Mudita Journal

Defining integrity

March 17, 2014 · Filed under: Intellectual

I am in the process of creating a new site for zader.com. It will be an online magazine devoted to the theme of living with integrity. I’ll publish new essays periodically, eventually folding those essays into books on key topics — such as integrity, emotions, love, and meditation.

In my lead essay I explore the meaning of integrity. One challenge with the essay has been formulating a good definition.

For my purposes, the best definition (a) is concise, (b) acknowledges the full role of integrity in our lives, and (c) provides a decidedly helpful heuristic for practicing integrity.

Below is a sketch of my thought process so far. I welcome feedback and suggestions for further improvement.

1. Conventional definition

Integrity is the moral virtue of adhering to one’s values.

Pros: It’s the familiar definition, with which virtually everyone is at least somewhat acquainted.

Cons: Fails to acknowledge the importance of intellectual integrity, of updating one’s views in response to new experience. By this definition, a committed member of the Third Reich would have integrity if only he followed orders well enough.

2. Spiritual definition

Integrity is living the truth.

Pros: Concise. Captures something vital about the essence of integrity — namely, consonance with what is real, what is true.

Cons: Vague. Offers little insight about the elements of integrity or where to focus one’s efforts. It relies upon a metaphorical notion of truth, that “the truth” is something which can be lived directly.

3. Experiential triad

Integrity is consistency among what we see, believe, and do.

Pros: Acknowledges the role of intellectual integrity. Calls attention to three key realms of experience which can fall out of alignment. While longer than the other two definitions, it is still relatively concise.

Cons: Fails to acknowledge one of the most significant realms of experience, which is what we feel. Our inner experience provides critically important hints about right and wrong, what we should prioritize in life, and even who or what we are.

Technically, the word “see” is too narrow, excluding the other senses. More accurate words might be “experience,” “perceive,” or “know.” Each carries some baggage, however, such as making the definition feel more like an academic or philosophic exercise rather than a practical rule of thumb.

Analogous to the word “see,” the word “believe” captures colloquially the ways we codify truth, value, and rightness.

I wish I could remember where I first encountered this definition. I admire its incisiveness. I considered using a variation of it, with the addendum: “Feeling is seeing — turned inward.” But this relegates feeling to the status of an afterthought.

It is the working definition I used throughout most of my writing process. But something kept bothering me. When we look closely at how to cultivate integrity on a day-to-day basis, what we feel — the entire realm of inner, felt experience — plays a truly pivotal role. For practical purposes, it should be integral to the definition.

4. Experiential quad

Integrity is the practice of pursuing harmony among what we feel, see, believe, and do.

Pros: Includes a genus (“practice”) which suggests integrity is more than merely a moral virtue. Acknowledges the role of what we feel. Advocates “harmony,” which suggests alignment and mutual reinforcement, rather than “consistency,” which can imply an overly-simplistic ideal. Generally suggests integrity is an active process, rather than a binary state you either have or don’t have.

Cons: No longer as concise. Begins to seem like a list.

* * *

Tell me what you think.

A question I am pondering: Does what we “feel, see, believe, and do” capture our experience in sufficient resolution for a definition — or are there other types of experience that seem equally important?

I can tolerate listing four types of experience within the definition. If there are more, however, then I might want to find ways to consolidate.

  • Tina White

    I’m excited to see the new zader.com!

    In the definition of integrity, I agree that four things could start to sound like a list. But “feel” is too important to leave out, the way it’s left out of the other definitions. You could say:

    “Integrity is the alignment of our beliefs with what we feel, see, and do.”

    Beliefs mediate between the others and integrity requires their internal consistency, so it may be useful to make beliefs central to the definition, while feel remains an important part. Alternatively, if having beliefs at the center doesn’t seem right, maybe you could put the emphasis on action: “Integrity is the alignment of our actions with what we feel, see, and believe.”

  • stpeter

    I’d say that integration is the harmony of thought, choice, action, and feeling. Or at least that’s what I wrote in chapter 11 of The Tao of Roark. :-)

    You can read the entire chapter here:

    http://tao-of-roark.com/tao.html#harmony

    Peter