The virtue of integrity used to be the darling of virtue ethicists and character educators in the 1980s and 1990s, but for some reason it seems to have fallen out of favour. I return to that apparent ‘fall from grace’ at the end of the blog.

During the halcyon days of integrity, three broad conceptions prevailed. The first conception understands integrity in terms of coherence between words and actions, or what we could simply call behavioural consistency. A person of integrity both talks the talk and walks the walk. We would call this ‘coherence between principles and action’; an example of which would be, say, proper promise-keeping, which involves consistency between an espoused value (encapsulated by the promise) and an actual displayed value (in keeping it). Integrity of this kind is meant to act as a safety valve against hypocrisy and dishonesty.

The second, and slightly more demanding, conception of integrity demands motivational wholeness of the person. What is required here – in what is perhaps the most typically endorsed modern conception – is not only coherence between espoused and exhibited values but also motivational unity (‘self-integration’); that is, unity (and even mutual support) between the various psychological drivers eliciting action. Theorists used to talk about this feature in terms of ‘internal coherence’ or of ‘a reflexively established and endorsed life plan with a deliberate pattern’. A common phrase homing in on a crucial contour of integrity, on this conception, is ‘authenticity’ or ‘being true to oneself’. Yet, because authenticity seems attainable in default of any strong commitments (i.e. being authentic to one’s own non-committal attitude or to an attitude only grounded in fleeting expediency), various writers foreground the need for the person of integrity to ‘stand for something’, where that ‘something’ refers to principles and values that are substantively rich and worthy of spirited defence. The judgement that the value for which the person of integrity stands is non-shallow and non-artificial must not only be made by the person herself for herself, but also seem recognisable and plausible to any ‘reasonable person’. The opposite of the integrated person here is one who is fragmented, disintegrated, or simply soft and rudderless.

The third broad conception of integrity may seem to some to be merely an implication of the first and second, but others would see it as going beyond the first two in terms of demandingness. On this conception, integrity refers to a specific psycho-moral faculty that secures the non-betrayal of our deepest commitments, especially in times of adversity, and renders us uncompromising at exactly the points where we are most tempted to compromise, for instance in light of utilitarian reasoning about promoting the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘clean-hands’ understanding of integrity, or the one that prevents us from having ‘one thought too many’ when we should categorically draw a line in the sand.  This third conception seems to presuppose that integrity will not normally be called upon except in situations of extreme moral challenge in which temptations to succumb to utilitarian maximisation threaten to undermine the core of our psycho-moral identity.

There is a science-fiction parable which illustrates this thought nicely. It is about an alien who feeds on the humiliation of human beings by letting them do things they would otherwise never have done. Surprised why he has never been targeted by the alien, the protagonist in the story is given the explanation that he is an ‘immune’: a person who cannot be humiliated in this way because there is nothing that he would not have done, under some possible circumstances, anyway. The upshot of the story is, obviously, that the protagonist is the only person among the alien’s potential victims who is completely lacking in the virtue of integrity (on the third conception).

Here are finally two questions for readers. Why has integrity fallen out of favour of late? Is it because we live in a post-integrity, post-truth world where even philosophers and educators have given up on the hope of helping people to integrate their lives in a virtuous way? The second question is aimed at admirers of Aristotelian virtue ethics and character education. Why is there no specific virtue of integrity in Aristotle’s system? There are obviously related virtues, like truthfulness (as a moral virtue) and phronesis or practical wisdom (as an intellectual virtue), but none that is typically translated as ‘integrity’. Does this mean that this presumed virtue is actually surplus to requirements in a cogent and coherent system of the virtues – or was Aristotle just mistaken?

Professor Kristján Kristjánsson is Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.