Thinking about integrity should not be reduced to simply talk about personal moral virtue, an attribute of character, a marker for an integrated (or integrating or individuating) self, or its role as indicative of moral purpose and commitment. These are all invaluable dimensions or possible conceptions central to the concept of integrity, but they are frequently silent about their existing or possible relations to and relevance for the wider social and political world. At least that’s one lesson to be drawn from the substantively revised entry on “integrity” in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP):
[….] “[Susan Babbitt’s account of integrity] ... enables us to raise questions about the relationship between social structures and personal integrity. The most general question is what kinds of society and what kinds of practice within a society are most conducive to personal integrity?
If society is structured in such a way that it undermines people’s attempt at either knowing or acting upon their commitments, values and desires, then such a structure is inimical to integrity. And if integrity is connected to well-being, then adverse social and political conditions are a threat—not merely an ultimate threat, but also a daily threat—to well-being. The twentieth century technical term for this mismatch is alienation. Alienation results when people are so confused or conflicted—are relentlessly exposed, for example, to the social manufacture of incompatible desires—that they take on roles they mistakenly believe they want or deceive themselves about wanting.
Are political and social conditions in contemporary liberal democracies conducive both to acquiring the self-understanding necessary for integrity and, more generally, to the business of acting with integrity? Historically, one of the governing ideals of liberal democratic societies is to provide its citizens, not with the goods they desire, but with certain primary goods, such as freedom, and with political/social/cultural structures (laws, codes, institutions, practices, and so on) that facilitate their capacity to obtain goods they desire for themselves. This is one reason education has always played a prominent role in discussion of liberal-democratic forms of life. Education is seen as a crucial structure in the facilitation of individuals’ pursuit of chosen goods. Such an instrumental view of education is rather narrow and omits any role for inculcation of the means to choose goods wisely. Integrity requires more than facilitation of an instrumental capacity to acquired desired goods. It requires the wisdom and self-knowledge to choose appropriate goods, worthwhile goals, and so on. It is, perhaps, hard to see extant social educational structures playing a very significant role in this process, and harder still to imagine real institutions—institutions compatible with the demands and limitations of contemporary life—that would.
If social educational structures fail to facilitate the life of integrity, other structures may be positively hostile to it. Arguably, and despite what might seem like overwhelming choice, job markets are structured by financial and other incentives, restricted opportunities and economic rents. The result is that many people choose careers they do not really want and for which they are barely suited. There are other perhaps more straightforward ways in which social and cultural structures may be inimical to the pursuit of integrity. The ideology of love, for instance, may undermine the integrity of lovers, as it may undermine the possibility of genuine and realistic love. In professional life, people may be called upon (not only tacitly) to lie, bluff or manipulate the truth in ways that directly or indirectly affect their integrity. The construction of a mission statement or a strategic plan is in some ways an open invitation to dissemble, pander and obfuscate. The expectation that one ‘sells oneself’ or ‘sells the company’ provides explicit reward for hypocrites and sycophants. And there are many kinds of assessments, reports and application processes that foster both deception and self-deception. If this is right, then contemporary society is inimical to a life of integrity in many small-scale ways. Broad social structures also have a deleterious effect on our capacity to live with integrity and here, of course, the effects of totalitarian regimes are more extreme than those liberal democracies.
Those who are oppressed seem to be in a paradoxical relation to integrity. On the one hand, members of oppressed groups would seem to be deprived of the conditions for developing integrity: the freedom to make choices how to act and think. As Babbitt (1997: 118) notes, one needs to be able to make choices in order to develop the kinds of interests and concerns which are central to leading a life of integrity. On the other hand, oppressed people are often able to reflect on political and social realities with the greater insight because they do not benefit from them. They have no incentive to adopt self-deceptive/self-protective attitudes about circumstances of oppression or to see past them with convenient blindness. Oppressed groups therefore have all the more scope to think about social reality with integrity, and to act out of this understanding with integrity. A capacity for reflection and understanding enables one to work toward integrity even if it does not ensure that one achieves an ideal of integrity.” [….]