Saturday, May 21, 2005

Column on Paucity of Integrity

The Paucity of Integrity

Tibor R. Machan

Why should I deny it, I am a moralist. Why would I sound off on so many
topics involving what people think and do, otherwise? I hope to encourage
myself and other folks to do better; I would like to do my level best,
given my resources and talents, to improve institutions. I know of no one
who chimes in about public affairs who isn?t so disposed.

So, here I go again, this time lamenting the paucity of that central
moral virtue, integrity. What is it?

My dictionary tells it pretty straightforwardly, without the nuances and
complications moral philosophers would (quite properly) add: First,
integrity means steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code;
next, it is the state of being unimpaired, of soundness, and finally it
rounds it off with the quality or condition of being whole or undivided;

Integrity then is a human virtue of keeping all of one?s values in sight
as one thinks and acts. It is to be consistent in the adherence to and
practice of the moral virtues. It is, one might call it, a meta-virtue,
imploring us to keep all our virtues intact and not embrace them
sporadically, piecemeal, here but not there, now but not then. There isn?t
a school of bona fide moral or ethical philosophy in which integrity
doesn?t figure prominently but there are other schools that demean it

Why do I say this vital virtue is missing from much of our culture? Why
do I claim that few people appear to be loyal to it?

Mainly because the evidence proves the point. Just watch how often, for
example, journalists will protest any interference with their liberty
while actively promoting interference with the liberty of others. Observe
how readily Enron?s executives will be condemned for failing to have, yes,
integrity itself, while it will also be argued, by the same folks, that we
should all think and act pragmatically, non-ideologically, in ways that
are flexible. Just consider how special interest groups identify their own
projects as in the public interest, while condemning the projects of
others as crass profiteering?the environmental lobbies and groups come to
mind here but they aren?t by any means alone.

Then, also, notice this nearly hysterical embrace, by some of our most
prominent public figures, of the pragmatic approach to, yes, the law
itself?Richard Posner, Judge of the United States Seventh Circuit Court of
Appeals and Senior Lecturer, University of Chicago Law School, comes to
mind here. His volume, advocating unprincipled thinking, titled Law,
Pragmatism and Democracy, published by no less than Harvard University
Press (2003) makes no secret of how little he thinks of integrity in law
and public policy. The Rule of Law itself is decried by Posner as he
unabashedly promotes the notion that what judges should do is make their
rulings on the basis of what they believe will achieve most value in the
world, knowing full well that this is a hopelessly vague idea. As he puts
it at one point, ?No sane persons would balk at abandonment of the
conventional limitations on the power to search and seize and the power to
extract information from suspects and even bystanders? in cases where one
knows for sure these measures will help prevent terrorism.

The point of integrity is, of course, to habituate us?including our
important institutions and their administrators?to keep in mind and adhere
to all the moral virtues and principles of justice even while we are being
vigilant about some that happen just now be in the greatest peril. So, as
this applies to law and public policy, while fighting terrorists, for
example?or child molesters or rapists?due process must also be preserved.
Indeed, without such integrity it is impossible to even figure out what is
worth fighting for and why. Why even bother with fighting terrorists whose
major crime is, after all, to abandon all sense of values, to violate all
the principles of civilized society, if in defending ourselves against
them we are willing to do the very same thing?

It is nothing new, but worth reiteration: Those who are condemning
principled thinking, be this in ethics, politics, law, economics, global
free trade or you name it, are inviting complete chaos regarding how we
ought to act, what we ought to support or oppose. Indeed, in this respect
the Marquis de Sade?who championed an ?ethics of cruelty??and
Machiavelli?who thought that all that really matters in politics is
power?had more integrity than many of our current public philosophers.
These two, at least, consistently, without apology, jettisoned all virtues
and values in favor of unrestrained reckless abandon.

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