Integrity. It's one of those words we all think we understand, and yet, when asked what it means, we might find ourselves stumbling out partial answers. It's about character and being ethical. It's about doing the right thing, or aligning yourself with the side of good. It involves telling the truth, and keeping promises, and being dependable. Right?
Well. These are all implications of integrity. But what, actually, is it?
The word comes from the same etymological root as integer, meaning a whole number. And there's a big clue. Integrity is somehow about wholeness. It's about not compartmentalizing your decisions and actions, walling off some from the rest of who you are. It's about acting with the wholeness or entirety of your beliefs and values, in every choice.
But wait. A thoroughly bad guy, an immensely corrupt character, a murderous terrorist could act in every choice with and from the wholeness or entirety of his insane beliefs and perverse values, but we wouldn't call him an individual with integrity, would we? No. Of course not. Because integrity isn't just about consistency. It's a moral concept. And there's our second clue.
A rascal, criminal, or deranged psycho can be consistent in his actions, throughout the range of his conduct. That is to say, his actions can be consistent with each other, and with the false beliefs and skewed values he holds. But to have integrity, you have to display wholeness in another sense. You need the wholeness of health. Integrity is about moral health. And that's about more than just mere consistency among your actions. Your choices and action have to also be consistent with objective standards of health that are independent of your own thoughts and feelings - that are, in a metaphysical sense "out there" in the world.
What are those standards? I suggested years ago in the book If Aristotle Ran General Motors that they're Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity, understood properly. If your life, thought, and actions are all consistent, or at one, with Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity, then you are a person of integrity. You have integrity. Or better, it has you. Because there's an important sense in which you don't really possess it until it owns you. You can be good in fits and starts - a mostly good character, a decent soul, overall, even a kind person most of the time, but if there is not a higher calling that you've said yes to, in a deep and abiding way, perhaps because you really don't see any reasonable alternative, then you aren't yet a person of integrity.
That's a high standard. But that's because it's what integrity is all about. Most people admire it from afar. Some actually live with it. Many are apparently blind to it, and just don't get what the big deal is about it. But I'm convinced that it's tied in deeply with not only what I call "true success," but also true happiness, contentment and fulfillment. It's also a part of what it takes to make your best possible mark on the world.
Are you living with it? many of us try to embody it in at least most aspects of our lives, at least most of the time. But it calls us to live it wholeheartedly, fully, and consistently across everything we do. It's a high calling, and a hard calling, but it's the one true path to the best life we can live. As such, it's well worth working hard to attain.