Integrity and delight

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From remarks by a professor of political science at Bryn Mawr delivered at a convocation on integrity requested by students. Why play the game by its rules? Why honor commitments? Why not cheat? The most common and least happy answer is the one derived from duty: You must because you must, no matter how much it hurts. This line of defense manages to praise integrity only by affirming its painfulness, and has nothing to say to the secret and hardly criminal inclination to avoid public duty whenever it conflicts with the chances for individual success.

The invitation to integrity must give us reasons for loving that virtue, for seeing it as lovable, and not as a righteous burden; so Theodore Weld, the American evangelist and abolitionist, speaking in 1834 to a gathering of prospective recruits to the antislavery cause, said: ''Further, if you join us merely out of a sense of duty, we pray you keep aloof and give place to those who leap into our ranks because they cannot keep themselves out; who instead of whining about duty, shout 'privilege,' 'delight.' ''

But what are the delights of integrity, and how can its exercise be seen as a privilege rather than a duty?

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A second, more sophisticated, way of praising integrity replaces unfashionable talk about duty with that overpowering and universally solvent wave of the future, the language of cost-effectiveness calculation. Don't cheat on papers and tests, we are told, because any short-term benefits will be more than cancelled by the long-term costs that will follow from the eventual cheapening of the value of your diploma once word gets about that everybody's doing it. Integrity in this way appears as a temporary cost or pain that the crafty and diligent calculator of values will accept as the price to be paid for riches down the road.

If the arguments from duty and economic interest must both be rejected, is there no way of successfully praising integrity? There is indeed, but achieving it depends upon the acceptance of a distinction which plays no part in the other two justifications, one which, however, is very familiar to readers of Plato and Aristotle (and so is even older and less accessible than the language of duty): the distinction between living and living well.

Living well, in this sense, is not at all the same as living comfortably, nor is it simply the opposite of poverty. Rather, it refers to the possibility of living according to a strong and coherent sense of oneself as a person whose life, considered as a whole, reflects a definite and thoughtful set of preferences and aspirations. The order and meaning of such a life far transcend the sum of the events which compose it, but this is not at all to say that it is a life fit only for saints or Socrates; it corresponds to what we, in a very ordinary way, call maturity.

Neither duty nor mechanical calculation can give rise to a sense of integrity thus understood, but only an enduring fondness for the personality we have become or are in the process of becoming. This self-delight which is the engine of true integrity can only be deepened by recognition of the privilege we enjoy insofar as we have had the great luck to be born into a place in the world with leisure and safety enough to make the emergence of mature ways of life a realistic possibility.

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