The Three Integrity Traps

March 23, 2012 Stu Brody

The Three Integrity Traps

 1.  The Trap of Passionate Belief:  “I’m right and You’re Wrong and That’s All There Is To it.”

To understand how belief thwarts integrity, let’s turn our attention to Washington where grown men and women hurl insults at each other in the name of principle and call their intransigence integrity.

As a matter of principle, Republicans believe that low taxation and non-interference by government stimulate economic growth and in turn, lower deficits.  Committed to these theoretical tenets, they ignore practical failures like the deficit-expanding tax cuts of the Bush era and the bitter harvest of financial de-regulation.   For these failures of their own making, they blame others:  the  “tax and spend” Democrats whom they view as overweening and naïve sentimentalists.

For their part, Democrats believe that government intervention can solve every negative outcome of the market, from globalization to greed and that the perceived villains of these outcomes must be punished by tax increases and more regulation.  Democrats blame the country’s economic decline on Republican wars and financial restructurings that many of them voted for and portray their rivals as elitist and callous promoters of economic inequity.

It is likely that elements of both positions, when extracted from the extremity of ideology, could be blended into a practical plan to address our economic woes.  Instead, our leaders debate principles that are literally divorced from reality.  Their behavior offers a textbook definition of the breakdown in integrity

a. the boisterous assertion of belief,

b. the absence of substantial proof for the truth of the belief,

c. the adamant refusal to compromise with those who hold opposing beliefs, and,

d. the denigration of your opponents’ moral character.

It is no wonder that the Congress has a 16 percent approval rating, which, according to Fareed Zacharia, is two percentage points above the approval rating that the United States has the misfortune to endure in the Arab World.  The Congress is one of the most reviled institutions in America.

However, before condemning the Congress as a bunch of ideological kooks, let’s scrutinize our own behavior.  How is debate over political issues, or, for that matter, any belief, conducted in our own living rooms and town halls.

Perhaps my view is skewed after years in politics—I have no doubt it is– but I have observed that wherever issues of political belief are brought up, discussion is conducted in pretty much the same way.   That is, truth becomes subservient to conviction and the more vehement the assertion, the more certain the belief.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether the subject is national tax policy or school board policy, the rectitude of war or the mayor’s salary increase,  climate change or the schedule of road repairs.  And the tendency to assert belief wholly out of proportion to the evidence underlying it extends to the judgments we make about neighbors:  why didn’t they invite us to their party, volunteer for the United Way, or greet us more enthusiastically at the local market?

Surely, passionate belief serves a decisive purpose in a democracy.  In our country, it has been the means by which we have transformed our society in alignment with our most abiding values—the civil rights movement is a notable example–and in that process reinvigorated our devotion to them.

However, as we have seen, it is all too often the means by which we drift into a world of our own devising, where self assurance substitutes for introspection, willfulness for deliberation and where we happily reign as morally superior, exceptionally competent and inordinately deserving.

Such behavior, individually or collectively, threatens both democracy and integrity, as they are inextricably linked:  belief becomes unhinged from evidence, and advocacy becomes separated from accommodation.

2.    How Intention Excuses Action:  “Oh no, you’re wrong.  I didn’t mean to do that.”

Let’s move to a second obstacle to integrity:  the way we assert the purity of our intention as an excuse for actions we would readily condemn in others.

Let us once again turn our scrutiny toward Washington, but this time, to the judiciary branch.  Several years ago, Antonin Scalia, a brilliant jurist and a by many accounts, a charming man, was challenged on ethical grounds for going on a hunting trip with Vice President Cheney.  It wasn’t the friendship or the hunting trip that attracted criticism, but the fact that the Supreme Court had just three weeks earlier agreed to hear a case directly involving Vice President Cheney.

When questioned about the apparent conflict of interest, the Justice responded:  “I don’t see how my impartiality can reasonably be questioned.”

Now, in that moment and on that issue, Justice Scalia might have been the only person in America who could not see why it would be reasonable to question his impartiality.  However, we all have our moments, and the blindness of the highest judge in the land gives us an opportunity to see how we also ignore reality in the name of pure intentions.   Let’s look at some examples.

  1. Everyone despises the scourge of insider trading, but few would decline a reliable stock tip if offered?
  2. We condemn the “old boy” network as synonymous with political corruption, but who refrains from using influence if they have it to get a job for a son or daughter?
  3. No one we know commits theft but who doesn’t know someone who purchased an expensive suit or handbag on a Manhattan street corner at a fraction of the normal price?
  4. Many of us complain about corporate tax evasion even as we cheat on our own taxes.
  5. No one likes gossip about themselves but widely gossips about others.
  6. Surveys tell us that two out of three Americans believe they are environmentalists, but most cannot name a single practice they engage in to protect it, other than hoping that it all works out okay.
  7. Similarly, everyone believes they possess integrity but few can cite  a personal statement or guiding rule that they turn to for substantive guidance in decision making.

Our mental rigging is such that we find ways to assure ourselves of our pure intentions regardless of the actual impact of our actions.  And, since everyone believes they possess integrity, anything they do can be excused by the purity of their intent.

Reflect on your own experience when someone, let’s say a friend or someone you generally trust, criticizes your action.  Is there anyone who has not heard himself or herself say:  “you misunderstand. I didn’t mean that”, as if intent automatically erases the effect of action.

Surely, no one intends to further financial deception, government corruption, street crime, tax evasion, gossip or lying, but the purity with which we hold our intention renders invisible the actions we commit that deepen these abuses.

3.   How Self-Interest Masquerades as Duty:  “I have to Do That to Survive.”

Let’s move on to the third and most serious impediment to ethical action:  how we excuse our breaches of integrity by viewing the pursuit of self- interest as a duty.

I’m sure many of you have wondered, as I have, if the way our elections are financed is essentially legalized bribery:  Politicians court donors, then grant them access in proportion to their donations.  Some will concede they do it because everyone else does it, so they must also to survive.

Many of our elected representative also engage in negative campaign advertising:  the practice of hurling lies, exaggerations, slurs, innuendo and ridicule—the exact opposite of the conduct once would expect from a leader–at opponents in the form of campaign ads.

Yet, as we all know, negative advertising works, politicians rarely pay the price for engaging in it and breezily defend it as a matter of political “survival”.  In other words, to serve their own political they are willing to put democracy itself at risk by riding roughshod over the duty of truthfulness.

To understand their behavior, and ours, it makes sense now to look at the meaning of the word “survival” and the role of “truthfulness” in the practice of integrity.  The question we must ask is:  Am I surviving or colluding in the concealment of truth?

In its purest sense, the word survival refers to what we must do, literally, to preserve our own life.   Self-preservation is an exemption from the claim of otherwise unalterable moral rules.   The prohibition against killing, the most fundamental of all moral tenets, is excused if killing is done in self defense.  A prisoner of war compelled to make enemy munitions while interned will not be court martialed.  Stealing bread to feed a hungry family mitigates criminal penalties.

Is it not a stretch, however, to excuse as a prerogative of survival, the conduct of politicians who convert representative government into a feeding frenzy for well-heeled lobbyists, or lie to their constituents, so they can keep getting elected.

Yet, as we can see in the following examples, the tendency to sweep the duty of truthfulness under the rug of self-interest in the name of survival, is not restricted to politicians.

  1. As a broker, you comply with your company’s order to aggressively sell an inferior stock in which the investment wing of your company invested.
  2. As a manager for an insurance company, you are ordered to achieve cost savings by automatically challenging every new claim for breast cancer.
  3. As the account executive at the advertising agency for a prominent drug company, you are told to go ahead with an ad campaign for a new drug, despite reports about its usefulness for the intended market.
  4. As an employee of a mutual fund, you are ordered to dump poor performing stocks on the last day of the quarter and buy better performers to conceal the poor performance of the portfolio during the previous quarter.
  5. After impasse is reached in discussions over your salary increase, your boss offers to backdate a stock option agreement to induce your agreement.
  6. You cut corners on an important memo for your boss in order to submit it in time to attend your child’s soccer game.
  7. As a participant in a meeting, you say nothing as your fellow auto executives decide that it is more cost effective to pay damages for deaths resulting from a faulty gas tank, than make safety adjustments that would avoid the explosions.