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

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

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