All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.
A: When I hear integrity, to me, it’s connected to consistency. It’s got to do with continuity over time. You’re the same independently of whatever happens outside.
B: There’s a very strong moral component to the word, but it doesn’t have to do with keeping a conformist kind of moral code. You can have integrity and be well integrated, but the idea is that you’re not quite in line with what’s usually done in the context around you. So, it has to do with a certain form of courage. You’re not in direct relation to the established order.
A: I would associate it with originality. It’s about respecting your own shape, and refusing to change so that you can fit in the box. And this has to do with real originality. I’m always remembering an essay by Pessoa that I read as a teenager, something with a Greek name, Epi-something, where he says that, when push comes to shove, the only thing about an artist with actual value is how original they are.
B: I see that as an individual form of value, integrity. It’s not about your relation to the group – like, you follow the norms of the group, as in a cult – but rather facing up to the group. There’s something antagonistic about it. It’s me against the world.
A: Then there’s a form of congruence with non-violent communication. And that would also mean that there’s a form of courage to non-violent communication. I state what I see, what I feel, what I need, and I make a proposal, based on a description of the world as it appears to me, rather than conforming to the madness of other people.
B: We might think it’s a form of power, or a strength, when you can adapt to another person. And it is. But this sense of integrity as a form of courage, it means it may be that it’s your capacity to clearly state your feelings or requests that is the biggest form of respect for another person, and ultimately the best way to influence them.
A: You can have integrity and be a psychopath, but you can’t have integrity and do things against your moral code. So, it’s about the capacity to judge what’s inside, from the outside.
B: Giving up on moral effort, then, that’s a lack of integrity. And that’s the distinction between the respectable bureaucrat and the opportunistic consultant.
A: Well, some of the people I despise the most for that are consultants, who just get in, do something and leave, in pure mercenary fashion, with no sense of continuity or mission.
B: But there’s a fine distinction between both. Maybe the consultant, because they’re independent, it allows them to have more integrity, because they see it and they say it like it is. It’s their job. Or it could be about all sorts of second-order things that the consultant wants to achieve. So, the question becomes about the end justifying the means.
A: So maybe, is it that Integrity can only appear retrospectively? And then, this would take us to a complex dialectic, something hard to figure out, including for yourself. Am I living in line with a principle that I wasn’t sure I had, or am I somehow losing my own shape? Because, we constantly have to give up on certain things so that we can hold on to others. And integrity then is about what we choose to hold on to.
B: It’s one of those things that asks for a lot of attention: do I have integrity?
A: Or if integrity is some form of incorruptible probity, maybe it’s a proof of flexibility then that you can identify it a posteriori? Like, it’s only retrospectively that you can figure out what remained incorrupted in someone.
B: Maybe integrity aligns with moral invention then. It’s about the quest for a new moral code, or a superior moral code, or a more truthful one. Which will only manifest in retrospect. It’s connected, yes, to the creation of a new moral code, that derives from an older one, or differs from it, and can manifest in new situations. It’s a form of anti-puritanism, or even moral entrepreneurship.
A: So, that’s interesting, is integrity about respect for a relatively closed and defined moral code, independently of context? Or is it the continuous and constant invention of a moral code, in relation to the changing context?
B: The more distance between established moral and your own code of ethics, the more opposition there is, and the more integrity you display when you continue pushing your own code of ethics forward. The danger is, you might feel like pure opposition is a way to ‘gain points’, and you might fall into some sort of addition to refusal or rejection. An ‘I’m pure, they’re dirty’ kind of thing. That’s something I feel sometimes with American liberals, and that seems like a kind of dangerous integrity.
A: Maybe then, there’s a creative integrity, which is like an embodiment of the spirit, where the spirit respects its own shape, even as it comes in contact with the resistance of the real. And that’s in opposition the form of integrity which simply refuses any contact with the dirty concrete.
B: Well, morals is the set of rules you’re imposing on yourself for the good of others, and that only comes in the first person. There’s something moralizing about puritanism, but that’s not integrity. Integrity is something that only exists in the first person, and is not something you can demand of others, or even properly judge.