Integrity: What’s In It For Me?

March 23, 2012 

Integrity:  What’s In It For Me?


Why the title?  Integrity, what’s in it for me?  Whenever anyone hears the title, they laugh.  But what’s so funny?   Is there anything funny about viewing integrity as a matter of self-interest?

Laughing, it is said, is an unconscious acknowledgment of a truth the conscious mind refuses to admit. So, by laughing we may be conceding that we view integrity as a tactic to attract the esteem of others, while concealing our true selfish objectives?

Maybe we laugh as a kind of boast, that while other people may treat integrity as a matter of tasteless calculation, we honor it as an expression of personal authenticity.

Of course, calculation can also mean “deliberation”, a more respectable word, which implies careful weighing of all relevant facts and views.  People in public life, as well as friends or acquaintances who know how to balance competing interests for the common good, not just their own, are highly respected.  We see them as models of integrity.  And, since this talent is rare and difficult, we must wonder if it can be learned, as a matter of “calculation.”

Yet most of us don’t hold integrity as a matter of such careful weighing.  Rather, we think of it as automatic and innate.  Consider the definitions people commonly offer when asked to define integrity:  “being at one with yourself”, “to thine own self be true”, and “the truth you know in your heart.”

And while surveys show that integrity is the most admired personal quality, most consider it something easy to achieve, neither rare nor difficult.   Why do I say that?   Because everyone thinks they possess it;   something nearly everyone takes for granted about themselves.  I have asked thousands of participants at my seminars:   “Is there anyone here who lacks integrity?”  No one ever raises a hand.

Yet all around us we see stunning breaches of integrity:  political dysfunction, business corruption, college cheating, media exploitation, sports greed, charitable giving as showmanship and the lapses of church clergy.

As a direct result of these breaches, the sustaining tenets of our national self image have become, for many, empty clichés:   “work hard and obey the rules and you’ll get ahead”, “ talent rises to the top”, an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work”  “the level playing field”, “land of opportunity”, the “American Dream” and so forth.

Without trust in the power of our institutions to ennoble and inspire, we inevitably retreat into our private worlds in search of personal fulfillment.  It is hard to imagine a more desperate predicament for a national community that was once so confident and productive, and prided itself on the seamless blending of self-advancement with promotion of the common good.

It is natural then that we turn to the question of why public figures give themselves over to the temptations of excessive self promotion and personal enrichment, forfeiting their honor and breaching the trust of so many.  Certainly this question compels an answer, for so much depends on finding one.

Still, we may need to ask a different question, a more pressing and basic one:  What is it in our own everyday conduct that mirrors the actions of the public officials we condemn.  While expert in seeing their faults, do we fail to see the same ones in ourselves?  Does the fault of their breaches lie “not in our stars, but in ourselves if we are underlings.” even if we only acknowledge that truth in nervous laughter.

So let’s us now turn to the question of whether there are blind spots in the way we view ourselves that allow us to remain certain of our own integrity while unwittingly committing its breaches.

The first of these blind spots is passionate belief.  Our beliefs, or opinions, tend to generate their own momentum toward certainty, even in the face of contrary evidence, and tend to crowd out the merit of competing beliefs.

A second impediment to the practice of integrity is our tendency to view good intentions—our own–as an excuse for bad actions.   Measuring our self-esteem by our noblest intentions we ignore the reality of our ignoble deeds.

The third blind spot is the most troubling because it is the most difficult to cure:  the curious mental chemistry that transforms whatever we want into something we deserve and allows narrow self interest to masquerade as duty.

[1] This article is the first in a three part series which comprise 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.