On Integrity

 Posted by on 10 May 2010 at 7:00 am  Ethics
May 102010

[I published this post on integrity to Modern Paleo on Saturday, as part of its weekend schedule of blogging on Objectivism on Saturdays and free market politics on Sundays. I thought it worth reproducing here in full.]

Yesterday, I read the chapter on integrity in Tara Smith’s excellent book Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics. So I’ve had the virtue of integrity on the brain, and I thought I’d share the basics of the Objectivist view.

According to Objectivism, the integrity is “loyalty in action to one’s convictions and values” (OPAR 259). Integrity is a virtue because life requires that we act on what we know to be right — day in and day out. We will only harm ourselves if we betray that knowledge to indulge in momentary pleasures, to please other people, or to satisfy emotional impulses.

As Leonard Peikoff explains the proper approach in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

As its name suggests, this virtue is one’s recognition of the fact that man is an integrated being, a unity made of matter and consciousness. As such, he may, in Ayn Rand’s words, “permit no breach between body and mind, between action and thought, between his life and his convictions …” …

To avoid any breach between action and thought, a man must learn the proper principles, then follow them methodically, despite any unwarranted pleas or demands from any source, inner or outer. Integrity isolates this aspect of the moral life; it is the virtue of acting as an absolute on (rational) principle. It is the principle of being principled.

A person may experience a desire or fear that tempts him to contradict his own considered value-judgments. Or, through plain inertia, he may be reluctant to initiate the actions entailed by his views. Or–this is by far the most common case–other men may disagree with him and demand that he follow their ideas, not his own. In all these cases, integrity remains the same; it is the policy of practicing what one preaches, regardless of emotional or social pressure. It is the policy of not allowing any consideration whatever to overwhelm the conclusions of one’s mind, neither one’s own feelings nor those of others.

Integrity is a kind of moral shield against those kinds of temptations. It reminds us that we’re better off by sticking to our principles, even when that’s difficult. (If a person realizes that his principles are wrong, then it’s not a breach of integrity to recognize that and then act contrary to them.)

Ayn Rand briefly summarizes the meaning and value of the virtue of integrity in Galt’s Speech in Atlas Shrugged as follows:

Integrity is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake your consciousness, just as honesty is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake existence–that man is an indivisible entity, an integrated unit of two attributes: of matter and consciousness, and that he may permit no breach between body and mind, between action and thought, between his life and his convictions–that, like a judge impervious to public opinion, he may not sacrifice his convictions to the wishes of others, be it the whole of mankind shouting pleas or threats against him–that courage and confidence are practical necessities, that courage is the practical form of being true to existence, of being true to one’s own consciousness.

I’ve always puzzled somewhat over the claim that “you cannot fake your consciousness.” Now that I reflect on it, however, the point seems to be that a person who betrays his principles by acting contrary to them is engaged in a kind of pretense. He’s pretending that his ideas and values are other than they are. For example, if a person fails to object when one friend is unfairly badmouthing another friend, that person is pretending that he doesn’t much care about the maligned friend or that he agrees with the attack, even though he doesn’t. He’s faking his ideas — his consciousness — to the world. I’m not sure whether all failures of integrity can be thought of as “faking consciousness,” but at least some can.

Finally, I want to leave you with a question: When did you face your toughest test of integrity? What happened?

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