On integrity

February 13, 2014 1 Comment


In writing a forthcoming book about the art of chairing I’ve found myself thinking about the idea of integrity. (Integrity, I maintain, is one of the essential characteristics that any good Chair should possess.)

What is integrity?  Does it mean anything substantial when used in relation to human behaviour?  Why should it be important in managing our social relations?

As often, it helps to go back to linguistic roots.  The word ‘integrity’ comes from the Latin ‘integritas’, which means ‘completeness’ or ‘soundness’ or ‘chastity’, as of the body or of health.  It can also be used, by extension, of human character, to suggest ‘blamelessness’ or ‘innocence’.

Usage of the English word ‘integrity’ follows the Latin quite closely.  The first definitions offered by the Oxford English Dictionary are ‘wholeness’, completeness’, ‘entirety’.  Then comes ‘soundness’, ‘of unimpaired or uncorrupted condition’, and finally, in a moral sense, ‘innocence’, ‘uprightness, honesty, sincerity’.  In the King James Bible (1611) we find: ‘Better is the poore that walketh in his integrity, then he that is peruerse in his lippes, and is a foole’.  Sadly, unlike Latin, English has no adjectival form (integral and integrated aren’t used in a moral sense), so that we have to use the awkward form man or woman ‘of integrity’.

So ‘integrity’ has to do with being honest and sincere, but behind it lies the rather different ideas of ‘wholeness’ and ‘innocence’. In the Christian tradition the quintessential ‘man with integrity’ would be the prelapsarian Adam, untainted and uncorrupted by the sin of forbidden knowledge: the OED has a 1622 quotation ‘Adam in his integritie should have wrought, but without wearinesse’.  In a more secular view Edenic innocence has been replaced by a rather different principle base for honesty and sincerity: consistency.


Consistency stems from the base meaning of ‘wholeness’. The way people demonstrate their uprightness is by being consistent in their opinions and beliefs, or between what they say and what they do, or in the way they interact with the same other people over time. Consistent behaviour makes people predictable (in a good sense, rather than being boring!) and instils trust in the minds others: trust, for example, that if you ask them for a favour as you have in the past, they are likely to respond in the same way.

If consistency, as well as honesty and sincerity, is a key ingredient of integrity, it’s understandable why many politicians fail to attract the label of integrity. Sometimes they fail the ‘honesty test’, as in the case of the MPs who bought moats, duck-houses and worse in the expenses scandal of 2009-10. But consistency is an even higher ideal to live up to. The reason that the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are never heard on the lips of politicians when answering straight interview questions is that they know that, if they do utter one or other, they will probably live to regret it, so often do they have to change tack on policy or ideology. Some politicians are spectacularly, and unnecessarily inconsistent. Recently Eric Pickles, the sandbag-shaped Minister for Floods, attacked the Environment Agency saying ‘I am really sorry that we took the advice … we thought we were dealing with experts’, and a few days later said, ‘It is entirely wrong to suggest I have issued even the slightest criticism of the marvellous workforce of the Environment Agency.’

The psychologist Barbara Killinger also emphases consistency as an underlying principle. In her book Integrity: doing the right thing for the right reason (rev. ed., 2009) she defines it as ‘a personal choice, an uncompromising and predictably consistent commitment to honour moral, ethical, spiritual and artistic values and principles’.  She links integrity with another quality, empathy – the ability to set yourself in the mental and emotional space of another person.  By strange coincidence I’d already identified empathy as another of the essential characteristics of a good Chair.

But in the case of integrity consistency is not just a question of internal organisation of your personal dispositions and beliefs.  It’s crucially concerned with how other people see you: how integrated you appear in your behaviour towards others, especially over time.  Inevitably this involves a dialogue between your consistent views and feelings and those of other people.  In other words, it’s a social and not simply a psychological concept.

Would it be possible to be a person of integrity through being consistently immoral (or amoral)?  Does integrity lack moral content?  Some philosophers, notably Bernard Williams, have argued that it does.  But, if we look back to the linguistic history, and observe common usage, integrity can’t easily be used about, say, the Nazis. (The seemingly similar word ‘authenticity’, on the other hand, could certainly be used amorally, as J.P. Stern showed in his book The Führer and the people.)  The consistency inherent in integrity – a matter of an individual’s natural disposition or willed self-organisation, what you might term self-integration – is necessarily linked with a particular set of virtues.

What are these virtues? This is hard to answer, and it is what makes integrity for many a fuzzy and imprecise concept.  Some philosophers have described integrity as a ‘cluster concept’: rather than referring to specific virtues, like benevolence or courage, it denotes a characteristic view or aspect of a number of different virtues and vices, one that takes the living of one’s own life in relation to the lives of others seriously.  Among the virtues may be both moral concepts like honesty, fairness and sincerity and intellectual virtues such as the pursuit of knowledge and truth.  For me integrity, though it might seem on first sight to be a personal, psychological concept, is much more of a social one.  It’s about your relations with your fellows, about how you’re seen as a rounded, whole – and moral – person, and about your reputation.

In my book I link integrity with what I take to be the core virtues of a good Chair: fairness, impartiality and respect for others.  These are all social virtues, and it is the consistent exercise of them that gives Chairs the kind of soft (but substantial) power that they often develop.  This is because the offspring of integrity is trust, a rare but invaluable attribute.

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  1. Andrew Green says:

    A friend reminds me that ‘integrity’ is one of the ‘seven principles of public life’ formulated by the Committee on Standards in Public Life chaired by Lord Nolan. This is how it is described in Nolan’s first report in 1995: ‘Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests
    and relationships’.

    The problem with this is that it reduces integrity to a single, highly specific virtue (or, rather, prohibition), ignoring other its facets, like ‘honesty’, which appears as a quite separate principle, and makes no reference to the core element of ‘consistency’.

    Nolan’s principles are very important for anyone in public service. Alas, they’re not very memorable and they’re poorly expressed.

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