Integrity: Breaking the Automatic Equation of Self-Interest with Duty

March 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Integrity:  Breaking the Automatic Equation of Self-Interest with Duty[1]

In each of these cases [see previous blog entry] and thousands of similar ones, regular people, decent parents, compassionate neighbors–law abiding, charity giving and church going neighbors–make decisions that result in the concealment of the truth.  Is their conduct, our conduct, different than the behavior of politicians whom we so breezily, and justifiably, condemn?

Well, the answer depends on the importance of the truth in the practice of integrity.  So let’s talk about truth and integrity.  Everywhere around us we see exemptions to truth telling.   We permit ourselves white lies, we revel in clichés, and we sustain our national identity with noble lies like the American Dream that we see eroding before our eyes.

No one expects President Obama to reveal his plans for assaassinating Osama bin Laden, or to tell the truth about golf scores, fishing caught or poker hands.   Even in court, if a witness tries to tell the “whole truth”, as they swear to G-d they will, they are cut off by one or both of the lawyers, and the judge instructs to  “just answer the question, please.”

So, is there a duty to act truthfully and if so, when does it apply?   The duty of truthfulness applies when someone has a reasonable expectation of receiving it from you.  As voters and consumers we understand that; we hold that truth be self-evident.   Yet, as actors confronting risk in our daily lives, we are artful in dodging the truth and collusive in concealing it from people who have a right to it.

I know what you’re thinking.  I think about it every time I take the podium to talk about this subject.   Integrity is not martyrdom.   Exhorting people to throw down their lying ways is more appropriate for church-goers than for practical business people.  True.  So let me ask you a practical question.

Which do you think is the more accurate characterization of the examples I just read; all true by the way, and the acts of regular people dealing with everyday moral dilemmas?  Are they more nearly acts of survival in the sense of being necessary to save one’s life, or acts of collusion in the sense of concealing the truth from someone who depends on it?

Condemning yourself for collusion is not the purpose of this talk or a necessary tool in the practice of integrity; learning how to break the automatic equation of self interest with duty is.  Anyone who wishes to practice integrity has to ask themselves the same tough question I just asked you:  “Am I surviving or am I colluding?”

I wonder if any among that army of financial functionaries—bank lenders, securities dealers, debt insurers and rating agency analysts—who, by their imperceptible individual actions, managed to collectively trash our economy–have asked themselves that question.  If they have not, let’s not condemn them, but resolve to teach them how to ask the right questions and gain knowledge.

What Socrates said about wisdom can also be said about integrity, that it is the product of knowledge, not will.  Willfulness permeates our society and dictates our attitudes about integrity.  The willfulness of boisterous belief over deliberation, the willfulness of intention over action, and the willfulness of desire over duty.

People with integrity avoid the trap of ascribing to themselves false duties like  “duty to survive” or  “loyalty to themselves.”  Nor do they fall for the trap of black and white principles.

They understand that integrity rarely involves a simple decision between right and wrong, but rather a decision among competing duties of equal or relative right:  personal advancement with truthfulness, loyalty to bosses with devotion to common good, short term return with long term benefit, individual gain with community well being, justice with mercy, willingness to offer vs. opportunity to gain, benefit to a few vs. avoiding harm to many and so on.[2]  With this knowledge they take calculated, yes calculated risks to balance these competing interests.

And they may fail much of the time.  Integrity does not depend on purity, or even consistent success—purity and consistency are myths about integrity produced by our culture of willfulness—but of deepening awareness and tenacity.

When we laugh at the title of this talk, it may be because we lament our own incapacity to know truly what benefit integrity has for us, but most of us hold steadfast to the aspiration that there is such a thing as a good in itself, and that we seek it for its own sake in our ultimate self interest.

I hope in some small way, this talk enabled you to get a glimpse of that possibility.  For surely it is within the grasp of all of us.  And we are successful, I submit that the joke will never be on us.

[End of Series]

[1] This is the third in a series comprising the entirety of remarks entitled Integrity:  What’s In It For Me?  given in Essex, New York on September 14, 2011 at the inauguration of the Live Well Speaker’s Series.

[2] Rushford Kidder, Founder and President of The Institute for Global Ethics articulated several “right vs. right” categories mentioned here.  See How Good People Make Tough Choices. New York: Harper Collins 2009

The Three Integrity Traps

March 23, 2012 Leave a comment

The Three Integrity Traps[1]

 1.  The Trap of Passionate Belief:  “I’m right and You’re Wrong and That’s All There Is To it.”

To understand how belief thwarts integrity, let’s turn our attention to Washington where grown men and women hurl insults at each other in the name of principle and call their intransigence integrity.

As a matter of principle, Republicans believe that low taxation and non-interference by government stimulate economic growth and in turn, lower deficits.  Committed to these theoretical tenets, they ignore practical failures like the deficit-expanding tax cuts of the Bush era and the bitter harvest of financial de-regulation.   For these failures of their own making, they blame others:  the  “tax and spend” Democrats whom they view as overweening and naïve sentimentalists.

For their part, Democrats believe that government intervention can solve every negative outcome of the market, from globalization to greed and that the perceived villains of these outcomes must be punished by tax increases and more regulation.  Democrats blame the country’s economic decline on Republican wars and financial restructurings that many of them voted for and portray their rivals as elitist and callous promoters of economic inequity.

It is likely that elements of both positions, when extracted from the extremity of ideology, could be blended into a practical plan to address our economic woes.  Instead, our leaders debate principles that are literally divorced from reality.  Their behavior offers a textbook definition of the breakdown in integrity

a. the boisterous assertion of belief,

b. the absence of substantial proof for the truth of the belief,

c. the adamant refusal to compromise with those who hold opposing beliefs, and,

d. the denigration of your opponents’ moral character.

It is no wonder that the Congress has a 16 percent approval rating, which, according to Fareed Zacharia, is two percentage points above the approval rating that the United States has the misfortune to endure in the Arab World.  The Congress is one of the most reviled institutions in America.

However, before condemning the Congress as a bunch of ideological kooks, let’s scrutinize our own behavior.  How is debate over political issues, or, for that matter, any belief, conducted in our own living rooms and town halls.

Perhaps my view is skewed after years in politics—I have no doubt it is– but I have observed that wherever issues of political belief are brought up, discussion is conducted in pretty much the same way.   That is, truth becomes subservient to conviction and the more vehement the assertion, the more certain the belief.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether the subject is national tax policy or school board policy, the rectitude of war or the mayor’s salary increase,  climate change or the schedule of road repairs.  And the tendency to assert belief wholly out of proportion to the evidence underlying it extends to the judgments we make about neighbors:  why didn’t they invite us to their party, volunteer for the United Way, or greet us more enthusiastically at the local market?

Surely, passionate belief serves a decisive purpose in a democracy.  In our country, it has been the means by which we have transformed our society in alignment with our most abiding values—the civil rights movement is a notable example–and in that process reinvigorated our devotion to them.

However, as we have seen, it is all too often the means by which we drift into a world of our own devising, where self assurance substitutes for introspection, willfulness for deliberation and where we happily reign as morally superior, exceptionally competent and inordinately deserving.

Such behavior, individually or collectively, threatens both democracy and integrity, as they are inextricably linked:  belief becomes unhinged from evidence, and advocacy becomes separated from accommodation.

2.    How Intention Excuses Action:  “Oh no, you’re wrong.  I didn’t mean to do that.”

Let’s move to a second obstacle to integrity:  the way we assert the purity of our intention as an excuse for actions we would readily condemn in others.

Let us once again turn our scrutiny toward Washington, but this time, to the judiciary branch.  Several years ago, Antonin Scalia, a brilliant jurist and a by many accounts, a charming man, was challenged on ethical grounds for going on a hunting trip with Vice President Cheney.  It wasn’t the friendship or the hunting trip that attracted criticism, but the fact that the Supreme Court had just three weeks earlier agreed to hear a case directly involving Vice President Cheney.

When questioned about the apparent conflict of interest, the Justice responded:  “I don’t see how my impartiality can reasonably be questioned.”

Now, in that moment and on that issue, Justice Scalia might have been the only person in America who could not see why it would be reasonable to question his impartiality.  However, we all have our moments, and the blindness of the highest judge in the land gives us an opportunity to see how we also ignore reality in the name of pure intentions.   Let’s look at some examples.

  1. Everyone despises the scourge of insider trading, but few would decline a reliable stock tip if offered?
  2. We condemn the “old boy” network as synonymous with political corruption, but who refrains from using influence if they have it to get a job for a son or daughter?
  3. No one we know commits theft but who doesn’t know someone who purchased an expensive suit or handbag on a Manhattan street corner at a fraction of the normal price?
  4. Many of us complain about corporate tax evasion even as we cheat on our own taxes.
  5. No one likes gossip about themselves but widely gossips about others.
  6. Surveys tell us that two out of three Americans believe they are environmentalists, but most cannot name a single practice they engage in to protect it, other than hoping that it all works out okay.
  7. Similarly, everyone believes they possess integrity but few can cite  a personal statement or guiding rule that they turn to for substantive guidance in decision making.

Our mental rigging is such that we find ways to assure ourselves of our pure intentions regardless of the actual impact of our actions.  And, since everyone believes they possess integrity, anything they do can be excused by the purity of their intent.

Reflect on your own experience when someone, let’s say a friend or someone you generally trust, criticizes your action.  Is there anyone who has not heard himself or herself say:  “you misunderstand. I didn’t mean that”, as if intent automatically erases the effect of action.

Surely, no one intends to further financial deception, government corruption, street crime, tax evasion, gossip or lying, but the purity with which we hold our intention renders invisible the actions we commit that deepen these abuses.

3.   How Self-Interest Masquerades as Duty:  “I have to Do That to Survive.”

Let’s move on to the third and most serious impediment to ethical action:  how we excuse our breaches of integrity by viewing the pursuit of self- interest as a duty.

I’m sure many of you have wondered, as I have, if the way our elections are financed is essentially legalized bribery:  Politicians court donors, then grant them access in proportion to their donations.  Some will concede they do it because everyone else does it, so they must also to survive.

Many of our elected representative also engage in negative campaign advertising:  the practice of hurling lies, exaggerations, slurs, innuendo and ridicule—the exact opposite of the conduct once would expect from a leader–at opponents in the form of campaign ads.

Yet, as we all know, negative advertising works, politicians rarely pay the price for engaging in it and breezily defend it as a matter of political “survival”.  In other words, to serve their own political they are willing to put democracy itself at risk by riding roughshod over the duty of truthfulness.

To understand their behavior, and ours, it makes sense now to look at the meaning of the word “survival” and the role of “truthfulness” in the practice of integrity.  The question we must ask is:  Am I surviving or colluding in the concealment of truth?[2]

In its purest sense, the word survival refers to what we must do, literally, to preserve our own life.   Self-preservation is an exemption from the claim of otherwise unalterable moral rules.   The prohibition against killing, the most fundamental of all moral tenets, is excused if killing is done in self defense.  A prisoner of war compelled to make enemy munitions while interned will not be court martialed.  Stealing bread to feed a hungry family mitigates criminal penalties.

Is it not a stretch, however, to excuse as a prerogative of survival, the conduct of politicians who convert representative government into a feeding frenzy for well-heeled lobbyists, or lie to their constituents, so they can keep getting elected.

Yet, as we can see in the following examples, the tendency to sweep the duty of truthfulness under the rug of self-interest in the name of survival, is not restricted to politicians.

  1. As a broker, you comply with your company’s order to aggressively sell an inferior stock in which the investment wing of your company invested.
  2. As a manager for an insurance company, you are ordered to achieve cost savings by automatically challenging every new claim for breast cancer.
  3. As the account executive at the advertising agency for a prominent drug company, you are told to go ahead with an ad campaign for a new drug, despite reports about its usefulness for the intended market.
  4. As an employee of a mutual fund, you are ordered to dump poor performing stocks on the last day of the quarter and buy better performers to conceal the poor performance of the portfolio during the previous quarter.
  5. After impasse is reached in discussions over your salary increase, your boss offers to backdate a stock option agreement to induce your agreement.
  6. You cut corners on an important memo for your boss in order to submit it in time to attend your child’s soccer game.
  7. As a participant in a meeting, you say nothing as your fellow auto executives decide that it is more cost effective to pay damages for deaths resulting from a faulty gas tank, than make safety adjustments that would avoid the explosions.

[Part Three Follows]

[1] This is the third in a series comprising the entirety of remarks entitled: Integrity:  What’s In It For Me? given in Essex, New York on September 14, 2011 at the inauguration of the Live Well speaker’s series.

[2] This polarity, survival vs. collusion, was originated by psychiatrist Daniela Gitlin, M.D. ( to differentiate behavior which truly serves self preservation from that which seeks to justify narrow self interest.

Integrity: What’s In It For Me?

March 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Integrity:  What’s In It For Me?[1]

Why the title?  Integrity, what’s in it for me?  Whenever anyone hears the title, they laugh.  But what’s so funny?   Is there anything funny about viewing integrity as a matter of self-interest?

Laughing, it is said, is an unconscious acknowledgment of a truth the conscious mind refuses to admit. So, by laughing we may be conceding that we view integrity as a tactic to attract the esteem of others, while concealing our true selfish objectives?

Maybe we laugh as a kind of boast, that while other people may treat integrity as a matter of tasteless calculation, we honor it as an expression of personal authenticity.

Of course, calculation can also mean “deliberation”, a more respectable word, which implies careful weighing of all relevant facts and views.  People in public life, as well as friends or acquaintances who know how to balance competing interests for the common good, not just their own, are highly respected.  We see them as models of integrity.  And, since this talent is rare and difficult, we must wonder if it can be learned, as a matter of “calculation.”

Yet most of us don’t hold integrity as a matter of such careful weighing.  Rather, we think of it as automatic and innate.  Consider the definitions people commonly offer when asked to define integrity:  “being at one with yourself”, “to thine own self be true”, and “the truth you know in your heart.”

And while surveys show that integrity is the most admired personal quality, most consider it something easy to achieve, neither rare nor difficult.   Why do I say that?   Because everyone thinks they possess it;   something nearly everyone takes for granted about themselves.  I have asked thousands of participants at my seminars:   “Is there anyone here who lacks integrity?”  No one ever raises a hand.

Yet all around us we see stunning breaches of integrity:  political dysfunction, business corruption, college cheating, media exploitation, sports greed, charitable giving as showmanship and the lapses of church clergy.

As a direct result of these breaches, the sustaining tenets of our national self image have become, for many, empty clichés:   “work hard and obey the rules and you’ll get ahead”, “ talent rises to the top”, an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work”  “the level playing field”, “land of opportunity”, the “American Dream” and so forth.

Without trust in the power of our institutions to ennoble and inspire, we inevitably retreat into our private worlds in search of personal fulfillment.  It is hard to imagine a more desperate predicament for a national community that was once so confident and productive, and prided itself on the seamless blending of self-advancement with promotion of the common good.

It is natural then that we turn to the question of why public figures give themselves over to the temptations of excessive self promotion and personal enrichment, forfeiting their honor and breaching the trust of so many.  Certainly this question compels an answer, for so much depends on finding one.

Still, we may need to ask a different question, a more pressing and basic one:  What is it in our own everyday conduct that mirrors the actions of the public officials we condemn.  While expert in seeing their faults, do we fail to see the same ones in ourselves?  Does the fault of their breaches lie “not in our stars, but in ourselves if we are underlings.” even if we only acknowledge that truth in nervous laughter.

So let’s us now turn to the question of whether there are blind spots in the way we view ourselves that allow us to remain certain of our own integrity while unwittingly committing its breaches.

The first of these blind spots is passionate belief.  Our beliefs, or opinions, tend to generate their own momentum toward certainty, even in the face of contrary evidence, and tend to crowd out the merit of competing beliefs.

A second impediment to the practice of integrity is our tendency to view good intentions—our own–as an excuse for bad actions.   Measuring our self-esteem by our noblest intentions we ignore the reality of our ignoble deeds.

The third blind spot is the most troubling because it is the most difficult to cure:  the curious mental chemistry that transforms whatever we want into something we deserve and allows narrow self interest to masquerade as duty.

[1] This article is the first in a three part series which comprise the entirety of remarks, entitled Integrity:  What’s In It For Me? given in Essex, New York on September 14, 2011 at the inauguration of the Live Well Speaker’s Series.

[Part Two follows]

Keith Olbermann and the Crisis in Media and Political Integrity

April 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Last November, MSNBC caught the cable-viewing world off guard when it suspended its most popular commentator, Keith Olbermann, for violating the network’s rule prohibiting commentators from making political contributions.

Olbermann supporters deluged MSNBC with protests.  The network relented and Mr. Olbermann returned to the air two days later.  He thanked his supporters, derided the rule and dismissed any obligation to refrain from making, or publicly disclosing, his campaign contributions.

Thousands of comments were posted, including my own, which was first published on New York’s Empire Page

I suggested that the central issue was not whether MSNBC’s rule to promote journalistic objectivity, or the right of its commentators to fully participate in the electoral process, was more important.  But rather, whether Mr. Olbermann could have done a better job balancing both important values.

I sent him my article and suggested that he revisit the issue to discuss “the conflict between competing yet compelling duties confronting media professionals.”

He responded as follows:

Dear Mr. Brody:

I am in receipt of yours of November 22.

May I ask to what degree do you consider the inaccurate assumption of facts to be a reflection of lack of your integrity or a failure of your ethics?

Because by my count, your piece is predicated entirely on three enormous assumptions about which you could have no independent knowledge, about which you obviously did not check, and which you (erroneously) parroted from some other source.

Something comes to mind about glass houses here, but I’ll defer to you since you have decided you’re the expert.

[s] Keith Olbermann

In belittling my integrity for suggesting he could have done a better job accommodating dual duties, Mr. Olbermann was understandably defensive.  He also reflected the tendency of prominent opinion-shapers in the media and politics to disparage anyone who disagrees with them.

It is with this tone of breezy contempt that Mr. Olbermann, his colleagues on the right, and their counterparts in party politics smear each other recklessly, while maintaining their own unassailable rectitude.

By such conduct, today’s media and political celebrities reveal a fundamental paradox about integrity.  No one doubts his own integrity but is acutely aware of—and feels justified in denouncing—its breach in others.

To demonstrate this point, I ask my students as well as professional audiences whether they lack integrity or know anyone who has admitted lacking it.  The answer is almost always “no.”  But when asked if they know anyone who lacks integrity, eyes roll as if to say, “gosh, where do I start.”

This exercise reveals the common tendency of human beings to measure themselves by their best intentions while judging others by their worst deeds. People process information through the lens of idiosyncratic beliefs and self-interested motivations they can scarcely identify.

This is why most people, although believing they have a hold on integrity, are unable to identify a concrete source for their notions of it.  They attribute their moral compass to “feelings of right and wrong”, “principles of good judgment” and “fundamental values” never doubting their ability to divine such principles better than their neighbor.

It is not surprising then, that people equate integrity with rigidity of belief.  The idea that integrity lies in the boisterous assertion of one’s own conviction has spawned a vernacular of contempt that has overtaken the airwaves and Beltway: dialogue through denunciation, communication through confrontation, moral smugness, high minded pronouncements, personal infallibility and consistency at all costs.

Yet if challenged, the perpetrators of this conduct would protest that they don’t really mean to “strip mine” the terrain of civil discourse in this country but rather that they are simply conforming to the realities of  “political survival” or “ratings success”.

To explore this common self-deception that construes self- interest as a duty, I ask audiences to review a series of 30 ethical dilemmas drawn from current political and business problems, all of which pit self-interest against duty.  Then I ask whether the self-interested course constitutes “survival” or “collusion.”   That is, whether duty is excused because of justifiable self interest, or whether duty trumps self-interest.

This polarity, survival vs. collusion, was originated by psychiatrist Daniela Gitlin, M.D. ( to separate behavior which truly serves self preservation from that which seeks to justify self interest.

The exercise reveals that the term “survival”, strictly applied, encompasses a very narrow set of circumstances, such as killing in self defense, stealing to feed a starving family, or performing labor under duress as a prisoner of war.  Participants steadily begin to see that most conduct in the name of “survival” is, in fact, an excuse to subordinate duty to self-interest.  As such, it is “collusive” in the breach of integrity.

A prime example of undermining one’s integrity in the name of survival is negative political advertising. Such campaigning brutishly manipulates the truth for the sake of winning, or “surviving” politically.   Everyone is said to hate it but it is widely practiced because it works.

Now, if you asked the politicians who deploy this practice whether the future of American democracy is more important than whether or not they get elected, they would all agree that it was.  Yet, somehow, when their own victory is at stake, they are perfectly willing to actively subvert the cornerstone duty of representative government:  truthfulness.

Similarly, the duty of truthfulness has been sacrificed by its prime guardians—the media—in favor of ideology-peddling.

The head of the Fox network, Roger Ailes for instance, has a habit of calling everyone he disagrees with a Nazi.  In so doing he sets the tone for his commentators who tend to react wholly out of proportion to circumstances, a sure sign of the self-aggrandizing, self-interested ideologue.  Not surprisingly, his network treats news events primarily as a means to advance an ideological agenda, while cynically contending—“we report, you decide”–that it is news.

MSNBC at least tried to maintain the distinction between news and ideology by enforcing an ethical rule against its most popular commentator.  That Keith Olbermann could so smugly deride his employer’s effort betrays the same contempt that Fox commentators have toward their journalistic duty.

The thread of self-interest shall always run through the fabric of our personal and professional interests. The practice of integrity does not deny the reality of complex interpersonal and economic pressures on our decisions, but it does compel us to recognize the tendency of self-interest to masquerade as duty.

Only when we recognize this default reaction, and sever it, can we take the first step toward a more sensible view of

Integrity is not the boisterous assertion of one’s own conviction but the demanding effort to identify and balance compelling but often competing duties:  self interest with truthfulness, loyalty to institutions with devotion to common good, short term return with long term benefit, individual gain with community well being, justice with mercy and so

What Stephen Carter said about civility in his book Civility is equally applicable to integrity:  “[t]he set of sacrifices we make for the sake of our common journey with others…”

If that common journey is toward a more promising American future, then control of our destiny must be wrested from the self-interested ideologues.   If we fail to do so, freedom will become indistinguishable from license.

To be sure, there will always be those special few politicians who will not take PAC money, who won’t engage in negative advertising, and who will affirm their independence from the dysfunctional rigidity of our political parties.

There will always be media professionals who view the role of truth in civil discourse as too valuable to sacrifice on the alter of financial gain.

But their efforts will be mere footnotes in the tale of national decline unless each of us revives the aspiration to build a culture of service to the common good.

If we fail to do so, what was once a common journey will seem, in retrospect, like a grim retreat from the place we used to hold most sacred.

Stuart Brody is a lawyer and adjunct professor of Ethics and Integrity at SUNY New Paltz, and a former leader of the Democratic Party in New York.   He is working on a book entitled:   The Breaking of the American Heart:  Idealism and the Future  of Integrity in America

Keith Olbermann’s Political Contributions: A Withdrawal from the Bank of Integrity

November 22, 2010 Leave a comment

As a professor of ethics and integrity, people often ask me, is there any difference between ethics and integrity?   Rushford Kidder, Founder and President of The Institute for Global Ethics answered the question most succinctly:  “Ethics is a regime of compliance, integrity is a culture of values.”

To illustrate the difference between ethics and integrity, let’s look at a recent event that attracted a great deal of attention in political and media circles:   Keith Olbermann’s two day suspension as a commentator for MSNBC after making contributions to political campaigns, in violation of that network’s rule.

As a matter of ethics, Mr. Olbermann’s violation is clear on its face:    In the name of avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest, MSNBC promulgated a rule prohibiting commentators from contributing to political campaigns.  Mr. Olbermann was bound to the rule as an employee of the network and he violated it.   Breach of ethical rule, end of inquiry.

But does Mr. Olbermann’s breach of the ethical rule disqualify him from claiming integrity in making those contributions?  Or, to put it more generally, can someone breach an ethical rule and still act with integrity?

The answer is,  yes.  Of course.   Our society routinely accords respect to violators of ethical or legal rules where such breaches are committed in the name of an overriding interest or duty, such as civil disobedience, or, its counterpart in the business world, whistleblowing.

More commonly, people in workplaces across the country bend or break ethical rules every day in service of a larger duty.    Take, for example, the employee who is told by his boss that a co-worker is about to be laid off and warned to remain silent about it, or face discipline for disclosing confidential information.  Knowing that the co-worker is about to sign a mortgage he may no longer be able to afford, the employee figures out a way to warn him, despite the boss’s order and the rule against disclosure.

Issues of integrity can be more complicated than ethical ones: where ethical rules pose strict requirements to avoid conflicts of interest, integrity seeks to reconcile conflicts among interests.    And, unlike ethical prescriptions, there are no written rules.

As the layoff scenario reveals, practicing integrity is not necessarily about right vs. wrong, but about juggling two “right” values at the same time.  We know from personal experience that this balancing takes a fair amount of deliberation, and, usually involves risk.

Let’s take another example of the distinction between ethics and integrity from contemporary events:  the Wall Street broker compelled by his company to peddle inferior stocks in which the company has heavily invested.  Like the employee in the layoff situation, the brokers are confronted with a conflict between the duty of loyalty to their employers–to sell the stock and sustain the fortunes of the company–and the duty of truthfulness–to accurately advise their clients concerning the quality of the stocks they sell.

To highlight the competing duties at stake, I often ask my students to play act these scenarios in a manner that respects both interests, or duties:  that is,  to convey the truth without breaching the duty of loyalty.  The successful students manage to imply the truth—to the co-worker or brokerage client, as the case may be–through hints, humor, body language, fluctuations in intonation, and other means of indirect communication to avoid expressly violating their employer’s order.

This raises a question that goes to the heart of why people practice integrity.   Why would someone make the effort to figure out complex solutions in order to serve multiple duties, usually at some risk to themselves, rather than simply taking refuge in the easier and safer duty, in these cases, doing what the boss wants?

The answer is that people who practice integrity view self interest through a wider lens than immediate gain or personal safety, and see their responsibility—their very self esteem– in terms of a greater good.  To a larger or lesser extent, most people try to do this.  Surveys reveal that integrity is by far the most highly regarded personal quality.  Still, it is not easy.  The person who practices integrity is someone both skillful in discerning multiple duties, and willing to take calculated risks to serve them.

This concept of integrity—quietly trying to accommodate multiple duties–flies in the face of the popular belief that integrity requires a very public and uncompromising commitment to a single duty.   In his excellent article, We Don’t Need Another Hero, Harvard ethicist Joseph Badaracco debunks this notion, citing examples of how true heroes of integrity are typically modest, understated and pragmatic.  The psychiatrist, Daniela Gitlin, MD refers to this phenomenon as the “invisibility of integrity”.   Integrity, like physical health, is invisible; its absence is conspicuous.

The accommodation of duties cannot always be accomplished invisibly.   Unlike the employee in the layoff situation and the stock broker who could honor the duty of loyalty by bending, not breaking it,  Mr. Olbermann could not contribute to a political campaign without breaching the MSNBC rule against such contributions.

However, by advising MSNBC in advance of his intent to contribute, he might have negotiated a compromise of network policy that would have served both duties.  Barring such result,  by disclosing to viewers his contribution despite the rule, Mr. Olbermann could have brought the conflict between competing yet compelling duties confronting media professionals before the public in the context of his principled effort to accommodate them.

Here he chose the opposite course:  concealment without accommodation.  The employee and broker who acted integrally in the examples above did not conceal their actions to avoid taking responsibility, but rather so they could act more responsibly.   Here, Mr. Olbermann’s concealment seemed to serve no purpose other than avoiding detection.

Mr. Olbermann did not see it that way.  When he returned to the air on November 9, 2010 after his suspension, he denied knowledge of the rule, an incredible claim in view of the diligence likely to have preceded contract negotiations over so prominent a position.  Next, he derided the rule as “probably illegal” , citing no authority and completely dismissing the legitimate ethical intent of a rule aimed at bolstering public confidence in the journalistic objectivity of commentators.

He also dismissed the value of disclosing his contribution because, as a matter of public record, people would find out about it anyway.  By such patent disparagement of accountability, he was acting, as nearly all of us have at one point or another, including Presidents, like a child getting caught at something shameful and deploying the most implausible arguments that pop into mind to deflect guilt.

In Mr. Olbermann’s defense, it is difficult to discuss the finer points of integrity when caught in the cross hairs of a media frenzy.    Still,  In reacting this way, Mr. Olbermann missed an extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to the duty of truthfulness, the breach of which his show so robustly criticizes.

His disavowal of personal responsibility illustrates another important lesson about integrity.  It is a common foible of human beings that we tend to look at our own actions in the most favorable light, while viewing the actions of others in the least favorable.   All around us, we see the breakdown of integrity,  in politics, business, sports and the media, but few people are willing to admit their own complicity in this general breakdown.

People who practice integrity are able to break that pattern.  They resist the temptation to automatically equate what they believe with what is right.    They have the determination to embark on an often uncomfortable journey to uncover their prejudices, unconscious motivations and self interested impulses and delineate duties beyond their own self interest, and then take risks to serve them.

Even those with such skills falter.  No one can practice integrity all the time.  There are no rules to guide us in the practice of integrity. The mountains of new ethical regulations promulgated in response to every latest scandal only distract us from that daunting fact.  Yet, falling out of integrity does not mean you can’t regain it.   This is why I call it a practice.

As a people, we accord great respect to those who acknowledge their breaches.   One of our distinctive American characteristics is that “everyone deserves a second chance.”   Mr. Olbermann should take that chance to re-engage his viewers about this process of trying and failing to act with integrity, and the courage to show up and do it better the next time.

By doing so, he will be making a contribution far more durable than a financial one to his favorite candidates:  depositing rather than withdrawing from the public bank of integrity.

Stuart Brody is a lawyer and adjunct professor of Ethics and Integrity at SUNY New Paltz, and a former leader of the Democratic Party in New York.   He is working on a book entitled:   The Breaking of the American Heart:  Idealism and the Future  of Integrity in America

New York State 2010: Reckoning with the Whirlwind

November 6, 2010 Leave a comment

It must be an axiom of politics—although I can’t cite empirical data for the proposition—that it takes as long to get out of a crisis as it does to get into one By that measure we’re in for a very long haul in New York, perhaps lasting forty years. We have inherited a fiscal whirlwind by giving in to every special interest, tempting policy initiative, and passing whim without regard to a reckoning. But now we’re forced to reckon with it at a time of declining national economic fortunes. Not a pretty picture.

Naturally, then, it is tempting to propose the obligatory five, ten or twenty-five point plans in hopes of immediate results from sweeping reforms. The other commentators to this Roundtable have hit on the correct strategies. They are obvious. By saying that, I don’t mean to disparage the skill it takes to identify them, but rather to stress that coming up with good policy choices is the least of three major challenges facing a Governor. The other two are controlling the expectations of an impatient public, and dealing with self interested politicians who pass upon his programs.

Watching the collapse of the Obama Administration reveals two things about the electorate which may be instructive to the new governor: First, the deeper the problem the more impatient the electorate; second, the public appears to have great difficulty appreciating the value of long term solutions. To this difficult mix, add the current President’s suprising inability to guide the public to either patience or understanding. I believe New Yorkers are more patient, and the Governor-elect more skillful, but the key will be constant interaction with the public to remind us of the ultimate benefits of a modest and long term corrective course focusing on one or two key objectives only.

The other and perhaps more difficult challenge, is dealing with the politicians who have proved over and over that they cannot resist the opportunity to assert personal interest over good policy. Like their colleagues in major American businesses, they seem genetically programmed to seek short term gain at the expense of a long term future. The results to both our economy and political culture have been catastrophic.

Here, the starting point for the Governor-elect is not an elaborate new ethics law which, like any regulation, can be easily circumvented, but to re-incentivize elected officials generally toward the common good. This probably means taking steps to substitute the current party system with a new alignment of interest. If the Governor can find a dozen or so brave souls—undoubtedly with safe seats—to begin the process, he and they might inaugurate a refreshing new political identity, not as Democrats vs. Republicans but as proponents of sound long term solutions vs. quick rag tag fixes.

The challenges are difficult, but the promise is great because this Governor comes to Albany superbly seasoned and thoroughly aware of the problems. He has not squandered the popularity gained at the AG’s office by unrealistic campaign promises or constraining private deals. So, once again, we have reason to believe that the right thing can be done by our leaders, and that the people, by supporting them, can ennoble our beleaguered democracy.

Why This Country Needs a New Centrist Party

October 2, 2010 3 comments

Why This Country Needs a New Centrist Party

                 A three part series 

                             Part One:  Outrage in the Age of Stalemate

Two weeks ago, Tea Party members won some big victories across the country, including right here in New York with Paladino’s victory.   Commentators have treated this event as a radical turn in American politics.  It may well be, because for the first time, Karl Rove and John Boehner seem like moderates, a potential windfall to their images.   

For their part, despite early indications of Tea Party popularity, Democrats are expecting that fear of Tea Party extremism will draw moderates back to their fold and forestall a national electoral calamity this fall.

However, the apparent radicalization of politics by the Tea Party may not necessarily lead to a significant turn in political alignment, but rather a repetition of the cycle that has doomed third parties throughout American history: a quick flame out, and ultimate return of voters back home to the mainstream parties.

The difference this time is that millions of Americans have realized that the main parties do not embody a broad enough home base to return to.    Their moderate centers were hijacked long ago.  For decades they have operated on stalemate-yielding, anger-producing, myth-creating ideologies that have sidelined moderates and crumpled traditional American idealism.    Let’s look at the Republicans first.

Distilled to its essence, Republicans hold that wealth itself, not opportunity, is an inalienable right, and that its acquisition confers conclusive proof of legitimacy. To the radicals of mainstream Republicanism, interference with the manner in which wealth is acquired or disposed of (regulation and taxation)  is all but outside  the proper scope of government and a threat to every freedom-loving man woman and child in America.  This winner-take-all mentality has supplanted the traditional identification of moderate Republicanism with the healthy competition of free enterprise and the primacy of “level playing field”l opportunity.

The Democratic “mainstream” has been similarly radicalized:  it holds that every loser in the transaction of capitalism deserves redress and it is the duty of government to provide it. The pursuit of economic self-interest, although interesting in theory, tends, in practice, to degenerate into greed.  Accordingly, the structures of business should not be left to the invisible hand of the market, but rather, the benevolent morality of governmental planners. These radicals have shifted focus from opportunity to entitlement as the driving force in economic and social policy.

Evidence for the radicalization of political parties lies in the cult-like ferocity with which party partisans treat each other in the corridors of  Congress:  dialog through denunciation, communication through confrontation, insistence on personal infallibility, consistency at all costs, and the equation of rigidity of belief with personal integrity. 

The two parties have so radicalized American politics, that splinter groups professing ideological purity find little ground to stand on.  For instance, none of the Tea Party candidates has policy views very different than mainstream(radical)Republican nostrums on taxes, deficits, regulation and judicial restraint.  In the absence of policy, the only available terrain for them to maneuver is the playing field of outrage.  Tea Partiers, like most fringe groups, are fueled by, and fuel, outrage.   In the age of stalemate, outrage passes for policy, and, for a while at least, masquerades as reason.

Few people, other than political leaders, could get away with this kind of nasty, boisterous and sociopathic conduct.  In our regular lives, we Americans tend to be rather reasonable people:  men and women who confirm our capacity for common decency by everyday acts of grace, modesty and humility, in our homes, at work, and in our communities. This moderation is both our salvation and our dilemma.

 In the past, these “centrist” values have coalesced to beat back the ego bullies, the anger mongers and myth peddlers, and may do so this fall.  But now the danger is that nearly the entire so called “mainstream” political class is characterized by such habits.  Americans are slowly being starved of the oxygen that democracy needs to survive, not by the Tea Party, but by the Republican and Democratic parties.

Idealism, in contrast to the cultish ideologies of our political parties, is a call to action based on the widest possible commonality of beliefs.  The radical ideologies of the parties and their angry offshoots like the Tea Party constrict this vital artery of political circulation by ever more narrow interpretations of our beliefs.

The fact that the political parties thrive on such means compels the question whether the feverish emotional pitch of party warfare is not simply the byproduct of ideological debate but rather a staged conflict to conceal consensus on matters upon which the parties really agree:  protecting the money consolidators—financial services, drug, insurance, telecommunications, and oil companies—who fuel the campaign coffers of Democrats and Republicans alike.  The parties never seem to experience gridlock when the interests of these conglomerates are concerned.  Isn’t it true that most Americans believe that, when it comes to political process, “the fix is in”?

Whether you believe the parties are simply out of control or, quite in control but chose to confuse us by their staged dysfunction in order to better serve elite economic interests, there is no denying this fact:  the current radicalism of mainstream politics breeds outrage which in turn subverts moderation, prolongs stalemate and presages the forfeiture of common goals and purpose.  

So, we are left with this crucial question:    When the Tea Party’s voice of outrage runs its course, will it drive the electorate back to the illusory refuge of moderation represented by the two parties or force a centrist reconstitution of American politics.   The resuscitating air of moderation that has sustained us in earlier times must be injected back into our politics if we are to endure.   

Coming:  Part II  Reviving the Culture of Idealism in America

Stuart Brody is adjunct professor of Ethics and Integrity at SUNY New Paltz, and a former leader of the Democratic Party of New York.   He is working on a book entitled:   The Breaking of the American Heart:  Idealism and the Future  of Integrity in America