Its Own Reward


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.

The relationship between justice and integrity is, however, more problematic. On the one hand, we are loath to apply an honorific term to someone who is cavalier concerning the rights of others. On the other hand, newspapers and history books afford ample testimony to the existence of individuals with sharply defined characters molded by a passionate and single-minded commitment to despoiling others. Some Nazis were pusillanimous opportunists, but others constructed a comprehensive zeitgeist for which they were willing both to kill and to die.

It seems to me that if we decline to affix the term integrity to thieves and ethnic cleansers because we recoil from the deeds they perform, we will then have to coin another term restricted to people whose projects are coherent, avidly pursued, tightly ordered, but bad. For the same reason it is misplaced scrupulosity to deny that some villains are brave or resourceful. Those who reject the suggestion that particular virtues can coexist with great vices probably do so because they are wedded to the traditional model of all goods neatly fitting together in one comprehensive package.

Carter is such a traditionalist, and so after some perfunctory wrestling with the proposition that cold-blooded killers might nonetheless possess integrity, he rejects it. As noted previously, his construal of integrity embraces all facets of moral reflection, behavior, and utterance. That affords him maximal scope for critical commentary, but it forecloses opportunities to identify what is distinctive about integrity, how it is the virtue uniquely responsive to the conundrums of pluralism. Although nearly all the issues scrutinized in Integrity are contemporary, the treatment is thoroughly old-fashioned.

That does not mean that the book lacks utility, but it lies elsewhere than in coming to grips with the essence of integrity. Indeed, the virtue central to Carter's discussion isn't really integrity at all but rather moderation. He takes pains to stake out positions intermediate between camps of rival enthusiasts. He will not classify himself as a conservative, but neither does he admit to being a liberal; he rejects the extreme positions of both abortion supporters and opponents; he perceives a case for countenancing prayer in the schools and a case against it; he declines to embrace the platform of the Christian Coalition but he has little truck with the cultured despisers of traditional religion; divorce, he argues, is occasionally justified but mostly not; the state is too much with us but the rollback advocated by the troops of the Gingrich revolution is too radical. A more revealing title for the book would be The Aristotelian Golden Mean Made Easy–except that for Carter it is neither easy nor difficult but somewhere in between.

Extremism in the defense of liberty may be no vice, but lots of other extremisms are. Carter is at his best when diagnosing the febrile enthusiasms of our overheated polity and in striving to reduce the decibels of a cranked-up public rhetoric that casts all disagreement as willful ignorance and all opposition as enmity. He is a sensible counselor, a persuasive preacher. And that is something.

It is, though, not everything. Carter's sincerity occasionally borders on the simplistic. For example, he excoriates the press for pandering to the public's fascination with every sordid detail of the O.J. Simpson legal fest. Good journalism is "telling the people what the people should know," (emphasis Carter's) not feeding them what will generate most money for the broadcasters. The implied opposition is, however, specious. From the first sighting of the white Bronco to Judge Ito's last hurrah, media outlets running the gamut from The McLaughlin Group to Mike & Maty, from The New York Times to Modern Maturity to REASON, poured out gigabytes of features addressing subjects other than the identity of the wearer of the bloody glove. There was plenty of other news for those who wanted it.

Despite that proliferation of easily accessed alternatives, Carter opposes in the name of integrity journalistic provision of all the Simpsoniana the public might wish to swallow. At best this is one-sided. Why should we not instead judge that journalistic integrity favors responding to the informational demands of the citizenry rather than imposing on it one's own predilections? Isn't an insistence on second-guessing people's own uncoerced choices of what to read/listen to/view a matter of impugning their integrity? That journalists scramble to satisfy the tastes of their customers means that the American public is fed copious helpings of fluff and smoke, but it also means that what we come to know is up to us rather than a self-anointed elite of media mandarins. All and all, I think we do better to put up with the smoke–though, of course, not to inhale.

Carter's critique of the salary caps that several major sports leagues have imposed on their franchises is also curiously obtuse: "One thing integrity forces us to say of a salary cap is that it represents a view that markets should not be free." Although this support for free markets puts Carter on the side of the angels, it misconstrues the nature of the business the Angels–and the Yankees, the Brewers, and the Orioles–are in. They do indeed compete vigorously on the playing field, but they are not business adversaries in any straightforward sense. Rather, their bottom-line rivals are the National Basketball Association, video rental stores, amusement parks, and other competitors for the entertainment dollar. Salary caps may or may not be a good thing–for owners, for players, for fans–but to suppose that this can be determined by invoking integrity is the sort of practice that gives moralizing a bad name.

One final case study in integrity: During the summer of 1976 Ronald Reagan was waging an uphill fight to wrest the Republican Party nomination away from President Gerald Ford. He hit on the tactic of pre-selecting Sen. Richard Schweiker, a left-leaning Republican, as his running mate. The ploy ultimately fizzled. Not only did Reagan fail to secure the nomination but, according to Carter, he also jeopardized his integrity.

This discussion is one of the most intriguing sections of the book, though perhaps for reasons other than those Carter intends. Schweiker surely was not Reagan's favorite Republican (and vice versa!), yet they decided they could do business. Questionable integrity? I don't think so. Rather, the episode spotlights a crucial fact about the relationship between integrity and compromise, one to which in other places (e.g., his instructive discussion of Lincoln and slavery) Carter is more attentive.

It is a fundamental error to suppose that individuals of integrity will not be willing to compromise on matters of significant value. Precisely because not all goods hang together, one irreplaceable aspect of integrity is a practiced facility for trading off more dispensable values for those that are less dispensable. Sometimes those trade-offs are truly wrenching. But dangling a vice presidency before someone of a different ideological bent doesn't seem to be among them. Even if one demurs from the judgment of a former occupant of the office that it is "not worth a bucket of warm spit," taking an inflexible stand on the ideological purity of one's running mate runs counter to the preponderance of American political practice and bespeaks fanaticism, not integrity.

Students of integrity can learn something from the Schweiker episode, but they can learn much more by attending to Reagan's career as a whole. Love him or hate him, there is no denying the magnitude of Reagan's success at navigating the treacherous waters of American politics. His critics were perpetually confounded by his survival skills. Reagan was no intellectual, he was impervious to subtleties, his anecdotes were cliché-ridden, his naps frequent, and his work ethic questionable. Nonetheless, he not only persevered but more often than not prevailed. What accounted for this record of achievement? "Blind luck!" groused the critics. That diagnosis may go a long way toward explaining why he so regularly steamrollered them.

What they left out was Reagan's integrity. Even as he zigged and zagged across the political playing field like a latter-day Gipper, Reagan displayed the countenance of a man who possesses a stable center. He spoke his mind in tropes ridiculed by the pundits as unfashionable, undiplomatic, and simplistic ("evil empire"), yet got away with it. Unlike his successors in the presidency, he gave an impression of standing for something beyond whatever had happened to leap to the top of the morning polls. Consummate showmanship? I think not; I've seen enough of his films to know that he is not that accomplished an actor.

What the Reagan years illustrate is that integrity can go a long way toward making up for shortfalls elsewhere. Integrity may lack nuance, but at least it is not scatterbrained. A firm and unyielding sense of self generates confidence in place of confusion, forthright action rather than dithering.

That is why I reject Carter's definition of integrity as incorporating extended moral pondering. No doubt reflection is, all else equal, a good thing, but it is also costly in terms of time and mental energies expended. "Knowing in one's bones" how to act can substitute for hours of introspective analysis. An all-star center fielder doesn't conduct internal debates; rather, he is off at the crack of the bat. A person of integrity need not perpetually reinvent herself because she can rely on her moral habits to carry her through.

It is not simply an accident of language that "integrity" more comfortably takes the modifier "rock-ribbed" than, say, "philosophical." Like a rock, integrity does not flutter in the passing breeze; it is not easily shattered. An evening spent watching old movies can be a reliable guide here. The preeminent virtue displayed by the stereotypical John Wayne/Gary Cooper character is integrity. The Duke wasn't voluble, he rarely climbed down off his horse to muse about the deep questions that had engaged Socrates, but the moral heroism he projected was the manifestation of a self integrated all the way down. Of course there are risks in unreflective integrity; sometimes the only way to avoid a collision is to turn off cruise control and give the wheel a sharp turn. Possessing integrity affords no guarantee that one will act well because it is not the whole of moral excellence but one virtue among many. It does, though, hold a self together.

Carter only occasionally illumines what is distinctive about integrity but, as with my old scoutmaster, the advice he proffers is sensible and, even where disputable, deserves to be taken seriously. Despite my philosophical qualms, I'm prepared enthusiastically to endorse his entitlement to a merit badge.

Contributing Editor Loren E. Lomasky ( is a professor of philosophy at Bowling State University.