Integrityby Stephen L. Carter
In this thoughtful book, Stephen Carter, whose 1993 book The Culture of Disbelief changed the way we talk about the role of religion in American life, turns his critical eye to the mystery of why the virtue of integrity holds such sway over the American political imagination. Why do we care more about winning than about playing by the rules? What are our rules about… See more details below
In this thoughtful book, Stephen Carter, whose 1993 book The Culture of Disbelief changed the way we talk about the role of religion in American life, turns his critical eye to the mystery of why the virtue of integrity holds such sway over the American political imagination. Why do we care more about winning than about playing by the rules? What are our rules about following the rules? What are our rules about breaking them? He explains why integrity is first in importance among the elements of good character, as well as why it is so hard to attain. 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. The first in a trilogy of books on the most important elements of the character of the good citizen, Integrity presents a frank examination of the national mood and concludes that unless we find ways to place integrity at the center of both our private and public lives, the American idea may crumble and the greatness of our democracy along with it.
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.
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.
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.
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