Integrity , by Stephen L. Carter, New York: Basic Books, 277 pages, $24.00
Many years ago, as an aspiring member of a paramilitary organization, I solemnly pledged that I would be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous....There were, I believe, 12 items on the list of virtues, but their variety made almost no impression. I understood myself simply to be promising to be a Good Boy.
Was Stephen Carter also a Boy Scout? I don't know, but he does offer a Swiss- Army-Knife, one-implement-does-it-all account of integrity. It is defined as "1) discerning what is right and what is wrong; 2) acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost; and 3) saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right from wrong." Knowing, doing, acknowledging: What more can you ask from a moral agent? Nothing appears to be missing. On this expansive conception integrity is not merely an important virtue or even the central one; it is the entirety of morality.
An advantage of this approach is that it renders virtually the whole range of behavior fair game for the author of a book titled Integrity. And if the author is as thoughtful, candid, and undogmatic as Carter, the result is a wide-ranging and stimulating tour of contemporary mores. Politicians, journalists, win-at-all-costs sports stars, and ordinary Americans who take their pleasures too seriously and marital vows not seriously enough are placed under the moral microscope and their various warts and blemishes diagnosed. Most of the critiques are sensible and some noteworthy for their insight; I shall presently return to the particulars of his indictments. But despite their considerable merits, one crucial ingredient is missing from the book: an appreciation of what is truly distinctive about integrity.
As etymology reveals, integrity is about integration. It is, thus, a meta-virtue. Integrity is not just another entry on a laundry list of traits people ought to have but rather serves as the glue that binds together the various facets of a person's character. That immediately prompts a question: Why should we suppose that any such glue is required; why isn't it enough that individuals possess a full measure of the excellences that are components of living well? Maybe "integrity" is just shorthand for all-around goodness. This brings us back to the comprehensive understanding that Carter offers.
Although I shall criticize that account, I hasten to acknowledge that Carter is in distinguished company. Until comparatively recently integrity was an inconspicuous, even redundant moral quality. The Hebrews had no need for it; theirs was a zeal for righteousness understood simply as fidelity to God's Torah. Nor did the Greek moralists include it in any listings of the cardinal virtues. None saw the need for such a moral binding agent. (Phronesis, "practical wisdom," was the nearest approximation.) Socrates was notorious for maintaining paradoxically that all the virtues were at bottom one, indeed nothing other than knowledge. That appraisal was not generally accepted. Aristotle, for example, held that human excellences were irreducibly diverse: Courage is not the same as moderation which is not the same as justice, magnanimity, or friendship. Someone, therefore, could stand well along one of these dimensions yet in other respects be deficient. Nonetheless, optimal character integration posed no significant theoretical problem. The best way for someone to be is to excel with regard to all these traits. Complete virtue is the equivalent of a student scoring straight As. No doubt there will be few people with a perfect 4.0 moral average, but those who score lower do so because they fall short in one or more particular courses, not because there is some difficulty in principle about combining them.
But what if two classes are offered at the same time? Then enrollment in one necessarily entails absence from the other. The analogy raises disquieting questions. Suppose that excelling in one area of human accomplishment entails forgoing achievement somewhere else. Then the ideal of full human flourishing becomes unattainable. To secure one kind of personal good necessarily involves sacrificing another. And this will be a genuine sacrifice because what one gives up is an attribute that in some significant way makes life go better. Virtues on this conception do not merely displace vices; they also shut out other virtues.
The disturbing thought that not all good things can be tied together in a neat package first pricked the Western moral consciousness in the wake of initial encounters between Hebraism and Hellenism. The philosophical tradition had identified a range of human excellences; so too had revealed religion. The dilemma was that their rosters looked to be thoroughly incompatible. What does the warrior's courage or the man of affairs' magnanimity have to do with humility and chastity? What, indeed, does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? "Nothing!" proclaimed both committed pagan skeptics and devout Church fathers. But to many observers this unwillingness to compromise bespoke lamentable fanaticism. As they saw it, both Athens and Jerusalem were attractive, too much so for either comfortably to be surrendered. Angling for a spot in the Hereafter was, they reckoned, consistent with enjoying the sweet fruits of the Here and Now.
This compatibilist appraisal was authoritatively endorsed by the great synthesizer, Thomas Aquinas, who announced, "Grace does not abolish Nature but perfects it." Our dual nature as creatures molded from the dust of the earth but also elevated to a rank little lower than the angels means that fulfillment of our God-given end involves complementing the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love with the natural virtues identified by the Greek philosophers. One need not, therefore, resign oneself to abandoning either heaven or the world. A man can aspire to be both a philosopher and a saint--as was accomplished by Thomas himself.
But if the compatibility-of-the-virtues thesis smoothly survived its encounter with Christendom, modernity posed it more severe challenges. This crisis has been brilliantly documented by Sir Isaiah Berlin, who identifies Machiavelli as the pivotal figure in our changing conception of the good life. One can, instructed the Florentine secretary, reasonably aspire to live as a pious Christian with his gaze fixed firmly on heaven or as a worldly wise member of the polis with his eyes glued to the main chance, but one who attempts to do both will render himself cross-eyed and stumble badly. Princes make bad priests, and vice versa.
From Machiavelli and his successors we learn that there is a plurality of worthwhile but incompatible ways of life. Moreover, there exists no unambiguous standard for comparing and weighing them one against another. That is because many goods are incommensurable. Climbing sheer rock faces demands the most of a person; so too does proving complex mathematical theorems. An ability to do either constitutes an excellence. But how do they compare? Perhaps not at all. Rock climbing may not be better than theorem proving, nor inferior, nor are they equally valuable. Rather, they may be strictly incommensurable.
This understanding of value incommensurability should not be taken as implying that choice among different modes of life is either nonexistent or arbitrary. Rather, how one orients oneself toward a realm of diverse and incompatible values will reflect more or less intelligence and will be crucial to one's success or failure as an active being. For the moderns as well as for the ancients, then, deciding at a fundamental level how to live is as momentous as anything we might do. The difference is that for the heirs of Machiavelli there exists no universal algorithm to guide choice.
Value incommensurability is, therefore, not looked on with much favor by those with algorithms to peddle. Religious zealots and political ideologues are entirely, unreservedly convinced that they know what is best for themselves because they know what is best for everyone. Pluralism is their enemy.
It is, though, the foundation stone of liberalism. Liberals reject the credentials of the tutelary state (or church, or guru) because they deny that there is one set of lessons which, if dutifully studied, is adequate for instructing all people in the requisites of the good life. Through deliberate choice or happenstance or some combination thereof we find ourselves situated in different precincts of the universe of value. As agents we are individuated one from another in virtue of the projects and attachments that define our personas. Plurality means that there is an indefinite number of good lives--and also mediocre or monstrous ones--we might achieve, but one's ultimate success or failure is a function of the nature of the particular package one puts together through one's own personal commitments.
Integrity is, therefore, the quintessential virtue of modernity and of modernity's most important contribution to living well together, liberalism. Because not all excellences combine, an integral person is someone who has constructed for herself a package that is internally coherent, that adequately expresses the nature of the person that on the deepest level she most wants to be, and who has sufficient discipline to overcome temptations to squander her moral birthright for random bowls of pottage. Integrity renders a person more than just a variegated set of whims and wants, more than the economist's utility function ranging over ordered preferences; it is that which renders a person most fully...a person. Moreover, integrity is not redundant, not just a shorthand way of categorizing someone who leads an all-around morally decent life. That is so for two reasons. First, what constitutes moral decency is not precisely the same for all people but rather depends on the specific commitments that an individual has undertaken. And second, integrity deficits are not primarily a matter of falling short with regard to duties to others. They are first and foremost a blot on the agent himself, literally a (partial) disintegration of the self. Although integrity is not reducible to one or more other estimable traits, the logic of integrity does link it to other virtues. For example, someone who lacks honesty manifests a dissociation between private and public affirmations concerning the way things are and is thereby deficient in integrity. Similar implications apply to disloyalty, self-deception, and overweening pride. The imprudent, live-for-the-moment individual will almost certainly find it difficult to integrate current behavior with aspirations for the future. A slothful or lethargic person will evince a gap between the ostensible intensity of his goals and the vigor with which he pursues them. And so on.