The Values Series | Integrity

Integrity is one of those words which I have used thousands of times without giving much thought to its exact meaning. I only knew it was a quality that good guys possessed, that it involved honesty, and was something to be admired. Thus, when integrity was mentioned as a proper subject for this series on values, I cranked up Mildred and sent her to see what Mr. Wikipedia had to say on the subject. His response was predictably concise and illuminating: Integrity is the practice of being honest, and showing a consistent and uncompromising adherence to strong moral and ethical principles and values.


With such a definition integrity incorporates all our values. It evolved from the Latin word integer meaning whole or complete which tends to confirm that integrity must include adherence to all of one’s values.


From that I concluded that those with integrity not only ascribe to the values most of us treasure, but are unwavering in their application regardless of the pressure to lead them astray. This does not imply rigidity of thinking, but any changes in one’s opinions or conclusions must occur within the framework of his/her strong moral and ethical principles . In short, integrity is determination to stick to his/her idea of what is right no matter the circumstances. 


However, this definition does present a problem. In ordinary circumstances, when we say one possesses integrity, we use it to signify our admiration, but what if that person’s values differ significantly from ours. For example, we generally don’t describe Mafia members as having integrity although they operate with their own version of morality and ethical principles to which they rigidly adhere. Many antebellum slaveholders, including some of our founding fathers were also said to exhibit a high degree of integrity, in spite of lacking a consistent and uncompromising adherence to today’s version of strong moral principles.

Does the Definition of Values Change with the Evolution of Morality?
As I pointed out in previous blogs, our values and standards of morality change over time. I recall a time when there was nearly universal condemnation of abortionists, but now the country is equally divided regarding the morality of abortion. Consequently, one who performs the procedure might or might not be said to have integrity depending on the personal values of the evaluator. Today I saw an ad on TV encouraging customers of the state’s lottery system to be “responsible gamblers” and I asked myself “when did any kind of gambling become responsible?” The answer of course is – when the state decided it could be lucrative and when politicians convinced voters to make it legal. It did turn out to be lucrative for psychiatrists, for it spawned a whole new generation of gambling addicts.


Without a degree of integrity, civilization could barely exist. It is an ideal upon which rests the trust necessary for relationships both personal and professional to succeed. When literacy was less common, the tradition of sealing the deal with a handshake was the norm consequently; integrity was crucial. No doubt that written agreements are useful to minimize misunderstandings, but nowadays no matter how trivial the deal we are directed to “get it in writing.” However, those charged with writing those agreements have become very creative in writing contracts that no mere mortal can understand, but when such obfuscation is coupled with length, most of us give up and sign on the dotted line. For example, when is the last time you read one of those agreements which popup on your computer in order to install an app? Or the lengthy mortgage documents when refinancing your house?


Integrity and Business | An Oxymoron?
The term “truthful hyperbole” was coined in the book, The Art of the Deal, which was on the New York Times best seller list for 48 weeks. Some suggest that phrase morphed into the similar oxymoron “alternative facts” which would later be found to be useful in another context. There are other stories in the book in which deception is used in order to gain an advantage. This begs the question as to whether such business strategies were part of the curriculum at Wharton and an even more important question: are there any ethical standards in business these days?


Integrity and Sports
Competitive sports have long been activities in which there have been rigid rules designed to assure that the “best man wins”. The Marquis of Queensberry rules were established in mid-19th century to assure fairness in boxing, and the idea of rules to promote fairness in sports became an ideal. The idea of winning “fair and square” was the athlete’s byword. One’s integrity was admired nearly as much as his physical prowess. Nowadays, it seems sportsmanship is a word rarely heard let alone praised.


Although there have always been examples of cheating in sports, it appears to me that attempts to gain an advantage by means other than by one’s performance have become accepted strategy in recent years. Our play-by-play announcers seem to admire coaches’ abilities to “work the officials.” My basketball coach grandson tells me that “trash talk” has become part of the game. I often wonder if such talk persists as the team performs the ritual unenthusiastic post game handshake. It appears to me that mutual respect between opponents is often replaced by mutual derision. Recent incidents, such as Deflategate and stolen baseball signals, would seem to indicate that for many, cheating is an acceptable strategy.


When I googled the oft quoted phrase “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game,” I found mostly cynical responses by famous athletes. For example, Martina Navratilova said: “I suspect those who say that lose a lot of games.” Is it not true that how you play the game is a mark of integrity? Is integrity a hindrance to winning? Does it matter how you win? Is losing shameful? Is graciousness in losing to be admired or ridiculed? The answer to those questions says much about our values.


Integrity and Politics
Nowhere is integrity more important than in the realm of politics. In a democracy, we elect as our leaders those who espouse values consistent with our own, and to whom we cede the power to do our bidding. Therein lies a test of integrity for as Lincoln is alleged to have said: “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Unfortunately, through the years, we have seen many who have flunked that test. My vote for a person is a measure of my trust in his ability and determination to speak for me. Therefore, I expect the person for whom I vote to display core values of loyalty, honesty, humility, truthfulness, consistency, steadfastness, and incorruptibility. Those values are at least of equal importance as his political orientation. Unfortunately, we do not have an integrity meter by which we can measure those qualities in advance of an election, and our current electoral system with its emphasis on fund raising enhances the temptation to stray from stated values.


Fairness as with many other qualities is often in the eyes of the beholder. As a proponent and defender of fair play a person of integrity should be prepared to object to any unfairness perpetrated even when directed against an opponent. For example, Mr. Trump insists those who criticize or question him or any of his jailed cronies are being unfair.


This is one of his traits for which I am roundly critical however; I am sure there are instances when he actually is treated unfairly. In the unlikely event that I noticed he really was being treated unfairly, sadly my likely response would be to applaud. Yes, this integrity thing is tough, and our biases certainly do get in the way.


The Clash of Intellect and Emotions
As a matter of fact, this whole series on values has been difficult for me as I have found myself laboring over words more than usual. I have concluded this is so because our values include not only intellect but emotions. Consequently, we must engage our amygdala and prefrontal cortex at the same time. At least that explanation helped me rule out senility, but also explained why really smart people have kicked these ideas around for millennia, and why dedicated philosophers always seemed a bit squirrelly to me.


It was my conviction that the subject of values does not receive the attention it deserves which led me to choose it as a topic. We are remarkably forgiving of and ignore integrity deficits. We attempt to soften lies with terms such as: alternate facts, misspoke, inaccurate, and misinformed. Our government uses the term enhanced interrogation when they torture and rendition for kidnapping. The killing of families and children in war is referred to as collateral damage.  When questioned under oath about alleged misdeeds, our politicians frequently respond “I don’t recall.” We often are more concerned with legality than morality. We are told the world is now more complicated and issues can no longer be seen as black or white, but my favorite moralist, Jimmy Carter, said

“We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.”


The Upside | Integrity is Everywhere if You Look with the Right Lens
In deference to daughter Trudy who often sees the old man’s blogs as purveyors of gloom, doom, despair, and anti-trump rants, I offer the following reasons for hope that all is not lost and that love does triumph over adversity. It has been often said that times of crisis bring out the best and the worst of people. In this pandemic, the worst are badly outnumbered by those who courageously leave the safety of their homes often risking their own lives to care for the sick. Some even came out of retirement to supplement an overwhelmed staff. Indeed, hospital workers and first-responders have given their lives, and “no greater love hath man.” Others in jobs which in ordinary times lack status heroically put themselves at risk in order that I can stay safe.

    hand made card from child to frontline workers fighting COVID-19

A study published in Nature Human Behaviour suggests that desire for fairness may be an inherent quality in people. In this study, toddlers were asked to watch a puppet show in which 2 puppets attempted to go through a path too narrow for both so that one of the puppets would yield to the other. After the show, the toddlers were allowed to play with the puppets and the majority chose to play with the puppet who had gone through first. Later, the show was repeated, but this time one puppet shoved the other out of the way in order to get through the opening. This time the toddlers overwhelmingly chose to play with the puppet who was knocked aside. Could it be that we are born with integrity and somehow lose it along the way?


Editor’s Note: More studies have taken place at Harvard and Yale surrounding the value of toddlers. This article “Are Babies Born Good?” from Science Smithsonian magazine describe the interesting experiments and results of these studies that seem to replicate the study published in Nature Human Behavior. This seems to support the notion that human nature is indeed one of the values that I’ve attempted to define in this series.


The pandemic mantra, “we are all in this together” seems to have done much to ameliorate our divisiveness for we have seen a groundswell of concern for our fellow man.  There is evidence of new-found respect for those who perform menial jobs. Social isolation has raised awareness of our need for and appreciation of relationships. Increased awareness of our fragility and mortality gives us an appreciation for life and for those we love.  There is much to fear, but much to admire and much to inspire.

It’s a good time to take a fresh look at our values, and how we value each other for in the final analysis
integrity is simply about caring.

2 Nature Human Behavior 2, 662-669 (2018)

2 thoughts on “The Values Series | Integrity

  1. ‘My vote for a person is a measure of my trust in his (or her?) ability and determination to speak for me.” Words to live by, indeed.


  2. Well done series! I agree with Nelson McCants, as to who I vote for. It does continually amazes me that those in my life who I admire for their integrity and goodness, can continually support a President who over and over again exhibits he has none.


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