In our many discussions of ethics, both in the classroom and in other settings, we hear the same question: How can I do what I think is right even when I am pressured or tempted to do otherwise, and when doing the wrong thing is even rewarded and the right thing penalized? In this book we are not going to tell you exactly what to do in difficult situations, because the answers are not always that simple or clear-cut. Living with integrity takes some thought: It means living with compassion, courage, and conviction, a conviction based on careful reflection about your own values, informed and respectful exchanges with others, and careful research into the situation you are facing. But we will offer practical guidance to help you identify your current values, show you how to subject these values to rigorous assessment to make sure they are the values you want to endorse, and discuss many of the key issues that can help you to determine how to live your life with integrity and inspire others to do the same.
In this chapter we outline three important ideas: living, leadership, and integrity. We then look at some common causes and cures for doing the wrong thing. In Chapter 2
, we’ll look at basic principles for reasoning and communicating about values. In Chapters 3
, we’ll introduce strategies for deciding what is right and wrong and for justifying your decisions. In Chapter 5
, we’ll extend this to a global setting, and in Chapter 6
, we will look at what it means for a society to be just. Chapter 7
offers practical guidance for taking your newfound insights into effective communication with others. In Chapters 8
, and 10, we look at three areas of life where
ethics is of paramount importance and where temptation, confusion, and indecision often reign: the spheres of work, family and friends, and the global community.
People sometimes talk about living a full human life. You might think that everyone knows what this is, but if there is one thing we’ve learned by studying philosophy, it is that nothing is as obvious as it seems. Our philosophy here, as elsewhere in this book, is to guide you toward answering this hard question for yourself.
We might start by looking at each part of the phrase. What does it mean to be alive? Well, it is the opposite of being dead, but if you look at biomedical ethics you’ll see that there is a lot of controversy about what it means to be dead. This controversy is reflected in different cultural practices around death. In much of the world, you’re not considered dead until your heart stops and your body becomes cold. In places where organ-transplant technology has taken hold, you’re considered dead when your brain stops working, even if processes are still going on at the cellular level. Unless you are faced with the medical question of death, though, we might rely on a fairly commonsense idea of life—it involves growth, maintenance of essential processes, and sometimes reproduction.
When we add the notion of humanness, we add another level of complexity. But it’s not enough to talk about human biology. It’s no accident that in the English language, we often refer to people we consider evil in terms that deny their humanity; we call them “monsters” and “animals.” It appears then that the very idea of humanness involves a moral component. This becomes especially clear when we talk about a full human life. The idea of a full human life seems to include other things that humans can do and desire: friendship, a basic level of material comfort, intelligence, and appreciation of beauty. But whatever else it means, living a full human life involves consciously living a morally sensitive life.
In an influential book about leadership, James Kouzes and Barry Posner described five essential features of good leaders: They model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act, and encourage the heart.1
As we thought about this model of leadership, we realized that integrity is the foundation of each of these features. When you live with integrity, you carefully consider how to do the right thing and you try to live up to your ideals. Whether you have a formal position of leadership or not, when you live with integrity you set an example for others to follow. Your courage and conviction as you do this will be a source of inspiration to those around you. When you are living with integrity, you will often find yourself out of step with the people who are doing what is easy or comfortable. This is one of the characteristics of good leadership—doing what you think is right, even when this means leading and not following the crowd.
When we hear about things like the Enron scandal, we often find ourselves at a loss. How did this happen? What can we do to prevent things like this from happening in the future? We often look to people in positions of leadership—CEOs, boards of directors, outside auditors—to prevent things like this from happening, but in this case these people were themselves implicated in the scandal. If there is a hero in the Enron affair, it is Sherron Watkins, Enron’s vice president for corporate development, who was far enough down in the organizational hierarchy that she couldn’t share her concerns with CEO Ken Lay directly; she had to write him a letter. Her letter and her phone calls to Arthur Anderson, Enron’s auditors, provided a glimpse into the accounting practices that in 2001 led to the biggest bankruptcy in US history. But her letter tells us something else as well; it tells us what a person of courage and integrity can do, even when he or she is not seen as a leader.
This provides an important lesson for all of us. People sometimes like to think that bad things happen because some people are just evil. We have a more complex view of evil. We think that it happens when institutional arrangements make it possible for some morally challenged people to give in to their temptations—and when the rest of us look the other way. In the Enron case there were institutional arrangements that made it possible for the questionable accounting to occur—the lack of real autonomy for its auditors and lax oversight, for example. But the Enron scandal wouldn’t have happened if good people had not been looking the other way. This is the core of leadership: standing up for what you believe is right. You needn’t be a CEO to exercise this kind of leadership. We can all be leaders in this respect. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to take responsibility or look the other way.
Many people worry about a crisis of leadership in our country. Too many people are only interested in themselves, lack personal ethics, or are afraid to stand up for what they believe in. Often these same people are highly skilled and technologically sophisticated, but still there is something missing. In this chapter we will begin to sketch this missing feature—integrity—and throughout the book we will consider integrity in more detail, in the process taking a journey through more than 2,000 years of human thought and experience to shed light on the subject of how we can live a life of integrity as individuals and in groups in the twenty-first century.
The picture of integrity that emerges will be complex, but it is possible to provide a snapshot of integrity at the outset. People with integrity understand and can communicate their own values, but they also are able to understand and communicate with people who have different values. They are imaginative and they are good at thinking about both the long- and short-term consequences of different strategies. They respect the people they interact with—family, friends, colleagues, employees, peers, customers, and fellow citizens—and are able to build successful relationships with all these groups. This does not mean that they always agree with everyone, but when they disagree they are able to do so without losing their cool or treating people with contempt. They also care about the people they interact with. They are brave, honest, humble, and fair. They understand the role of ethics in their personal, civic, and working lives. Finally, they have a robust sense of justice and work to create more just institutions.
At this point, you may be tempted to say, “Well, I sure would like to have a boss with integrity, but why should I have integrity?” This is a question that humans have been asking for thousands of years, and philosophers have offered a number of answers. Plato discussed this question in his dialogue The Republic. Suppose, he said, you had a ring that could make you invisible. What would you do with it? Some of the people in the dialogue said they would use it to make themselves rich or to have things they couldn’t otherwise get. Socrates, who was Plato’s teacher and the main character in the dialogue, said that the wise person would act with integrity regardless of whether he was visible or not. So for Socrates, integrity is a part of wisdom. In everyday terms, we might say that as you become wiser, you just begin to see why it makes sense to do the right thing. Aristotle had a slightly different view. He thought that having integrity is just part of living a full, complete, and happy life. Take a moment to do a thought experiment to see if he is right.
Suppose you die tomorrow. On your deathbed, will you look back on your life and say you’d had a good life? Will you have any regrets? What will they be? Suppose you could watch your own funeral? What do you suppose people would be saying about you? What would you want them to say?
Whenever we ask people to describe the worst job they’ve ever had, they almost always describe working in a dysfunctional organization where employees are not treated decently and there is no sense of solidarity or trust. Integrity alone will not make organizations effective, but without integrity, no organization can be effective. Organizations that lack integrity can never develop the kind of teamwork and commitment it takes to serve customers and clients or to meet organizational goals. Thousands of years of human history illustrate that shared moral understandings provide the glue that holds groups together and the grease that makes it possible for people to interact with a minimum of friction.
Most people do not need to be convinced that integrity is a valuable thing for both individuals and organizations. The more difficult task is trying to decide exactly what is involved in having integrity. The most difficult and long-term task is actually developing integrity in individuals and organizations.
Persons with integrity understand that one cannot do the right thing in a vacuum. Just institutions, whether social, political, or financial, are the underpinnings of personal integrity. Persons with integrity also care about their neighbors, their nation, and the world, and they manifest this caring in conscious political activity. Although for the bulk of this book we will be concerned with developing one’s own character and conscience, we will also look at the larger social forces that either support or undercut this task. Before we look at the larger social forces, let’s take a moment to reflect on some of the causes of personal misconduct, some of the ways in which our individual integrity can be challenged.
Philosophers have been asking this question for a very long time. From Plato and Aristotle through Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Jean Paul Sartre, and others, and in numerous systems of thought around the world, it is a question that has inspired different sorts of answers. Philosophers have broadly addressed two types of misconduct in these discussions: personal misconduct and group misconduct.
The standard case of wrongdoing is when one person does something that harms another person. This is personal misconduct. But it is possible for wrongdoing to be done by a group of people. Many people have tried to explain group misconduct by finding individuals within groups who did something wrong, but this is problematic for two reasons. First, group dynamics make a big difference in how individuals behave, so it is important to look at how misconduct occurs in a group setting. Second, sometimes the misconduct cannot be laid at the feet of any particular individuals because it involves group culture or practice. For these reasons, we will be looking at personal misconduct and group misconduct separately.
Causes of Personal Misconduct
Plato thought that people did the wrong thing only out of ignorance. This view was shared by Kant, a very influential eighteenth-century German philosopher. Buddhists offer a similar answer, though their idea of what we have to know to do the right thing is more complex than Plato’s and Kant’s views. Aristotle also had a more complex view. He thought that misconduct was either a product of ignorance, weak will, or malice. Ignorance can take two forms: We can be ignorant about what is right or wrong, or we can be ignorant about whether a particular thing is in the category we identify as right or wrong. For example, someone may tell a lie because he or she does not understand that lying is wrong. This is an example of ignorance of the first kind. But one may also tell a “lie” by just “bending the truth a little,” perhaps to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings. In this case, the person who lied may not think it was wrong to tell the lie; after all, hurt feelings were avoided. This might be considered an example of ignorance of the second kind.
The discussions in this text should help you to dispel ignorance of both kinds. Malice is a different thing altogether. A person of malice does the wrong thing simply because he or she wants to do wrong. This individual realizes that what he or she is doing is wrong and wants to do it anyway, perhaps because it is wrong. This is true evil, and luckily it is not very common.
This leaves Aristotle’s third category: weakness of will. A person with a weak will wants to do the right thing, but he or she has desires that conflict with doing it. The desire to gain something for ourselves, the desire for approval, and the fear of disapproval or punishment all may conflict with the desire to do the right thing. Often we rationalize our behavior in these cases: “Everyone else is doing it.” “I’m not powerful enough to really make a difference.” “I’m a nice person so this can’t really be that bad.” “Being a good friend means looking the other way.” A more damaging kind of rationalizing is denial. We deny that we are doing anything wrong. We blame our victims. We say that the world just isn’t fair. We say that it’s not our fault, point out that there are people who are much worse than we are, claim that we are only doing what we are told, or blame our parents, our therapists, our spouses, or our children. Jean Paul Sartre, a famous F...