by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “integrity” in part as “soundness of moral principle; the character of uncorrupted virtue, esp. in relation to truth and fair dealing; uprightness, honesty, sincerity.” This is basically what most of us have in mind when asked to define “integrity.” A man of “great integrity” is a man who is honest, forthright, and incorruptible. In the secular faith that is Americanism, George “I Cannot Tell a Lie” Washington is about as good an exemplar of the idea as one can conjure.
Then again, that’s what we’re supposed to say. It’s a bit like when pollsters ask people, “What is your biggest concern?” No one says, “The Chargers beat the spread this weekend” or “I think I got the clap from that waitress.” But surely that sort of thing is closer to the truth for most people. I live in Washington, and while lots of people say their biggest concern is “the deficit,” I have yet to meet anyone who has lost sleep over it. Regardless, certain answers are expected of us, and so people say things like “entitlement spending” or “the plight of the uninsured.” We say that because it’s the sort of thing we want to believe about ourselves. We want to believe that we’re good people.
That’s one of the interesting things about integrity, according to the moral philosophers (at least the good ones). Integrity in the moral sense isn’t defined simply by doing the right thing, but by wanting to do the right thing. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt laid out a hierarchy of desires. Every animal has the thought, “I want to have sex.” Many animals — mostly the better ones — might have something like the thought (or, if you want to be pedantic, the desire): “I want to reproduce.” Only humans think: “I want to marry a nice Jewish girl who’d make a good mother.” Badgers don’t think to themselves, “I must crush all of my enemies so I can rule supreme as the emperor of the North Woods and have my choice of the finest badger sows to copulate with.” It is the desire to have moral or immoral desires and the decision to act upon them that defines humanity at its best. Integrity is the measure — or at least one important measure — of how successful we are at acting on our desire to have the right desires.