becoming integers

Integrity is the next virtue on ADF’s official list, and one I agree with wholeheartedly, down to the name.

ADF defines it as “honor; being trustworthy to oneself and to others, involving oathkeeping, honesty, fairness, respect, self-confidence.” My trusty dictionary has a threefold definition: “steadfast adherence to a strict moral and ethical code; soundness; completeness, unity.”

In some senses, integrity is a catch-all term for a number of virtues; its other name is honor, which means being worthy of respect and acting with integrity — a circular definition bringing us back to the subject at hand. How do you manifest honor? By keeping your word/oath, whether or not anyone is watching or keeping score. By proving oneself worthy of trust — mainly by keeping your word or oath. (Honesty is often equated with truth-telling, although the word itself is virtually identical with honor.) By being just or fair — a means of showing others respect, as well as yourself as a moral agent.

To unravel the tautology a bit: honor and integrity involve the propagation of truth in word (honesty) and deed (being trustworthy, keeping one’s oaths). They involve a recognition of an individual — both self and other — as a moral agent, and letting that recognition be expressed in thought (respect) and action (fairness/justice). By acknowledging yourself as a moral agent, you’re acknowledging that you indeed know what your moral code is, have thought about it deeply and are willing to live within its bounds.

Integrity means letting go of excuses. It shines a light on who you really are, expressed by your very real words and actions in the world. It doesn’t matter what you think or feel; it only matters what you say and do.

In other words, walk your talk.

Honor is, of course, an ancient term; you cannot really break it apart to find a hidden etymology. In a sense, you know honor when you see it. Historically, it’s been tied up with reputation; a person of ill-repute was deemed to have little honor and treated accordingly. In postmodern culture where no publicity is bad publicity, negative or harmful actions or words simply don’t lead to personal repercussions; in fact, they may bring you acclaim (hence reality television or pundits). Postmodern culture has completely lost its sense of honor.

Partially, that’s because we no longer have a shared moral code. An ancient Celt knew what qualities were held in high esteem, and which were to be avoided. The generous were praised and the niggardly mocked by bards, for example. In my opinion, the shared moral code met its end not through the mixing of cultures, but through the commercialization of nearly every aspect of life. When the social world is defined solely in terms of the marketplace and commodity, there can be no honor since everything has a price, as they say. Honor, on the other hand, involves a refusal to be “bought,” a refusal to compromise your own deeply held beliefs for the sake of money, power or influence.

Some cultures still do have honor — particularly tribal ones. And in these cases, the danger of honor comes to light. The individual’s actions not only reflect on her own self, but her family and clan. The choice of pronouns is deliberate here, since it’s often women who bear the brunt of family honor codes, right down to being slaughtered by their male relatives for not living up to them, or even just not appearing to. Honor in these contexts is all about appearance — what’s traditionally called “saving face.” It doesn’t really matter what you say and do — only what others think you say and do.

The shared moral code can be wrongheaded, destructive and flat-out murderous. Honor can be a justification for evil actions just as much as those which preserve a culture.

So screw honor. Let’s talk about integrity.

Integrity does have a root: integer, what we know as whole numbers. It simply means “whole.” Therein lies the value of integrity. Acting in accordance with what you truly, deeply believe makes you whole. Failing to do so doesn’t make you evil, but simply broken, incomplete — a flawed creature, as we all are. Integrity isn’t one choice, but the stream of infinite choices we make every day.

When you profess to believe that something is right but do the opposite, you are acting from a place of brokenness, of dis-ease. It unsettles your stomach; the doubts stick in your throat, even if you try to keep up a brave or smiling mien. You may offer yourself justifications, excuses or lies and even trick yourself into believing in them, but the truth is still there, twisting your insides. Personally, I think that’s the origin of a lot of suffering and internal turmoil, even it it bubbles out into far different manifestations.

Integrity is a difficult, thorny path, and we all stumble for different reasons. A single mother who takes a job with a collection agency may engage in all sorts of actions she finds at her core to be morally repugnant — but still she does them because she needs the paycheck to support her son and herself. On one hand, she’s not acting with integrity. On the other, who can really blame her? It’s a matter of survival. A soldier who refuses an order he deeply disagrees with is acting with integrity — but can we condemn his comrade, who fulfills the command because he fears being court-marshaled?

Wholeness is a practice and one we never master. Sometimes, our ethical obligations and beliefs conflict. An example of this can be seen in Celtic myth, in which conflicting geasa inevitably fell the king or hero. Cuchulainn cannot eat dog, but he also cannot refuse hospitality. So, what happens when the Morrigan offers him hospitality — with dog-meat stew?

Human algebra is more complicated than simple lists of virtues allow. We’re striving to be integers, but we’ll always have fractional pieces — difficult choices, moments of failure. And that’s okay.

So, we strive to do what we most deeply believe. When we fail, we should acknowledge that and the reasons for our failures, but not beat ourselves with a club. Virtue isn’t about masochism. Integrity needs to be tempered with a virtue that’s not on ADF’s list: compassion. Those two, in tandem, are the core of true ethics (at least in my book).


About whitecatgrove

The musings of a Druid priestess, singer, poet and musician in Upstate New York.
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