19 June 2010

The Subjective Side of Integrity

A friend of mine recently quoted Ayn Rand (From "The Virtue of Selfishness") on her facebook page: "Integrity does not consist of loyalty to one’s subjective whims, but of loyalty to rational principles."

I would like to take up that thought here, because as is the case with much that Rand wrote, it is resonant, memorable, and misguided.

I will give my own reasons for holding that any sensible conception of integrity does contain a subjective component. It is a matter of loyalty to what one believes, even if one should be so unfortunate as to believe something non-rational, or "whimsical."

Let us make the traditional point involving a cliff. If I am walking along with a precipice to my left, it is of the greatest importance that I recognize that there is a precipice there. Should I by some odd "whim" decide that there is solid ground to my left, I might walk leftward, and so terminate my deluded existence.

But surely we don't need the word "integrity" to describe the virtue of knowing where the edge of the solid ground is and staying on it. There are plenty of other good English-language words for that, including "prudence"!

"Integrity" comes from the Latin for "whole" and its ethical use is closely related to that. If someone acts and speaks as a whole, he does not fragment himself into, say, the at-work character and the at-home character. Nor does he divide himself by the income he admits receiving and the cash payments he takes under the table.

To use integrity as an ethical term at all we must recognize that people often believe wrong things. They never believe that they believe wrong things. [Or do they? we are in the terrain of the paradox of the preface here. I'll send you elsewhere for more.]

But let us flip past the hypothetical preface. For most purposes, it is redundant to speak of "my belief that X is true." My belief that X simply is the belief that X is true, so the period to the sentence could come after the X. Now: why is it good for someone who has a false belief to act and spoeak with loyalty toward that belief?

It is good for that person, because he opens himself up to correction. If someone who thinks that two plus two equals five stays silent about it due, say, to peer group pressure, if he never speaks up, he is less likely to receive corrective explanations of basic arithmetic. He will divide himself into the conformist fellow who claims to believe that 2 + 2 = 4, and the secret rebel hiding a heresy. This is by definition a loss of integrity. The person with integrity who is open to such corrections will benefit by them, will learn that 2 + 2 = 4. Then, once the error is removed and replaced by rational awareness that twice two is four, he can happily display his integrity about that! It will be the same virtue, for the erroneous as for the accurate thinkers, with different manifestations.

But what (you might ask) should we think about people who hold some objectively absurd belief and are closed-minded about it, who will not benefit from correction? Should we praise their integrity, too?

Even here, I would say, integrity has some benefits, and deserves to be called by that name. After all, someone who really believes there is no cliff to his left, and acts with integrity in walking that way, will remove himself from the gene pool. The rest of us will benefit.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.