Regaining Our Integrity

Let's say you're a high-ranking public figure, such as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Before you were chosen for this potent position--second in line in Presidential succession--you taught a college course that was partly funded by a political action committee. You knew this wasn't the right thing to do when you set it up, but you figured no one would remember. But somebody did. In fact, quite a few people did. As House Speaker, Newt Gingrich seemed to regard this as a persnickety little thing of the past. His first response was to deny that he had done anything wrong. Then he blamed his lawyer. His lawyer apparently decided he wasn't going to be the fall guy and quit. Then, finally, after nearly two years of investigation, a 22-page report came out charging Gingrich with ethics violations. Then and only then, did he admit that yeah, well, maybe I shouldn't have done that, I'm sorry. It seems that after admitting (finally!) that he did something wrong, Gingrich now believes he should be forgiven and even reelected as speaker. Is he, or anyone else who behaves like this, a person of integrity? The answer is brutally simple. No.People of integrity who run for public office do so because they honestly believe they can make a difference. People of integrity don't shy away from admitting their mistakes, any more than they claim credit for things they didn't do. Integrity is therefore the essential ingredient in every supposedly lost, lamented family value. It is the willingness to sacrifice private gain for the public good. It can be as simple as taking the witness stand, swearing to "tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God"--and meaning it. As Stephen Carter, a professor of law and religion at Yale University, defines it in his book Integrity (Basic Books, $24), three things distinguish those who try to lead lives of integrity: they take the time to discern right from wrong; they act on what they believe; and they act in a way that is consistent with what they believe is right. And, at the end of it all, the way people of integrity lead their lives almost always puts the good of the community ahead of the good of the individual.On the surface, it sounds terribly simplistic, not unlike the patronizing panaceas served up by William J. Bennett in The Book of Virtues and The Moral Compass. But Carter is, in fact, more accurate than anyone--even the supposedly God-fearing, church-going, mostly right-leaning sorts--is willing to admit. And, if Carter is to be believed, our integrity is in a state of crisis. How did those seemingly golden days when someone's word was their bond give way to today, when even police officers perjure themselves under oath? Theories abound but, simply put, when you lose community standards and your culture's guiding philosophy puts the individual ahead of all else, you end up with a society driven by instant gratification that holds no negative consequences for following that drive. It has become rare for anyone to consider the good of the larger community, because people have lost sight of what the larger community is and how we as individuals can make it better. "This isn't really a new problem at all, it's as old as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence," says Frank Kirkpatrick, a professor of religion at Trinity College in Hartford. "I'm tempted to say it goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden, but for Americans, it's one of the perennial conflicts of a capitalist system."The paradox, as Kirkpatrick sees it, is that Americans have always been pulled in two directions. On the one hand, we believe in doing what is right. On the other, as individual citizens we are all endowed with those precious and inalienable rights upon which our country was founded. This paradox has served us poorly, especially in the last 25 years or so. In politics, the illusion of integrity has replaced thoughtful discourse among our public officials. In business, profit has taken precedence over everything else in corporate decision-making, in fields ranging from manufacturing to health care. In our private lives, the notion of individual rights has eclipsed any sense of community obligation. "Do your own thing" has gone from a benevolent sanction to a pervasive toxin, trampling on the sense of a greater public good. "Americans are being insulted," reported The New York Times not long before this year's presidential elections, "by a political culture that puts private gain head of public trust." Such startling analysis could hardly pass for news. Long before this year's election--for at least the last 25 years--many people have presumed that public figures are going to lie to them. Before Watergate, people assumed that public officials at least had the best interests of those who voted for them at heart. People also assumed that those public officials were, for the most part, honest. Then came a seemingly innocuous break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters on June 17, 1972, that changed the entire picture of American public life. A little more than three years later, the Watergate scandal led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The notion that chicanery could reach such high levels of our government shocked everyone. Politicians were suddenly villainized. In fact, since that time a sense of disconnection has developed between the public and politicians that has made many of those seeking public office as cynical as those of us who elect them.In 1978, the Ethics in Government Act (originally called the Public Officials Integrity Act) was adopted by Congress. It was an understandable reaction to the public insult of Watergate. But Carter writes that, in its efforts to legislate behavior that is innate, it has backfired. Particularly where Title VI is concerned.Title VI is the provision the GOP used to try to nail former House Speaker Jim Wright and the provision Newt Gingrich's opponents have tried to use to buttonhole the current Republican speaker. But what Title VI has ultimately allowed, Carter says, is the belief that "no matter what I might do in office, as long as I am not indicted, I retain my integrity."A telling sign of the dissolution of integrity of public life is "that people with the highest integrity left Congress en masse" in the last few years, says Middletown-based management consultant William O. Roberts. He points out that showmanship with an often nasty edge has now replaced true statesmanship. Consider the contrast between how the Watergate hearings were conducted in the early 1970s and how the highly-politicized Whitewater hearings or the investigation into Gingrich's ethics are being handled today. "With Sam Ervin and Lowell Weicker, there was a genuine modesty to those men, especially while the hearings were going on, that you knew they were putting their own interests aside for the bigger issues," Roberts says. That is hardly the impression anyone gets from members of Congress today. Then again, we no longer expect our leaders to work with our best interests at heart. In fact, we often seem surprised when our political leaders manage to make the right decisions or do something honorable. That Bill Clinton was reelected amid the tumult of Whitewater--that he was elected four years ago despite news reports of his philandering nature--says as much about us as it does about those we choose as leaders.If integrity can be defined in one succinct idea, Carter argues that it is doing the right thing, no matter what the cost. That seems to go against the grain of our capitalist system. But while making money is at the heart of capitalism, a truly successful business needs a soul as well. At the onset of the great industrial boom that followed the Civil War, the nascent big businesses almost always saw themselves as benevolent paternities. Workers in mills, mines and later factories were provided with housing and medical care; the most prominent big businesses of the early 20th century, such as Ford Motor Company and General Mills, shaped entire towns. While this reality had its benefits, it also had its costs. Businesses exerted a tremendous amount of control over the lives of their workers. The workers came to depend on their employers as providers. When these industries cut their ties by downsizing--a management euphemism for firing--thousands of those dependents felt the pain. And it led to a startling realization. "No company is moral for the sake of being moral," Trinity's Kirkpatrick says. "Often what happens is that they don't take the time to explore how they can strike a balance. If being ethical means losing money, they'll always choose to make money." But, Kirkpatrick believes, "it is possible for a company to do well by doing good. Look at Johnson & Johnson and the Tylenol scare." In 1982, after seven people in the Chicago area died from taking tainted Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson pulled all of its Tylenol products from the shelves. It was expensive. And perhaps it was not the only possible course of action. Later investigations showed that the poisoned pills were the result of isolated incidents that almost certainly were not the manufacturer's fault. "But someone at Johnson & Johnson," Kirkpatrick adds, "knew it was far better for them to do the morally right thing. And instead of hurting from it, it was a great boost for the company: People knew they could trust them."Still, such behavior at so high a corporate a level is rare. "What happens when a company loses sight of that human factor--of their own vision, really--you get an environment that's very toxic," says management consultant Roberts, a former Congregationalist minister. Roberts, who founded his consulting firm three years ago, specializes in helping companies become more effective by developing a sense of both mission and responsibility. He points out that while true visionaries founded and guided many successful companies in the late 19th century, these days much of the corporate decision-making process is left to number crunchers who either can't or don't want to see beyond the fiscal bottom line. "The particular breed of CEOs out there right now, they're not visionaries; their only concern is if the stockholders are making money," Roberts says. "And you don't have to look at the executives to see what's going on. It shows the minute you walk into the door, in the face of the lowest-ranking employees. Real organizational development is taking an organization to the fullest extent of its possibilities. And that may mean that the stockholders may not get such high dividends, but in the long run the company will be healthier--and the individuals in it, too."In Roberts' opinion, businesses that lose sight of their own corporate integrity in the name of profits will almost inevitably fail because both employees and customers will turn away from a company that doesn't respect them. "What's been happening in the corporate world over the last 8 to 12 years is an arc," he explains. "In 1984-85, we became crazed with how much money we could make. It was like an addiction, where we lost sight of everything else that mattered. Over the last few years, people have gotten tired of this and now they're getting fed up enough to begin to affect change."By the same token, people of integrity can't just step into an ailing company and be expected to save it. In part, this is because the lack of ethics has become so pervasive in our society. When young people have been raised without clear standards, they become employees who filch office supplies because they don't think they get paid enough, workers who take sick days when they're not sick.Back in the days when corporations could be relied upon to take care of their employees--providing everything from health care to job security to pensions--workers felt a sense of company loyalty. Today, people view what they do for a living as "work," something that is not integrated with the rest of their lives. Why make a personal investment in a company when a pink slip could replace a paycheck at any moment?As citizens become more disconnected from once-stable communities, as people are forced to move elsewhere to find work, it's small wonder that people start to think of their own good first and foremost. But the disintegration of clearly defined communities began well before the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It may actually have its roots in the four-wheeled vehicle that we all take for granted today. The consumer boom after World War II, which was also helped in no small part by television, promised a car for every family. The automobile went from being a luxury to becoming a necessity. People became more independent, less community-minded. In turn, their sense of self-worth became linked with how much stuff they owned. The vestiges of that changed mindset are a driving force in today's world. Not many people are now willing to put the public good ahead of creature comforts. "Moral character doesn't count for much these days," Kirkpatrick says. "And that lack of it became a justification for cutting people off, for being greedy. But greed always backfires in some way. We've seen it happen again and again, but people just haven't learned." He adds that Americans are still big on amassing material goods so that others will judge them as "successful." But, he adds, "When you ask them privately if they think they'd be happier with less, they say they probably would be."The ubiquitousness of fast-food culture is also part of the problem. Too many people say they haven't got the time to carefully weigh the decisions that affect their lives and the lives of those around them. They're too busy fighting over the last Tickle Me Elmo to worry about what kind of behavior is acceptable. As long as their actions do not cause bodily harm to others, anything goes. But taking the time to think, Carter believes, is a vital component of integrity. "Though all of us shoot from the hip from time to time, a person who does so consistently, especially in enunciating important commitments, is unlikely to be a person of true integrity," writes Carter. "For acting on one's first impulse denies the possibility of that crucial sustained reflection."That abdication of the need to thoughtfully develop a strong sense of right and wrong at the outset, Carter says, is perhaps the biggest factor in the decline of individual integrity. "The gesture of integrity has replaced the real thing," Kirkpatrick explains. "It's become acceptable for people to live one way, talk another and get away with it." But integrity isn't the little black dress of proper social behavior, to be donned during at public affairs to great effect and tucked away in the back of the closet the rest of the time. It is something that is inextricably linked to morality, a loaded word in these I'll-do-my-thing, you-do-yours times. Integrity without a moral sense is about as useful as a car without an engine. It might look nice, but it won't get you anywhere. "Integrity is what defines how you live your life," says Jude Dougherty, Dean of the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington. "It's integrated into what you think, what you believe, how you interact with others. If there is no common morality, there is no standard against which to measure individual integrity."Dougherty adds that the loss of faith in institutions, especially in religious-centered ones, has contributed hugely to the loss of community and the standards stable communities fostered. Such standards can be illustrated with something as simple as listening to the radio. Can I play my stereo as loud as I want? Well, yes. But the other piece of that--the one tied to integrity--is, do I have a corresponding obligation to take into consideration how the volume might effect others? The answer to that is yes, too.If this all sounds rather Golden Rule-ish--do unto others as you would have them do unto you--that's because it is. But integrity is something that cannot be imposed from without. As Carter points out, integrity goes beyond mere candor or following the letter of the law. In fact, as he writes in Integrity, sometimes those moved to do the right thing will break the law. He cites those who sheltered Jews from the Nazis during World War II. They were fully aware they were risking their own lives, but they were willing to take that chance because they believed the Nazi regime was evil. They violated its laws for the greater good. Carter also cites the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as another shining example of integrity in action. "For King, disobedience had one purpose: change," Carter writes. "And for a citizen who believes her society essentially just, change is necessarily the reason for action, because her faith in society's justice carries with it an optimism about the society's capacity to undo acts of injustice." Integrity is lost, Carter adds, when an act of defiance, such as using a segregated water fountain, is done primarily for personal convenience. Then again, that's one of the things that can happen when you live in a society that has lost sight of doing the right thing and instead does the thing that feels good. But have we really become so myopic, hypocritical and venal? Perhaps not, but there's no question that the historian Arthur Schlesinger is correct in his current analysis of society's main problem: At the moment there's too much pluribus and not enough unum. "The core of integrity is rooted in completeness and consistency," Catholic University's Dougherty explains. "And when the desires of special interest groups begin to supersede the common good, standards suffer. And when standards go by the wayside, personal integrity goes too."And when personal integrity goes, the force of its loss flows up rather than down. That's because individuals make up communities. And those communities effect what happens in the schools, the churches and the government. It's not so much that we've become cynical. We've lost sight of what's truly important. "Our morality has become smaller, about peccadilloes rather than the larger things," Roberts says. "We need to recover that sense of decency, that just because I disagree with you, it doesn't mean we're both not good people." But that innate integrity built of respect, trust and a clear moral sense simply can't take root and thrive in a society that puts the material ahead of the spiritual and profits ahead of people. If we are to become strong again as a society, we've got to grow up. Enough about me. Or money. Or material possessions. It's time we put away the toys--of competition, or materialism, of the illusion of what is right--to really and truly do the right thing and for the right reasons.


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