The Meaning of Integrity: The Complete Human

character cognitive dissonance discipline ethics integrity morals personal development psychology

Integrity as Consistency

Wikipedia calls integrity "a concept of consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations and outcomes." This is still a pretty vague definition, but the basic idea is that integrity is the quality of consistency in character; you act as you believe, and your values match your behavior. Basically, the opposite of hypocrisy. Integrity in this sense allows for the integrity of really evil people. The argument is that a person can have integrity so long as their actions match their chosen belief or ethical system. It doesn't matter what that ethical system is, so long as their actions are in line with it.

Integrity as Wholeness

I take issue with this idea that integrity can apply to evil characters. (Since I have some philosophically inclined readers I will add a note that I am aware of the dangers of calling anything evil without defining that term. Without getting too much into my ethics, what is and is not evil is based on what is and is not conducive to peace and life. Those who murder, rape, delight in the suffering of others, and partake in other depravities are definitively evil). My thoughts and readings on human psychology and spirit suggest that in order for a human being to have integrity, it must behave in ways that promote peace and life, and which reduce suffering. Simply having an evil internal value system itself undermines integrity. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines integrity thus:

  1. firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values : incorruptibility
  2. an unimpaired condition : soundness
  3. the quality or state of being complete or undivided :completeness

I'd argue that soundness or completeness in the human being necessitates a value system of compassion and kindness; that is, a complete human being is a good one. Integrity is the link between action and belief. It is what lets a person with good values realize his or her values, and thus become whole.

Built-In Values

The only problem with this definition is that I am making the assumption that wholeness in humans involves goodness as well. This argument plays out pretty well, however, when we realize that acting on positive values generally leads to health and happiness. Eating good food makes you healthy. Being kind to others leads to larger support networks and social well-being. Taking care of your body lets you enjoy life more. Honesty leads to respect. Confidence breeds success. Interestingly, integrity is itself a virtue by this model. An article on Psychology Today about integrity on the workplace points out that failing to act in accordance with our beliefs causes anxiety and discomfort which over the long run can lead to insomnia, anxiety disorders, and overeating. This phenomenon is called cognitive dissonance. It is simply psychological discomfort caused by failing to act as you think you ought. Even if you are being compelled by circumstances beyond your control and have no choice, you will still feel the dissonance. Attempts to rationalize the behavior or justify it are motivated by a desire to relieve the dissonance. The existence of cognitive dissonance suggests that integrity is an integral part of our psychological and personal well-being. Thus, it is itself part of a complete, whole, human being, while at the same time enabling that wholeness.

The Highest Virtue

This is why I believe integrity is such an important virtue. Not only is it valuable in and of itself, it is also what allows us to realize all of our other virtues in our daily lives. Integrity manifests as an insistence on holding to one's moral code, despite circumstances or outside pressures. It is related to discipline, in that integrity requires discipline. Additionally, integrity is not something you acquire and never deal with again. It is an ongoing practice. Continued consistency in action leads to increased integrity. And as you develop more and more integrity, your character becomes more and more solid and resilient, making it even easier to practice continued integrity. It is a self-perpetuating cycle. I hope this post helps clarify what I mean by integrity, and why I feel it is so important to develop. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the topic. Post to comments. - (**