Friday, December 30, 2005

On Integrity

Some months ago I was interviewed by the Globe & Mail about my research on integrity (see "All the rules in the world won't give rise to integrity", Wallace Immen, Globe & Mail, Friday August 26, 2005, page C1). It is a subject in which I have a longstanding interest. Indeed, my meeting the resident philosopher of science was predicated upon the discovery of our shared views about principle and integrity. He was working on what he called a 'cerebral manuscript' on integrity; I was living my principles as a union leader and negotiator and completing doctoral work on environmental crisis, dwelling, finitude, and the possibility of a phenomenologically grounded ethics. Some of my scholarly work, and portions of Peter's manuscript, titled Truth and Integrity, are now available at The Electronic Sage.

It is clear that 'integrity' is at best a poorly understood concept. Nearly a year ago, in a talk I prepared for a management course at the University of Toronto, I commented,
At its worst, the current rush to define ethical business practices and to hold the leaders of organizations to moral standards is a cynical distraction, a generalized expression of contempt or temporary contrition in the face of recent exposures and convictions, a nefarious seizing of moral territory for avaricious purposes. At best, good intentions are derailed by the nearly interchangeable use of concepts. We declaim the need for ethical leadership, integrity, and trust without a clear sense of whether these concepts may actually be deployed in practice – or whether they can mean anything at all.

It seems to me that when we attempt to exert and deploy conceptions of ethical leadership across the muddled moral terrain of contemporary organizations, the concepts themselves rupture across the landscape. Two kinds of rupturing are readily apparent. In the first, we encounter manifest organizational crises measured by scandalous revelations of wrongdoing, indictments of executive officers and accountants, and bleeding bottom lines. In these situations, it is too late to apply moral standards, except perhaps in judgement. In the second kind of rupturing, we encounter moral failures so ordinary but so widespread and persistent that they erode the very notion of organizational sustainability and ethical leadership. These are the daily abuses that engender cynicism: the subtle and overt denigration of colleagues and subordinates, predation, the theft of ideas, misrepresentation, negligent disclosure, the displacement of blame, failures in reciprocity and empathy, and the resolute putting of the self first – expressions of the generalized megalomania that attracts many people to business.

Amid these and other ruptures, business writers, public and private agencies and think tanks, dubiously qualified researchers, consultants, and the media have sought to improve the moral climate of organizations – or at least capitalize upon the current Zeitgeist. In doing so, they have produced a whole industry of integrity products and services overly closely allied with the businesses and institutions they purport to criticise or correct. And in doing so, they have managed to cheapen both leadership and integrity. They have done nothing to ease what the Ivey Business Journal calls a "crisis of trust" (2004: 1) and what an article published in the Academy of Management Review nearly thirty years ago described as "moral abhorrence" and "general condemnation" of business (1977: 360). That these two comments were published decades apart says something else about current efforts: they fail to acknowledge that the problems are not even new. They merely cloak old reports and recommendations in the fashionable language, and sell them at the current rates. In doing so, they have perpetuated a series of confusions, constructing a recursive hall of mirrors. (see Harris, Amy Lavender, 2005. Being a Lodestar: Navigating the Moral Terrain of Organizational leadership.)
Given the above, it seems that integrity itself disappears somewhere between corporate malfeasance, cynical efforts to capitalize on the 'integrity' Zeitgeist, and conceptual incoherence. In the course of my research, one thing that has stood out most is the striking disconnect between the ways integrity is conceptualized in the business and philosophical literatures. In the business world, integrity is understood as being about compliance -- or the appearance of compliance -- with the rules. An alternative (but not altogether different) approach is to understand integrity as emerging in the 'balance' between principle and practice. I call this the 'good enough to get away with' model of integrity. Neither approach comes anywhere close to integrity: at best they are confused; at worst they reflect a contempt for truth and meaning.

It seems to me that where 'integrity' is concerned, the business world could use some help from philosophy. It is not that the philosophical literature offers an easy pathway to ethics and integrity. On the contrary: John Ralston Saul describes ethics as "the least romantic of human qualities; the one with the hardest edge; the most demanding." (Saul, 2001: 97) Philosophers themselves differ on how integrity should be conceived (see Cox, La Caze, and Levine's overview in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), but they are consistent in the view that integrity is about far more than mere compliance. Observing that integrity "remains vague and ill-defined after more than 50 years of research", Thomas Becker proposes that integrity be composed as follows: "(1) I value (reason, purpose, and self-esteem); (2) I am (rational, honest, independent, just, productive, and proud); (3) my values, goals, and behaviour are congruent; and (4) I am willing to do whatever is necessary to live according to my most cherished values." (1998: 159) While Becker's objectivist approach (which follows Harry Frankfurt's integrated-self model of integrity) has been roundly (and in my view justly) criticized (see Barry and Stephens, 1998, for example) for its reliance on rational egoism and its underestimation of the role of social power, his conceptualization does stretch toward a definition of integrity that might become plausible with amendment. Cheshire Calhoun objects to Frankfurt and Becker's integrated-self conception of integrity, as well as the identity (see Williams, 1973) and clean-hands (Cox, La Caze, and Levine call this the 'moral purpose' approach to integrity) pictures of integrity" (1995: 235) Calhoun's objection to these approaches is twofold. First, she comments that "each ultimately reduces integrity to something else with which it is not equivalent – to the conditions of unified agency, to the conditions for continuing as the same self, and to the conditions for having a reason to refuse cooperating with some evils." And second, in these accounts, integrity is seen as a personal virtue and not as a social virtue. In short, Calhoun objects to the notion of integrity as reducing to the circumstantial self. Calhoun suggests that "standing for something" is the prime social virtue. She asks: "what is worth doing? ... What evils, if any, ought one morally to refuse doing no matter the consequences?" She suggests that we must ultimately be co-deliberators: "Her standing for something is not just something she does for herself. She takes a stand for, and before, all deliberators who share the goal of determining what is worth doing." (ibid: 257)

In my view, Calhoun's proposed pathway is enormously rich. It moves beyond naive appeals. It places the territory of what is being determined beyond only the self. It does not appeal to vague and fuzzy notions. Rather, it underscores the difficulty of determining what is worth doing, the hard work of trying to act and live with integrity. Calhoun also acknowledges the possibility of rupture: she says, "when what is worth doing is under dispute, concern to act with integrity must pull us both ways. Integrity calls us simultaneously to stand behind our convictions and to take seriously others' doubts about them." Cox, La Caze, and Levine criticize Calhoun's account for placing "no material constraints on the kinds of commitments that a person of integrity may endorse." They propose (somewhat after Ralston Saul) that integrity is "a complex and thick virtue term" and imply that it has an important materialist or circumstantial basis. While I agree that integrity is richly complex (and that it is more complex than even Calhoun suggests), I disagree that an understanding of it is to be found in the circumstantial. Rather, integrity is found despite the circumstantial. This is why I find Calhoun's conception of standing for something so powerful: as she writes,
looking at integrity not as the personal virtue of keeping oneself intact but as the social virtue of standing for something before fellow deliberators helps explain why we care that persons have the courage of their convictions. The courageous provide spectacular displays of integrity by withstanding social incredulity, ostracism, contempt, and physical assault when most of us would be inclined to give in, compromise, or retreat into silence. Social circumstances that erect powerful deterrents to speaking and acting on one's own best judgment undermine the possibilities for deliberating about what is worth doing. We thus have good reason to be thankful when persons of integrity refuse to be cowed. (1995: 259)
A clear conceptualization of integrity has yet to be written. Perhaps the best we can do is strive toward it. My own pathway begins with a careful reconsideration of how integrity is defined even prior to the kinds of philosophical enquiries described above. Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition), for example, defines integrity as follows: (1) firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values: incorruptibility; (2) an unimpaired condition: soundness; and (3) the quality or state of being complete or undivided: completeness. In this context, incorruptibility, soundness, and completeness might be seen as three ‘tests' of integrity. In my own work on integrity, I call these the "three C's" of integrity: Compliance, Coherence, and Consistency. Integrity cannot be said to exist in the absence of any one of these criteria. Peter Fruchter's view, to which my own work is somewhat attached, is that integrity (not to mention truth and meaning) cannot be understood without reference to three modalities of discourse: the definitive (the inferential, or realm of principle), the descriptive (the referential, or realm of experience), and the imperative (the deferential, which incorporates the realms of the authority of reason as well as reason of authority). For more on Fruchter's modalities of discourse and to read portions of his manuscript, Truth and Integrity, click here. A coherent theory of integrity is likely to rely upon this foundation.

For me, integrity cannot be understood without reference to its phenomenological character, a wholism somewhat analogous to what Gaston Bachelard calls the "phenomenology of roundness". Integrity isn't something one can 'have' or possess. It certainly isn't something one may buy or sell: integrity is not a commodity. Integrity is, ultimately as at root, about wholeness, about integration. This does not mean that integrity is soft or easy: like Ralston Saul and Cox et al, I consider integrity the hardest of virtues. Like Calhoun, I believe that integrity may be found in those who have the courage of convictions unrelated to self-interest: integrity is measurable in terms of the costs one is prepared to endure in standing for principle. And if we stand for something in front of co-deliberators, those co-deliberators are not only those we encounter in the social world. Integrity requires a willingness to co-deliberate with the universe and to be measured against the force of its unfolding.

Suggested reading:

Barry, Bruce and Carroll U. Stephens, 1998. Objections to an Objectivist Approach to Integrity.
Academic of Management Review, 23(1): 162-169.

Becker, Thomas E., 1998. Integrity in Organizations: Beyond Honesty and Conscientiousness.
Academy of Management Review, 23(1): 154-161.

Beslin, Ralph, 2004. How leaders can communicate to build trust. Ivey Business Journal,
Nov/Dec: G1-.

Boling, T. Edwin, 1977. The Management Ethics "Crisis": An Organizational Perspective.
Academy of Management Review, 3(2) (April): 360-365.

Calhoun, Cheshire, 1995. Standing for Something. The Journal of Philosophy, 92(5): 235-260.

Cox, Damian; La Caze, Marguerite; and Levine, Michael. Entry on Integrity in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Fruchter, Peter, 2002; revisions ongoing. Truth and Integrity. Working manuscript. Portions available electronically here.

Harris, Amy Lavender, 2005. Being a Lodestar: Navigating the Moral Terrain of Ethical Leadership. Talk prepared for a management class at the University of Toronto.

Immen, Wallace, 2005. "All the rules in the world won't give rise to integrity", Globe & Mail, Friday August 26, 2005, page C1.

Saul, John Ralston, 2001. On Equilibrium. Toronto: Penguin/Viking.


Anonymous said...

In The Little Prince, the protagonist meets a geographer who has no surveyors, and a conceited man who sees all others as admirers, a businessman who owns the stars (because he thought of it) and a King who commands that the only other inhabitant of his planet (a small rat) be put to death (but to ultimately be commuted). As he thereafter said, the grown-ups are indeed very strange.

And so are those who'd attempt to revisit business ethics with no better tools than the snapshot algebra and its pragmatically useless concept of consistency. Worse, with no reference to the context of inter-dependent life and life support processes, the Buddhist mindful walk, the ideals of compassion and empathy, time and experiment as means to shatter any known set of axioms, the logic of action as distinct from observing (Pearl) and of body risk as a core attractor in what we call identity and commitment. Pollination and habitat have a great deal to do with the integrity of agriculture. It's not clear anything can restore integrity to a global
commodity market. It may be that the abstractions of commodity and assumptions behind physical "product" are themselves corrupting. Certainly that's a common claim among those who seek to redefine both into services to
better match the way nature relates to humankind. Which the best architects sought to do in the last century.

But not only then. Fitting neatly into the processes and flows of nature, barely noticed, is an ancient ideal.

As you evoke Ralston Saul, read how he ends "The Unconcious Civilization", especially his account of the moral integrity evident in the physical architecture the house of a Confucian judge who lived in Korea hundreds of
years ago. This is integrity that endures, and changes minds long after the words and the axioms have gone.
Consider also Johnny Appleseed, who planted perhaps millions of trees, ancestors of those still bearing fruit.
Do we really do better evoking moral purpose and development as a set of rules rather than a set of examples?

If we must resort to theorists, let's look at Gilligan and Reed and a model of human moral development in
general. If we wait for businesspeople to become philosophers and logicians, we will wait a very long time,
and a lot of unnecessary suffering will occur. We don't need to solve the problem for all possible worlds.
Only this one, and only for now. Set some priorities and commit to some constraints for say one generation,
then in that process find those that apply perhaps two or three out, and in time even perhaps seven. But to
seek any further than that is to seek a comprehension of consequences beyond that any human could ever know.
Do the math. We don't live that long or reproduce that fast. We rely on teachers from prior generations -
not abstract principles written out for us millenia ago - there's no integrity in resorting to rule of text.
When the text was written the problems and constraints were different. Business ethics is no exception - a
division into three may be easier to teach but it tends to assert that each principle is equally important.

Ethics protects living things. In doing so, principles may be refined, deepened, prioritized, even discarded.
What matters is that the living things thrive regardless.

Amy Lavender Harris said...

Greetings, Anonymous; how delightful to hear from you again. I even agree with some of what you write.

I disagree, however, that we will find our answers in the mystical or in thin appeals to the material. Both reduce ultimately a kind of avoidance. To me, philosophy (which includes all our attempts at understanding and explanation) must be simultaneously practical and transcendent. Perhaps that is why I remain a phenomenologist even now.

You write that "ethics protects living things" and add that "principles may be refined [etc]". The problem is that you've got it backward. Principles necessarily precede ethics. Indeed, it is false to talk about 'ethics' or 'integrity' without grounding the concepts in the domain of principle. Further, because none of the contemporary pretenders (including JRS) manage to do so, it has become deceitful even to speak of 'ethics' or 'integrity', and that was my point. Of course, the issue is now moot given that this particular Zeitgeist has passed.

The new Zeitgeist -- expressed as a brief flash of environmental conscience -- expresses itself in many of the same ways. Corporations scrabble to capitalize on 'green' products in much the same ways ecological scholars race to stamp their intellectual imprint on 'green' thinking. None of this will last seven generations. It won't even last for seven years.

You write, "We don't live that long or reproduce that fast." On the contrary: we are guilty of both. My own womb quickens as I write, swelling like a waxing moon or perhaps an atomic sunburst. But at least the compulsion to reproduce biologically is an honest conceit

What's the best way through this debacle? Perhaps one renders, as one must, unto the material world and unto the cosmos, ideally in a way that does not confuse one for the other.