead us to the aesthetics of the idea. The idea is the form or pattern that makes sense out of senseless matter and order out of anarchy. For instance, the idea in its original Platonic aesthetic keeps democratic chaos at bay, the pointless divergence of formless life. It is worth remembering, as Danielle Allen has noted, how Plato reshaped plain language to construct what Jacques Rancière described as Plato’s reactive defense against mad democracy and its stupid speech -the speech of sophists and of the people. I think Rancière is right to suggest in The Philosopher and his Poor that the idea contains within it hierarchy. He is, of course, characteristically more provocative. The idea as Plato coined the co-opted expression also implies: the inequality of intelligences, hatred of the mass of humankind, fear of democracy, and the desire to remain untouched. Seen in this light, the idea appears as a deep ancestor of absolute integrity, a reactive origin of the mentality of integrity, even a will’s ill-will against humankind and the “I can think just as intelligently as you can” -to echo Zarathustra. The assault on Platonism following Nietzsche, Heidegger, Deleuze and Rancière could also include the critique of integrity.

At this point, the criss-crossing impressions I’ve suggested from the aesthetics of conventional integrity might allow us to consider one more homology I’d like to set into discussion today. That is the linkage one can make between the wish inside absolute integrity and the form of the academy. This link is a stretch, but is it important because it concerns each person’s power of subjectivity, what Rancière -following Joseph Jacotot- calls “the equality of intelligences.” Just as integrity is bound up with exclusivity -“I will not be touched!”-and hierarchy -“I am upright, because I have internalized the lesson, ‘Straighten up!’”-so the academy -certainly since its Platonic origin in the coopted grove of trees of Akedemos- harbors an exclusive, hierarchical wish. This wish is to seize knowledge that no common person can figure out without the academy and to use this knowledge to straighten shit out. Originally, the shit in question was Athenian democracy, and the co-opted grove of trees honouring Athena’s favorite Akedemos was the place where the new hierarchy formed. The wisdom of Athena, goddess of wisdom, became co-opted into the wisdom ofthe academy. And the academy assumed the inequality of intelligences between those who can do philosophy and those who can’t “by nature” (today, by training and credential). And those with intelligence had then to keep stupidity at bay, using the purity of ideas (today, the power of performance). The academy and integrity maintain this homology. They face wayward bodies that must be straightened out or kept in place and argue that these bodies must conform to principled judgment. Integrity and the academy also seek to remain untouched by the confusion of life, outside the din of city life but judging it. Most importantly, as I will address shortly, they are ill-equipped to deepen our trust in formless becoming and the intelligence of all and anyone who is sincerely muddling through life. The academy will say, “That person is stupid,” and the morally upright will say he lacks integrity.

I’ve wanted to open up the connotations and the homology of integrity. The result is a bit of a mess. To see how the mess is not stupid involves seeing the humane and democratic alternative. I am after a different ethos. What is moral discernment when it is not judgment? What is character when it is incomplete and non-conformist, when it is becoming? What is communal life when each of us and the others are as intelligent as the next and each in her own way? What is truth when it is imperfect and never absolute? What is learning when it involves becoming open and involved, not removed? What is growing when there is no form or rule or discriminate unity with reference to which souls must be cast? What is reason without ideas? Life without principle? I am after an ethos for a democratic age of the world.

In the United States of America, we have a name for this ethos, and we call him, “Walt Whitman.” Whitman’s poetry -or Frank O’Hara’s or Adrienne Rich’s or Amiri Baraka’s- presents this queer unideality, this lovely, wild-assed, abnormal and unfettered thing: a soul-body with which other soul-bodies connect in the move, in the voice, in the life, where self and other course back and forth, forth and back in a situation of always momentary community, an event -in Jean-Luc Nancy’s sense- where completeness means death and to be intact is to be defended against meaning. In Whitman’s world -that anti-academy-intelligence swells and constellates; there is no hierarchy but what Deleuze and Guattari called a “rhizome.” We each have our lives to live, each with a unique, plain intelligence relative to the everyday and the tasks at hand in the neighborhood, farm, shore, range, region. We call this life of plain practical and relational reason thoroughly abnormal, thoroughly unideal -and we laugh. The limits of integrity are its own limits. Outside is the beautiful continuum of humanity.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the European poet Guillaume Apollinaire did not know how he felt about this. At the beginning of his great Whitmanian poem, “Zone,” he notes -with some fatigue- the indiscriminate interpenetration of high and low, old and new texts. There are detective stories and broadsheets, signboards and posters, the word of the Bible in French and Latin in churches, French and Polish and Czech, Hebrew and Polynesian figures. He -as a typical European- is weary, but his poetry -Whitmanian as ever- is not. It sings and jokes in the profusion and confusion of lives and languages. Babel, here, does not have a dream of power reaching skyward, but an overtone of unending community as flat and non-finite as a city walked at street level during its busiest hour. In the middle of a Whitmanian zone, people with absolute integrity would appear to miss out on the life of the city.

To redefine integrity in terms of humanity is no easy task, and its practice must be deepened. I have only stirred things up a little. I have linked several notions: integrity, the norm, the form, judgment, hierarchy, the academy. I have suggested a link to what Foucault called an ethics of “non-fascist” life. I have drawn a line between the task of integrity and the task of removing truth from the muddled masses. I have suggested we look for the roots of integrity in the same kind of wish which brought us the academy: a kind of narcissism that wants to clear up the confusions of being once and for all. Integrity shapes this wish into moral rectitude, and the academy shapes it into the ownership of truth.

But I have gestured -using Whitman and Apollinaire- to the equal intelligence of any body if left free to figure out her own life. And I would contend that we are most moral when we are full of mistakes and open to growing, that we are most truthful when we are open to the equality of intelligences in every living being. Humanity, not integrity, forefronts both of these things. Humanity, not integrity, is open to working through change and to the illumination of different perspectives. This is the initial case for the critique of integrity by humanity. With humanity, performance is not at issue but openness to the different ways living beings make something good out of life and to the bare capacity each has to do so, a capacity that is ranked only in a senseless act of power. Rectitude and owning truth are not helpful in humanity.

I want to deepen my perspective, then, the practice of growing up by translating integrity into humanity or at least contextualizing integrity inhumanity. Growing up in Kant’s and Foucault’s senses here involves dissolving authoritarian morals and exclusive knowledge into democratic life and the profusion of intelligences. In what follows, I will take on two cases central to integrity in our liberal age. I will show how these two cases are better described by the virtue of humanity. When the translation does not work, I will argue that what we find in humanity is more worthwhile than what the language of integrity preserves.

In the end, integrity will have a remainder, but no longer its intimidating position. After all, it would not be humane to eliminate integrity. To eliminate is one of the nasty preoccupations of the language of integrity. But humanity includes, steps aside, rolls, excepts, connects, stretches, loves, mends, breaks and relativizes. By dissolving integrity into humanity in two central cases of our age, I will suggest a series that we can continue -a line of flight from absolute integrity towards deepening our humanity.

So please let me begin with the normative and ideal person with integrity in liberalism. This is a person who makes sense inside our liberal, democratic age -or so we might think. She has integrity as a person. When we speak somewhat vaguely about integrity as I have been doing, the first move in becoming precise is tying integrity to its reference point. “Integrity with respect to what?” is the question we have to ask, because any claim of intactness or unity can make sense only when we know what is remaining intact, unified, whole or uncorrupted. In the case of people with integrity, it turns out that the “what” is a “who” -not a thing,but a person. In liberalism, the one with integrity remains a person, is intact, a unity in person. And this makes sense. Persons are the fundamental moral units in liberalism. The question, then, with respect to integrity is “What does it mean to be a person?”

A person is first and foremost someone who is responsible with her embodied, individual life as a human. She has grown into being a person,outgrowing pre-personal psychological formations as a child and adolescent,avoiding or eventually shunning depersonalizing tasks, habits and relationships; and resisting impersonal modes of looking at herself and at others. Essentially, she is a responsive and responsible, embodied consciousness working within her bounds and with her capacities to make a life from out of the value she faces and finds in existence.

There are also implications to her responsibility. The first is that she is truthful -sincere and accurate, as Bernard Williams would have said. If she weren’t truthful, she could not be responsive to what matters, that is, to value. She would not see value accurately and not acknowledge what matters sincerely. As a result, she would live an untrue life -a life where what she thought she valued wasn’t what it was, and where her deep values remained unexpressed all because she wasn’t truthful. This would be irresponsible of her. So truthfulness is a core virtue of persons, because responsibility is.

Respectfulness is also implied by responsibility. To be a responsible person is to know who can be responsible and their domains of responsibility, that is,who are persons and where their lives are theirs, not mine. Being a responsible person implies respecting the capacities of other people to lead their own lives by being responsive to value by themselves, that is, by their having their own values. Responsible personhood thus implies what the Rawlsian tradition calls “equal respect,” because personal responsibility involves awareness of domains of responsibility in each, separate person. If I am a person, I respect the personhood of others, their own capacity of self-responsibility, and unless I do, I am not acting as a person. Equal respect is a necessary condition on personhood.

Being a person centers around the realization that we each have a life of our own and that we each have the capacity to make decisions about it, to figure it out. Moreover, if the capacity is stunted in any way, we live a less than fully human life, which is tragic or unjust. The ontology of personhood centers around what the Stoics calls oikeiosis -the living being’s disposition to look after its own good. Spinoza called this conatus, and Rousseau called it amour de soi, or in the case of persons, amour propre. In the case of the human living being, oikeiosis centers around what Giovanni Pico della Mirandola noted is our human condition. We have to choose our good, first by figuring out what “face” we want to wear, what way we will respond personally to existence. A persona is a face we put on. For Pico, all it masks is our formlessness and our underlying power of choice. In other words, our lot as humans involves evaluation in a personal relationship with life, a point underlined by the personal address between God and “Adam” in Pico’s Oration on the Dignity of Man. That means we care for ourselves and our own good only by discerning what matters to us personally and being responsive to, then responsible with, it.

Moreover, discerning value is perspectival. Something must be valuable tome for me to value it. So from our humanity comes the space for personhood: we develop our persona -the faces we wear (Rousseau, following Starobinski,called them “masks” of amour propre)- and do so only when we are free to exercise intentional consciousness, as the phenomenologists say. To be human,we are tasked to become persons, and to become persons, we need subjectivity. Subjectivity intertwined with our open nature is at the heart of personhood, and it is due to our humanity. “The essence of man is not to have an essence,” said Sartre, echoing Rousseau of the Second Discourse and appropriating the Heidegger of Sein und Zeit. Truthfulness and equal respect are implications of the knot between personhood and responsibility found in the human condition of “choosing our own persona,” that is, of having the power of subjectivity which we all equally have.

Now the liberal person with integrity is intact, maintains wholeness,precisely with respect to this capacity of choice that pulses at the heart of personhood -passive and active, receptive and creative, as Schelling and Jean-Luc Nancy would say, I think. A person with integrity stands for what she values and lets others live their lives too, because to try to change them or live their lives for them is to undercut their responsibility, and this is a harm against them, not least disrespectful. At the same time, to fail to stand for what she values is to eschew responsibility. After all, “responsibility” literally means from the Latin to “stand for.” Here we meet uprightness again. A person with integrity is upright about her values and lets others discover theirs. This is the liberal “live and let live” with a backbone.

But the capacity for choice protected by integrity, kept whole, unified and intact; made upright, willful and active -it is none other than the heart of our humanity. Pico indicated this 500 years ago. It is our humanity that explains our integrity, not vice-versa. That is the point. It is our humanity that explains our integrity. A person with integrity is a person of humanity. This puts integrity in its place, contextualizes it, and provides the basis for a critique of integrity through humanity, where -in the Kantian sense of critique- we locate integrity within its proper limits and explain its conditions of possibility in the concept of humanity.

But why would we want to reject integrity at this point and choose humanity? It seems to me that we would have to if humanity demanded it, especially becoming a person, because integrity has its place due to personhood. In other words, if reasons of humanity showed us that becoming a person involves minimizing the role and grip of integrity, then the very rationale for integrity would demand its undoing. Must we lose the grip of integrity to become7persons? Do we risk inhumanity with ourselves or others if we do not? Does integrity actually clarify anything for us about the task of becoming a person?

These questions lead me to my second example in my series of translations. True to my method, I want to deepen my practice of humanity, and so I am picking an example that deepens the previous challenge. Moreover, I have not resolved the previous challenge, have not yet translated the person with integrity into a person with humanity. I have shown only how that person is of humanity. But the deeper example to which I now turn, since it develops the first, will, if I can translate it, thereby also translate the former. And if I no longer find a pressing need to translate it, then I also no longer need to translate the former. Moreover, since I will have shown you two examples, I will have indicated the kind of humanization series I promised earlier, a trajectory for developing the sense of humanity. Let me therefore turn to the second example, the example of someone with integrity who is at work on becoming a better person and leading a better personal life. I find this person truly approachable and the voice moreauthentic.

First of all, the person who is working at becoming a better person and leading a better personal life has to stay in touch with what it was to become a person, a work in what we might call Nietzschean “recollection.” A better person is simply a deepening of the kind “person.” To use Lauren Tillinghast’s brilliant definition of art, a better person is simply a person achieved very well, and mutadis mutandis for a better personal life. The intensification of the kind is at issue. So the original grasp of the kind must remain in view in the creative will. To become better people, we stretch toward a future deepening of what makes each of us a person. This is, in Nietzsche’s sense our promise. The art of becoming a better person deepens the commitment of becoming a person.

What would integrity be here? It would be remaining intact in the project of becoming, maintaining one’s grasp of the kind as one intensifies or deepens it through one’s creative commitment. We might say this would be shown infidelity to the criteria of personhood -a Cavellian formulation- or to the grammar of what it is to be a person -a Wittgensteinian convention. Integrity in becoming a better person would then consist in holding true to how we are people, how we step into being grown up people.

What marks that passage? Most simply, growing from our mistakes and learning how to relate interpersonally. Growing from our mistakes is self responsibility at its core, and interpersonal relationship is the life of equal respect between people. A person with integrity in becoming a better person and in leading a better personal life would hold true to growing from mistakes and to learning how to deepen interpersonal life.

My main contention in what follows is that these areas of personal life are best accomplished with humanity. When it comes to deepening personally,humanity -not integrity- is the best guide. I want humanity with me when I confront my mistakes, and I want humanity between us when we develop trust,the precondition to the fellowship appropriate to where we each are in our lives. If you want to call this “integrity,” go for it. But since humanity is the guide and is doing the work, integrity is just a wheel spinning with no role in the machine,again to echo Wittgenstein.

When I make mistakes, I want to grow from them. That is the minimal way I continue to look after my own good and develop my capacity to choose well in life. Growing implies changing -at first my feelings and my mind, but then as a consequence my life. I cannot remain the same when I change. To change is to become different. In becoming different, my previous persona cannot remain intact. Touched by experience as I learn to discern it in my emotional life and reasoning, I change somewhat as a person, especially if the mistake was significant, as in choosing to marry someone about whom I had doubts. The very process of personal growth implies losing the integrity of my former persona.

Now, the integrity we are examining is not that integrity, though. It is the integrity in becoming a better person. Here, I would hold true to growth. But the problem is -to be very precise- that growing isn’t about staying the same or remaining untouched. On the contrary, I can grow only if I let myself be touched by existence -only if I accept what Jean-Luc Nancy calls the “heart”-and only if I become different. It is really not clear to me at this point how the figure of integrity helps at all. It seems just imprecise. But I would rather see what is going on in my life plainly and clearly, like a photo by Nan Goldin.

Moreover, what helps me here is the virtue of humanity. I fucked up. I married someone I shouldn’t have. I did so for personal reasons, based on unresolved personal issues and a naive persona I wore. It hurt. It shattered my life. But I determined to keep growing up. There was nothing perfect about this. It was all highly imperfect and broken. I felt torn open by the world. I had to lie down. I wanted to curl into a ball, in the grass, being absorbed into the Earth amid the tall grass. I could not stand up straight.

But I understood that humans make mistakes, that I can’t be perfect, and that life has all sorts of queer swerves in it. Life is Democritean, a giant clinamen, an original swerve. I realized that it is love with and care for ourselves where we are, given our difficulties, in all the tattered mess among the mass of us that expresses the beautiful solidarity and durability of human life, and it helped me get up and keep moving. It was having humanity that helped. Seeing my mistakes with some humanity helped me grow, like a violet meadow flower for a brief season.

These days, I want to heal. I want to deepen my interpersonal life. Will integrity in becoming a better person -or living a truer life as a person- will it help guide me? My contention so far has been that it won’t, or at least not nearly as well as the virtue of humanity, which in fact will help most.

How might integrity help, if it did? In interpersonal life, it is important, as Theodore Zeldin has described so well, that each remain a partial mystery to the other. While relating cannot happen between two atoms, two separate lives should never fuse into a single unity. The key to interpersonal life is maintaining a connection that can never be assumed but is always a sensitive or aware reenactment of meeting. The meeting is of two different people, never completely the same, and the relationship grows in what Dilthey called the “between” -the Zwischenmenschen and what Kierkegaard called the “third” -in other words, the constantly resynthesizing joint construction of an agreeable, shared life in a spirit of love. Irigaray describes this third, describes the back and forth, coming and going, receiving and giving and essentially non-possessive and non-presumptive nature of this relationship. Interpersonal life is repeatedly an adjustment.

Again, it is hard for me to find how integrity really does any work here. I cannot remain untouched if I want to connect. Relationship is a mode of being touched,as Irad Kimhi might say. And growing in my capacity for relationship implies a better sense of touch and a greater capacity for being in touch with myself and with others. Integrity just does not help me understand a better sense of touch.

Perhaps, though, to grow in intimacy we need a part of ourselves to become more stable, more trustworthy and capable of standing to feel out stability and trustworthiness in others. Could integrity help me figure this? Perhaps it could,but why would I turn to its guidance when I can turn to humanity instead?Someone with humanity has both subjectivity and respect. Someone with humanity also sees human life as stubbornly imperfect, in the process of becoming, and persistently open to learning. If what I want is to become more stable and trustworthy, more capable also of seeing these qualities in another,then I would do better to aspire to having humanity than to having to figure out how to graft intactness and unity onto a field in flux. Humanity gives some guidance -the best guidance as far as I can tell. Integrity is a stretch.

“Best” is a big word. But what better evaluation of a relationship can there be than to say, “It was a loving and understanding friendship. We respected each other -we had a living commitment to respect each other. We each valued each other’s minds and manners of being, our quirky intelligences. We were not judgmental about each other’s mistakes, although we tried to give help with each other’s flaws when we asked for help or it was respectful. We had an amazingly human life together, full of what we found valuable separately and together, and our life was comfortable and exciting all at once.”

The virtue of humanity settles out these things. A relationship with humanity seems to be the best of relationships for self-made creatures such as we are. Just as it seems best to grow with humanity, so it seems best to relate with humanity.

So, there is integrity over there. It is just a shiny pinwheel spinning in the wind propped on a stick on an everyday yard of grass. It has become at best ornamental.

There may be some uses for integrity relative to specific moments where having humanity involves keeping intactness. If I am facing a heated family dinner where all my relatives at the table want me to admit that their anti-Arab beliefs are the only sane ones in the universe, I’d do well to keep my beliefs and my subjectivity intact. Their beliefs can all go to hell in this moment, while I remind them that I respect them as people but will not agree with them when what they say strikes me as so disrespectful and wrong. But I am really doing all this, standing up for what I believe, because I am acting from humanity. Integrity makes a guest appearance, but that is all.

I want to close by coming back to the things I stirred up deep in the tradition of moral theory. What would moral life be without norms and ideals -those kin of absolute integrity? Obviously, this is a topic too vast to go into today. But I have already shown, if not said, how it would work. Sensibilities are not normative, and, lacking principles of construction, they are not formal either. We learn sensibilities like we learn to relate with specific people -overtime, in narratives, with an aesthetic, by doing and feeling things we cannot put into words but which leave a personal impression on us. We learn sensibilities in so many ways and drawing on so many kinds of considerations. There are times and places for rules and for formal patterns in sensibilities, sure, but neither are our go-to concepts when it comes to being thoughtful with life. When we act out of the sense of humanity, moral life is very different than the history of moral theory would show.

The same is true of learning, too. There is nothing exclusive about learning with some humanity in you. Anyone can do it anywhere. We do not need an exclusive space where rituals induct people into owning the truth through rigorous practices that redefine intelligence in terms of technical power,performance, and amassed products of knowledge. We need only to preserve the democratic commitment to address each other through the axiom of the equality of intelligences. This kind of learning point to something beyond the academy, which the humanities have yet to realize.

for Esther Ann Bendik, with love

1 This typescript was prepared as a script for a lecture. Accordingly, standard scholastic references are not included and, with the exception of this footnote, all details are original as presented. For scholarly references, by all means please contact the author at

The author additionally wishes to thank Vanessa Davis for hearing and constructively criticizing an earlier draft of the lecture.

Post-paper discussion

About Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

Educated at Yale and at the University of Chicago, Jeremy Bendik-Keymer is Elmer G. Beamer-Hubert H. Schneider Professor in Ethics and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of The Ecological Life: Discovering Citizenship and a Sense of Humanity (2006) and co-editor (with Allen Thompson) of Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change: Human Virtues of the Future (2012).
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