By Basil Gala, PhD
In Search of Meaning
I possess integrity when I consistently follow well-thought values, actions, morals, ethics, methods, and spiritual or artistic principles. Artists, scientists, attorneys, politicians, all workers producing goods or services face the dilemma of having to give up some or all the integrity of their work for the sake of selling, finding popularity, or achieving financial success in society. Is honesty really the best policy? Can I not profit on occasion by lying? Surely others in society expect me to be truthful to them; they like the convenience of not working to find the truth for themselves. A parent likes a child to be honest so as to control the child’s behavior more easily. Governments want us honest so they can tax us thoroughly and make us do their bidding. Those in power demand the truth from us. I seek and express the truth for my own reasons. Yet, integrity is the ultimate virtue for me. Why is integrity important? Integrity is vital because it corresponds to the core of my being, who I am, and who I want to become. With integrity I am whole and complete; without it, I am a fragmented personality, being blown around by the winds of circumstance.
I have integrity when I’m honest with others and especially with myself. Shakespeare scripted, “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Yes, I may profit personally by lying, at least for a time; but my community suffers from my perfidies and lies. My community is less likely to survive if I and many other citizens behave without integrity, accepting graft and getting ill-begotten profits.
I may occasionally slip up and lie, violating my principles. If I fall into the habit of lying, however, eventually I will be lying to myself. I don’t live alone in the world; I am a member of humanity among all living things. Lying is cutting my own self off from clear and beneficial talk with my kind, eventually losing contact with reality, ending up with a breakup of my personality, and gaining admission to a mental institution or worse.
In high school I faced the dilemma of upholding integrity as opposed to my immediate self interest. My classmates were cheating widely in tests; I was tempted to cheat too. But I don’t recall ever cheating in exams, either because I was honest, or because I was afraid of being caught by the teacher and punished. Really, cheating in tests would be cheating from me, because I would not learn as much by cheating rather as by studying.
Many persons lie and cheat in school and continue cheating as adults. Even scientists sometimes fake their research results. Such persons may hold PhD degrees, but they betray the scientific ideal of unbiased truth seeking in research.
Yet, public integrity, honesty towards others, is more common than integrity in our own private lives. We cannot pretend to be honest in public, but live with lies in our homes without damaging our inner life and the lives of our family members.
If you want to be a true artist consider this. Artists show integrity when they follow their talent and don’t debase it by catering to the current fashion just to please their rich patrons.
In the professions, a surgeon may say to you, you don’t need this operation; follow a therapy. Such a physician follows the Hippocratic dictum, “First cause no harm.” A politician may turn away stringy contributions to his campaign or other gifts at the risk of losing an election; that politician is honest, demonstrating integrity.
Any skilled worker with integrity will pass it on to the things he designs and makes. A building has integrity when it’s designed and built with good materials and workmanship, so it does not fall down easily. A person and a building are strong if they possess integrity. In the World Trade Center demolished by al-Qaeda, the designers used cheaper straight beans instead of I-beams to support the floors. When top floors collapsed, they knocked down all the floors below; then the sides of the buildings caved in. The Center was not build with integrity.
A person with integrity follows the rules of society, enabling society to survive and prosper. An official who accepts bribes to get things done for a citizen has no integrity, but is corrupt. Corruption exists in all societies; it is more common in those societies which decay and flounder. Greasing the wheels of government results in the collapse of all just authority.
Still, in commerce, pleasing your customers or audience is necessary in order to serve them. Boring your customers is fatal to your following in any field. Bored customers walk away from your business, so you will not be able to serve them even if what you offer is very good. For example, if customers walk into your restaurant demanding beef burgers, then beans and grains will not sell well—unless you cater to the three percent of the community who are vegetarians.
In my own work, I am able to exercise integrity largely because I don’t need more income than I have. With my writing I want to find an audience, reach them with my ideas, and influence people to live virtuously and effectively. Yes, it would be nice to earn money if I can get it without giving up the main purpose of my efforts, to offer good ideas to people. I plan to continue my work as long as I find it worthwhile, while looking for an audience that shares my values, people inclined to hear what I have to say. My efforts will be in the intersection of my interests and the interests of a selected public. My purpose includes forgoing dullness and being interesting and entertaining as much as I am able.
As a computer scientist, my decision is clear cut. I want to make discoveries in artificial intelligence. I don’t have to please people in this area; I just need to succeed in making my algorithms work. If the mathematics works, then my associates and I can turn the algorithms into applications to benefit the world, as Larry Page and Sergei Bryn did with Google.
I may not achieve a success like Google, but that is not important; integrity means doing what is virtuous whatever the outcome may be. Integrity is the queen of virtues. It embodies all other virtues because integrity is obedience to a code of ethics. A person of integrity adopts sound principles in living and habitually follows these principles, not easily swayed from them by personal desires or outside influences and pressures.
Certainly, being ahead of your time in fashion or people’s understanding will not make you popular. Vincent van Gogh was an uncompromising artist following his own vision. He sold only a few paintings in his lifetime to buy art materials. His brother Theodore supported Vincent and collected the artist’s paintings in an attic, to be valued in future for many millions of dollars each.
A fictional case in point was Howard Roark, loosely based on Frank Lloyd Wright, in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Roark was steadfast in his professional principles as a creative modern architect. In the end, after many trials and tribulations at the hands of powerful mediocrities, Roark is publicly vindicated and successful with the help of other principled people.
Heroic stances are fine, but how do we establish the validity of the rules, the ethics, the values, or the ideals we have assumed and on which we base our integrity? Ultimately, all values are derived from the need for survival, of self, family, community, species, and ecosystem. Religious extremists who kill themselves or others for their notion of God clearly have not assumed the right values; such people have no genuine integrity.
But what are the sources of genuine integrity? Nature, nurture, and inspiration: our genes, our upbringing with parents, uncles, teachers, and guidance from a transcendent source. Such sources are not enough because they are not always reliable sources of the truth. Even revelation comes to the prophets in heavy static. We need to reason what is best for survival in the exercise any given virtue, such as integrity: survival of the great web of life in which we’re all embedded.
Each of us needs integrity in our lives to truly succeed, to preserve family, community, and the world at large. Loss of integrity leads to corruption which we find at the highest levels of our society, in government, in companies, even in churches.
But worldwide, corruption is worse in such places as Russia and her satellites, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The future of humankind and our entire ecosystem is dismal unless more people acquire integrity at least in the major nations. Specifically, world leaders should stop lying about the extent of global pollution and planetary warming; they should stop lying about the need for more nuclear weapons and other killing machines; and they should stop lying about their nation’s geopolitical rights.
A leader with integrity is not apt to vacillate but stands firm facing gusty winds of challenge, winds inevitable if the goal is lofty. Such a person often becomes prominent in the community. Is so, how do we explain Hitler’s rise to power with lies and propaganda? Leadership based on lies eventually collapses. That is the fate of Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin.
Likewise, commitments to others made without integrity are worse than worthless. A person who makes promises to a lover without intending to keep them is charged with more than deceit for causing the destruction of a relationship, even a whole family.
Okay, I understand that integrity–living according to my values and principles–is the master virtue. How do I acquire it? Among all the virtues you need to focus on integrity, being true to yourself, to advance your character and your life. How do I cultivate and nurture integrity? You do it first with an unwavering attachment of your attention to the truth of things. Look at yourself objectively, neither exaggerating nor underestimating your merits.
As with any other faculty, you improve your integrity through practice. Think the truth; tell the truth if you must speak. Apply integrity every minute of your life, fully aware of your actions.
I am responsible for my actions; I have free will. There sits a plate. I can raise my hand, pick it up and place it before me for my dinner. I can open my eyes; I can close my eyes. Therefore, I am able to do things freely, or so it seems. Now consider more complex operations, and it’s not so easy to be responsible.
A sequence of movements can be dictated by my will only if I focus on one simple task at a time, consciously. Yet, most of the sequences of actions I perform are done habitually, after years of training and influence. I am not aware of what I am doing. I am addicted to behaviors that do not help me improve my life, even behaviors that damage my prospects. To make my habits more beneficial I must return to the ways of childhood, doing consciously, slowly one thing at a time, while I am learning new behaviors.
Knowing right from wrong derives from nature and nurture; doing right or shunning wrong comes from the exercise of will and integrity.
Willing is feeling strongly about you must do, an emotion close to, but not the same as anger. I call it cold anger, or thymos. I must apply the will repeatedly to a desirable sequence of actions (a scenario) until it has entered my subconscious mind deeply. Rehearsing the scenario repeatedly in a meditative state will speed up this process. Then the scenario will be played out habitually, without awareness, the same as bad scenarios which I acquired in my innocence about the virtue of integrity.
If you want always to uphold your integrity, don’t compromise, equivocate, or fudge the principles to which, after study and thought, you have subscribed. Doing so wins you the respect and admiration of worthy people, even if they don’t agree with you, even if these people are your competitors or enemies. Such respect deservedly earned, sometimes makes enemies into friends because they have learned to trust you and your character.
Effective communication and cooperation is difficult, impossible usually, with a person lacking integrity. When you hear a lie, you suspect the liar is out to gain an unfair advantage over you or to escape your notice of a misdeed. Truthfulness is firm ground on which to build lasting friendships.
Everything lasting in nature or our lives possesses integrity; its essence conforms to the principles of nature and is revealed in its design. The design is tested by adversity and stress.
Would you confess a lie under torture? Would you betray you faith and country when a gun is pointed to your head, or the head of your wife, or the heads of your children? How far would you go in defending your integrity? Those who torture and threaten do not deserve the truth. Confessions obtained under torture are not valid unless they are confirmed by other sources. Information obtained with water boarding is false unless it leads to objective findings. Torture can be effective, but a humane nation does not make use of it. I would like to think I would resist to my end the betrayal of my ideals under torture, but I admit I can be broken eventually.
Would you lie, cheat, or steal for food if you’re starving or your children are starving? If you have been a person of integrity, you would not be in this position, and if you have not been honest in your past, you will certainly go ahead and commit these sins.
Certainly, the big challenge to your integrity comes when you need to balance your own survival with the needs of society. That’s when you plumb your integrity to its depths. Honest person, you’re faced with a serious dilemma when you’re required to back up your nation’s lies in times of war. Your guiding principle must be to find what’s best for humanity even if you do harm to your nation. That’s a tough call for most of us, even when we know our government is at fault.
Can we carry integrity too far, never deviating from the rules we have adopted, thus becoming inflexible, unable to change course when necessary? Like other virtues, integrity becomes a vice when carried to extreme levels: the vice of self-righteousness. In the cause of the world’s survival, we need to re-examine on occasion even our most cherished beliefs in our family traditions, in our country, even in our image of God.
We certainly don’t want to appear too honest, virtuous, or pious. Even if we have no faults, an unlikely case, we should display some faults so that people don’t get jealous and mad with our perfection. You don’t want to be banished from your community like Aristides of ancient Athens, where people got tired of hearing that Aristides was always just.
Again in ancient Athens, Socrates declared to his judges that he had been of great service to his city by telling people the truth on all occasions. He said that he should be honored and paid for his services instead of receiving punishment. The judges disliked hearing what they felt was arrogance. They condemned Socrates to death, but he remained firm in his conviction of always seeking the truth and telling the truth. He believed his personality would survive death.
Integrity springs from your inner self. Preserving your identity, your original, genuine, and clear personality, is far more important than temporary advantages and pleasures. Integrity preserves your soul, your immortal spirit, whatever you conceive that to be. Any concession debasing your talent for money, fame, love, or power is a pact with the devil, spelling the doom of your soul, as in the story of Faust.
In effect, having integrity means going along with God, a compassionate and understanding God. Integrity emerges from sound principles of behavior—and adhering to these principles. That’s strength of character. A person or other organized system with integrity is strong—will not fall apart easily under stress or under the influence of random events, man-made or natural disasters.