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by Stephen L. Carter

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Why do we care more about winning than about playing by the rules?

Integrity - all of us are in favor of it, but nobody seems to know how to make sure that we get it. From presidential candidates to crusading journalists to the lords of collegiate sports, everybody promises to deliver integrity, yet all too often, the promises go unfulfilled.

Stephen Carter


Why do we care more about winning than about playing by the rules?

Integrity - all of us are in favor of it, but nobody seems to know how to make sure that we get it. From presidential candidates to crusading journalists to the lords of collegiate sports, everybody promises to deliver integrity, yet all too often, the promises go unfulfilled.

Stephen Carter examines why the virtue of integrity holds such sway over the American political imagination. By weaving together insights from philosophy, theology, history and law, along with examples drawn from current events and a dose of personal experience, Carter offers a vision of integrity that has implications for everything from marriage and politics to professional football. He discusses the difficulties involved in trying to legislate integrity as well as the possibilities for teaching it.

As the Cleveland Plain Dealer said, "In a measured and sensible voice, Carter attempts to document some of the paradoxes and pathologies that result from pervasive ethical realism... If the modern drift into relativism has left us in a cultural and political morass, Carter suggests that the assumption of personal integrity is the way out."

Editorial Reviews

New Republic
Carter is the appropriate person to begin this discussion [on integrity]. He wrote with integrity long before he wrote about it.
U.S. News & World Report
Graceful and provocative.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When we talk about character, writes Yale law professor Carter (The Culture of Disbelief), integrity ``is in some sense prior to everything else''; thus his mix of anecdote and meditation is a worthy but quirky entree to an important yet hard-to-discuss subject. Integrity, he writes, is more than honesty-it requires actions and a willingness to spurn conformity. After his conceptual musings, Carter addresses the role of integrity in performance evaluations (he avoids routine hyperbole), in journalistic objectivity (he thinks the press should apply to itself the standards it applies to others), in law and in sports. Carter virtually ignores the broad question of integrity in business, but he does have interesting, if sometimes convoluted, thoughts on the role of integrity in marriage. He advises caution in legislating integrity in speech or in politics; his arguments spill over, somewhat overambitiously, into suggesting how integrity can help clean up politics (``We must listen to one another'') and how the concept can help people face larger questions of evil. $50,000 ad/promo; author tour. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Integrity is defined in one standard dictionary as a "steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code." Carter (law, Yale) writes of integrity as first among the virtues that define good character. He defines integrity operationally as consisting of three traits: knowing the difference between what is right and wrong; acting on the knowledge of that difference; and an open and public commitment to acting on that difference. Carter writes of everyday experiences, of events in his own life, and of major public events, in which displays of integrity may or may not be apparent. These lead to discussions of the possibility of requiring that people always act with integrity and to the place of traditional visions of Christian integrity in public discourse. None of this seems particularly novel or too controversial. It also seems that much of this has been treated, perhaps in other forms, in Carter's earlier books, most notably in The Culture of Disbelief (LJ 9/1/93) and The Confirmation Mess (LJ 5/1/94). The message still seems to be that American society needs some form of radical reshaping. While his book doesn't really rise to the level of dramatic insight, Carter remains influential. Recommended for public libraries.-Jerry E. Stephens, U.S. Court of Appeals Lib., Oklahoma City
Kirkus Reviews
In the footsteps of fellow virtuecrats such as William Bennett and Michael Lewis, another ringing defense of the obvious.

Few will dispute Carter's (The Culture of Disbelief, 1993, etc.) passionate assertion that integrity is a good thing. He is also in favor of honesty, civility, and democracy (and by extension, Mom and apple pie). Integrity, in his conception of it, is a kind of über-virtue, for it involves, "discerning what is right and what is wrong [and] acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost." To make sure everyone knows that you have integrity, you should also announce "that you are acting on your understanding of right from wrong." Carter is aware of all the traditional problems with integrity (doesn't a fanatical Nazi have integrity?), and in his legalistic way, the Yale law professor enunciates a series of carefully couched codicils designed to close off such immoral loopholes. But as is the case with many legal arguments, these are not so much convincing as they are clever. Carter's understanding of integrity is also both too wide and too shallow. Trying to fluff his simple thesis to book length, he covers in excessive detail such trivialities as sportsmanship and college recommendations. He is also, for a moralist, startlingly parochial. His eight-principle program for improving democracy (apart from ranging far beyond integrity) has limited application. Most of his examples are narrowly American-focused, and some are so current as to be meaningless. His thoughts on American involvement in Bosnia, for example, are already out of date. While he gives obeisance to Aristotle and Locke, he also avoids much of the major philosophical work on integrity.

Carter has a supple mind and readable style, but these are overwhelmed by the overinflated and underrealized material.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.64(d)

Read an Excerpt

My first lesson in integrity came the hard way. It was 1960 or thereabouts and I was a first-grader at P.S. 129 in Harlem. The teacher had us all sitting in a circle, playing a game in which each child would take a turn donning a blindfold and then trying to identify objects by touch alone as she handed them to us. If you guessed right, you stayed in until the next round. If you guessed wrong, you were out. I survived almost to the end, amazing the entire class with my abilities. Then, to my dismay, the teacher realized what I had known, and relied upon, from the start: my blindfold was tied imperfectly and a sliver of bright reality leaked in from outside. By holding the unknown object in my lap instead of out in front of me, as most of the other children did, I could see at least a corner or a side and sometimes more — but always enough to figure out what it was. So my remarkable success was due only to my ability to break the rules.

Fortunately for my own moral development, I was caught. And as a result of being caught, I suffered, in front of my classmates, a humiliating reminder of right and wrong: I had cheated at the game. Cheating was wrong. It was that simple.

I do not remember many of the details of the "public" lecture that I received from my teacher. I do remember that I was made to feel terribly ashamed; and it is good that I was made to feel that way, for I had something to be ashamed of. The moral opprobrium that accompanied that shame was sufficiently intense that it has stayed with me ever since, which is exactly how shame is supposed to work. And as I grew older, whenever I was even tempted to cheat — at a game, on homework — Iwould remember my teacher's stern face and the humiliation of sitting before my classmates, revealed to the world as a cheater.

That was then, this is now. Browsing recently in my local bookstore, I came across a book that boldly proclaimed, on its cover, that it contained instructions on how to cheat — the very word occurred in the title — at a variety of video games. My instincts tell me that this cleverly chosen title is helping the book to sell very well. For it captures precisely what is wrong with America today: we care far more about winning than about playing by the rules.

Consider just a handful of examples, drawn from headlines of the mid-1990s: the winner of the Miss Virginia pageant is stripped of her title after officials determine that her educational credentials are false; a television network is forced to apologize for using explosives to add a bit of verisimilitude to a tape purporting to show that a particular truck is unsafe; and the authors of a popular book on management are accused of using bulk purchases at key stores to manipulate the New York Times best-seller list. Go back a few more years and we can add in everything from a slew of Wall Street titans imprisoned for violating a bewildering variety of laws in their frantic effort to get ahead, to the women's Boston Marathon winner branded a cheater for spending part of the race on the subway. But cheating is evidently no big deal: some 70 percent of college students admit to having done it at least once.

That, in a nutshell, is America's integrity dilemma: we are all full of fine talk about how desperately our society needs it, but, when push comes to shove, we would just as soon be on the winning side. A couple of years ago as I sat watching a televised football game with my children, trying to explain to them what was going on, I was struck by an event I had often noticed but on which I had never reflected. A player who failed to catch a ball thrown his way hit the ground, rolled over, and then jumped up, celebrating as though he had caught the pass after all. The referee was standing in a position that did not give him a good view of what had happened, was fooled by the player's pretense, and so moved the ball down the field. The player rushed back to the huddle so that his team could run another play before the officials had a chance to review the tape. (Until 1992, National Football League officials could watch a television replay and change their call, as long as the next play had not been run.) But viewers at home did have the benefit of the replay, and we saw what the referee missed: the ball lying on the ground instead of snug in the receiver's hands. The only comment from the broadcasters: "What a heads-up play!" Meaning: "Wow, what a great liar this kid is! Well done!"

Let's be very clear: that is exactly what they meant. The player set out to mislead the referee and succeeded; he helped his team to obtain an advantage in the game that it had not earned. It could not have been accidental. He knew he did not catch the ball. By jumping up and celebrating, he was trying to convey a false impression. He was trying to convince the officials that he had caught the ball. And the officials believed him. So, in any ordinary understanding of the word, he lied. And that, too, is what happens to integrity in American life: if we happen to do something wrong, we would just as soon have nobody point it out.

Now, suppose that the player had instead gone to the referee and said, "I'm sorry, sir, but I did not make the catch. Your call is wrong." Probably his coach and teammates and most of his team's fans would have been furious: he would not have been a good team player. The good team player lies to the referee, and does so in a manner that is at once blatant (because millions of viewers see it) and virtually impossible for the referee to detect. Having pulled off this trickery, the player is congratulated: he is told that he has made a heads-up play. Thus, the ethic of the game turns out to be an ethic that rewards cheating. (But I still love football.) Perhaps I should have been shocked. Yet, thinking through the implications of our celebration of a national sport that rewards cheating, I could not help but recognize that we as a nation too often lack integrity, which might be described, in a loose and colloquial way, as the courage of one's convictions. And although I do not want to claim any great burst of inspiration, it was at about that time that I decided to write this book.

Toward A Definition

We, the People of the United States, who a little over two hundred years ago ordained and established the Constitution, have a serious problem: too many of us nowadays neither mean what we say nor say what we mean. Moreover, we hardly expect anybody else to mean what they say either.

A couple of years ago I began a university commencement address by telling the audience that I was going to talk about integrity. The crowd broke into applause. Applause! Just because they had heard the word integrity — that's how starved for it they were. They had no idea how I was using the word, or what I was going to say about it, or, indeed, whether I was for it or against it. But they knew they liked the idea of simply talking about it. This celebration of integrity is intriguing: we seem to carry on a passionate love affair with a word that we scarcely pause to define.

The Supreme Court likes to use such phrases as the "Constitution's structural integrity" when it strikes down actions that violate the separation of powers in the federal government.2 Critics demand a similar form of integrity when they argue that our age has seen the corruption of language or of particular religious traditions or of the moral sense generally. Indeed, when parents demand a form of education that will help their children grow into people of integrity, the cry carries a neo-romantic image of their children becoming adults who will remain uncorrupted by the forces (whatever they are) that seem to rob so many grown-ups of . . . well, of integrity.

Very well, let us consider this word integrity. Integrity is like the weather: everybody talks about it but nobody knows what to do about it. Integrity is that stuff we always say we want more of. Such leadership gurus as Warren Bennis insist that it is of first importance. We want our elected representatives to have it, and political challengers always insist that their opponents lack it. We want it in our spouses, our children, our friends. We want it in our schools and our houses of worship. And in our corporations and the products they manufacture: early in 1995, one automobile company widely advertised a new car as "the first concept car with integrity." And we want it in the federal government, too, where officials all too frequently find themselves under investigation by special prosecutors. So perhaps we should say that integrity is like good weather, because everybody is in favor of it.

Scarcely a politician kicks off a campaign without promising to bring it to government; a few years later, more often than is healthy for our democracy, the politician slinks cravenly from office, having been lambasted by the press for lacking that self-same integrity; and then the press, in turn, is skewered for holding public figures to a measure of integrity that its own reporters, editors, producers, and, most particularly, owners could not possibly meet. And for refusing to turn that critical eye inward, the press is mocked for — what else? — a lack of integrity.

What People are saying about this

Bill Bradley
"Integrity--citizens rightly expect it of their leaders, who, in turn, promise it to their constituents. However, few pause to reflect on the meaning of integrity and its value in everyday life... Carter takes the time to do just that--to explain that victory without integrity is short-lived and that the long-term health of our representative democracy requires citizenship and leadership that act upon what is right, rather than what is popular."

Meet the Author

Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University.

Born in 1954 in Washington, D.C., Professor Carter was educated in the public schools of New York City, Washington, and Ithaca, New York. In 1976 he received his bachelor's degree with honors from Stanford University, where he majored in history, and in 1979 he received his law degree from the Yale Law School.

Following his graduation from law school, Professor Carter served as law clerk to Judge Spottswood W. Robinson III of the United States Court of Appeals in Washington D.C., and, the next year, as law clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall of the Supreme Court of the United States. After practicing law for a year, Professor Carter joined the Yale faculty in 1982. Three years later, he became one of the youngest members of the faculty ever voted tenure.

His critically acclaimed books include The Culture of Disbelief and Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby. He is currently at work on Civility, the sequel to Integrity. Professor Carter lives with his family in Connecticut.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
October 26, 1954
Place of Birth:
Washington, D.C.
B.A. Stanford University, 1976; J.D., Yale Law School, 1979

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Integrity 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm a college student researching integrity as a social issue. I found this book very insightful on the topic it helped me to think things through. I liked his writing style, which uses many examples from current events, recent history, literature, etc., and flows logically from point to point. Most valuable of all was his attempt to show both sides. As an example, he neither sided with conservative or liberal thinking, but instead showed the strengths and failings of both. His purpose seemed to be to spur awareness without pushing an agenda of his own -- to get people to think and talk about the virtue of integrity and its place in American society. I really appreciated this non-biased, non-reactionary approach. I will read other books by this author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am not involved in politics, so the most important parts of the book were the definitions of integrity and the 'tests' for true integrity. Using Mr. Carters definitions, it becomes difficult to find individuals who truly live with integrity. I think more people should read the book. However, I don't think integrity matters enough to most people.