This post examines the virtue of integrity. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what others have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.

What is integrity?

“[The nobler type of man] first practices what he preaches and afterwards preaches according to his practice.” ―Confucius[1]

Integrity is strangely slippery to define. It seems to have both a narrow and a broad definition, and it’s not always clear which of these a person has in mind when they use the word:

  • Narrowly: “integrity” follows its etymological connection with the Latin integer, meaning intact, undivided, whole, coherent. In this sense, you have integrity if your words match your actions and you are not at cross-purposes with yourself. You are not two-faced or hypocritical. You don’t tie yourself in knots trying to be all things to all people. You don’t hold other people to a strict set of standards and hold yourself to a more relaxed set.
  • Broadly: if you look up definitions of integrity, you’ll often see many other virtues bundled in beside this narrow meaning, including authenticity, honesty, rectitude, incorruptibility, reputability, fairness, harmony, consistency, reliability, accountability, and decency. Sometimes “integrity” is used as a synonym for honor. Occasionally someone will just gather a bunch of their favorite, seemingly unrelated, virtues together and cover the whole set with the “integrity” halo.[2]

In this post, I’m going to stick with the narrower of these definitions.

Integrity between levels of identity

People may have an aspirational self-image that conflicts in some ways with how they actually are. For example, they may prefer listening to pop music but wish they were the sort of person who thrills to classical. They have a “meta-desire” to have certain sorts of desires (and they might have further meta-meta-desires to have certain types of meta-desire). To the extent these levels are in conflict, this is another way integrity can be lacking.[3]

In this way integrity is related to the virtue of temperance: with which one’s desires match what one believes to be wise desires to have.

But it seems iffy to characterize as a vice an aspiration to be better than you currently are. If you are bad at playing violin, but you would like to be the sort of person who is good at it, is that ambition really an insult to your integrity? Maybe it only becomes a vice when you prematurely assimilate your aspiration into your self-image (“I’m really a rationalist; I just consult horoscopes out of curiosity”).

How integrity helps you thrive

The most obvious way that integrity helps you to thrive is that it keeps you from acting at cross-purposes: all of your oars go in the water at the same time.

Integrity can also be socially desirable. Someone with integrity is more of a predictable known quantity. You know where they stand. This makes it easier to cooperate with them in shared projects.

Integrity also tends to travel alongside nice things like self-knowledge, a sense of purpose, and being comfortable in your own skin, though integrity may grow out of such things as much as it contributes to them.

Hazards of pseudo-integrity

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” ―Ralph Waldo Emerson[4]

Sometimes people misfire in their attempts at achieving integrity. Someone may become simply stubborn — unwilling to give up on a bad idea because they’ve already made up their mind. Integrity, to such a person, means sticking to your guns no matter what.

Or someone may stumble upon some attractive and simple principle or theory (falsifiability! objectivism!) and make an idée fixe out of it — trying to cram all of complex reality into its narrow bounds: achieving a sort of counterfeit integrity by rejecting any evidence that does not conform to the theory.

Integrity does not require uniformity or rigidity. If in some contexts you are more loose and others more formal, if you switch dialects depending on whom you are speaking with, if you sometimes speak “as your doctor” and sometimes “as your friend,” this may just mean that you are flexible, not that you lack integrity. There is an art to discerning when you’ve gone too far and put on so much makeup that you’re disguising yourself.

Hazards of a fetish for integrity itself

Practicing what you preach is, all else being equal, superior to hypocrisy. But if either what you preach or what you practice is harmful nonsense, making sure your preaching and practicing are in alignment is the least of your troubles.

A disproportionate number of the moral arguments we hear these days have to do with hypocrisy. Public Figure says  but their actions prove they believe , or they said  yesterday but say  today. There is something suspiciously lazy about this sort of critique. Alasdair MacIntyre argued that this fetish with what he called “unmasking” has emerged because we have lost the ability to rationally argue about ethics, in a sort of Tower of Babel-like disaster.[5] We don’t know how to confidently distinguish whether  is right or wrong, but we can still notice that  is false, and so we lean into that with all we’ve got.

“No one is any longer carried away by the desire for the good to perform great things, no one is precipitated by evil into atrocious sins, and so there is nothing for either the good or the bad to talk about, and yet for that very reason people gossip all the more, since ambiguity is tremendously stimulating and much more verbose than rejoicing over goodness or repentance over evil.” ―Søren Kierkegaard[6]

Life is complicated. You may occasionally come across situations in which the right thing to do or the right attitude to take is unanticipated by the simplified doctrines or precedents you have heretofore adopted. If you overvalue consistency at such a time, you may be tempted to stubbornly do the wrong thing out of the belief that this is a way of promoting your integrity.

Integrity as a process

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

―Walt Whitman[7]

Integrity, in the narrow sense, is usually described as a quality — an achievement or accomplishment maybe — something you have as opposed to something you do. But it seems to me that integrity can be better understood as an ongoing process:

  1. Notice some contradiction in yourself: some way in which your beliefs, your words, and your actions don’t correspond. (A form of “notice your confusion.”)
  2. Analyze the contradiction and carefully try to understand the basis of the conflict, then either remove the contradiction by making your beliefs, words, and actions conform, or find some way to synthesize the apparent contradiction harmoniously.

The first of these steps requires self-awareness and attention. In my experience, the more self-awareness and attention I learn to apply, the more contradictions I find; I’ve yet to discover a fundament of pure integrity. This step also is aided by humility: you can look most penetratingly at your flaws if you don’t reflexively explain them away to defend an inflated self-image.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the second step requires empathy. Here’s why: When you notice a contradiction in yourself, this contradiction will typically be between different modes in which you think and operate. It may be (for example) a conflict between your conscious motives and more subconscious ones, or between your public persona and your private self-image, or between your emotions and your reason, or between how you approach a problem in far mode vs. near mode or while thinking fast vs. slow. Once you have noticed this contradiction and you try to analyze it, the process of analyzing will itself belong to one of these modes (e.g. conscious, private, reasoning, slow), and will therefore be initially biased towards the conclusion of that mode. If you then quickly move to try to resolve the contradiction, you will be in effect trying to overpower the other modes with the modes you are doing the analysis with — trying to persuade the non-analytical mind with rhetoric the analytical mind finds persuasive. This won’t lead to integrity but at best to a hyperanalytical imbalance (more often, it just leaves the initial contradiction intact, as the non-analytical modes remain as unpersuaded as they were before the analysis). So as you analyze your contradiction, you need to empathize with non-analytical modes of thinking, in order to give those modes their day in court and allow those modes to participate in forming a harmonious synthesis. The same sorts of skills that allow you to empathize with different people who have different values and worldviews and experiences and so forth also allow you to empathize with the different parts of yourself that are in tension with each other. To the extent that you can promote these empathic skills in the analytical part of yourself, the analytical part of yourself will be more successful in coordinating your integration, which is to say, promoting your integrity.

(After writing this, I read the description of Internal Double Crux which also suggests an empathetic approach to resolving internal contradictions.)

For example: effective altruism

Effective altruism is an example of this integrity-building process. For example, let’s say I look at my charitable giving and notice that while I think of myself as being motivated by an altruistic desire to relieve suffering, I do not give to charity in a way that is rationally crafted to do so most effectively. I have noticed a contradiction between my professed motives and my actions. I analyze this contradiction in myself, looking at the various ways I have given to charity and what other motives were at play. Maybe I gave to one charity because a friend of mine was involved in it and I wanted to show my support for their efforts. Maybe I gave to another because I was emotionally touched by prominent news stories of an acute emergency like a tsunami or refugee crisis. Maybe I gave to a third because it made me feel solidarity to some social cause I’m sympathetic to.

In this way I come to realize that I have more motives than I’d given myself credit for. Now I can make better decisions about which of these motives I want to respect, and how I want to prioritize them. For example, maybe I don’t think “being emotionally touched by an acute emergency” is an especially good criteria to use when picking a charity to give to. But maybe I can compromise with the part of me that feels cathartic relief from giving in such circumstances. I might do so by taking some time to form a more emotional reaction to a chronic emergency that my donation could address more effectively (e.g. malaria). I could read up on the subject, view a documentary, or envision something concrete like “x dollars will save one life.” I might also look for a way to combine my giving with some sort of social display, so that the part of me that wants to get kudos from friends or to demonstrate solidarity gets some attention.

Role-play as a danger to integrity

“To have integrity is to refuse to be, to have educated oneself so that one is no longer able to be, one kind of person in one social context, while quite another in other contexts. It is to have set inflexible limits to one’s adaptability to the roles that one may be called upon to play.” ―Alasdair MacIntyre[8]

A common threat to integrity comes when we allow ourselves to be overcome by the roles we are sometimes called upon to play. In such scenarios, you compartmentalize yourself as me-playing-a-role and separate that from me-being-me. Having done that, you then can apply a different set of rules to your behavior, attributing those rules to the role and not to yourself. This lets you get into all sorts of mischief (and that is part of what makes it tempting).

For instance, you might do something at the behest of your employer that you would be ashamed to do otherwise, but then excuse yourself by thinking “don’t blame me; that’s just my job.” The “I was only following orders” excuse is a more notorious variety of this.

The way to respond to this threat/temptation is not to try to give up on playing roles altogether, but to refuse to compartmentalize and separate me-playing-a-role from me-being-me. Remember instead that me-playing-a-role is an example of me being me, and that a single set of rules apply, and you’ll be fine, integrity-wise.

  1. ^

    Analects of Confucius, Ⅱ.13

  2. ^

    For example, “Integrity: Definition and Examples” at the Indeed Career Guide

  3. ^

    Harry Frankfurt “Identification and Wholeheartedness” in Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions (1987)

  4. ^

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” in Essays: First Series (1841)

  5. ^

    Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (1981)

  6. ^

    Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age (1846)

  7. ^

    Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, section 51

  8. ^

    Alasdair MacIntyre, “Social Structures and their Threats to Moral Agency” Philosophy (1999)

New Comment
1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:36 PM

An underrated and little understood virtue in our culture. 

And a nice summary with many good, non-obvious and practical points. I've done a lot of what you describe in the section on process, and can testify to its effectiveness.

I'd be curious to hear any examples you have of integrity-maintaining examples of playing a role (which are non-obvious, and where a more simple high integrity approach might naively think one simply shouldn't play the role).