Thursday, December 15, 2011


Here's the latest installment in my (less academic?) reflections on conviction and integrity, on "consistency." The essay opens thus:
Without some degree of consistency amongst our beliefs, as well as our desires and emotions, and between our inner life and our outward actions, things fall apart. Our own lives can become too confusing to bear. Without some way of matching the life we are trying to live to the world and the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves, we run the risk of losing touch with reality, or of being crushed by it. Integrity would seem to require both inner consistency—that the elements of the psyche be more or less integrated into some kind of coherent, harmonious whole (call this, if you wish, the self)—as well as outward consistency—that one’s beliefs, desires, and emotions, and one’s actions, too, be appropriately responsive to how the world actually is. We would not say that someone who has fallen prey to a massive delusion, who lives, as we might say, in a fantasy world, has integrity. Nor would we say of it of someone who is utterly paralyzed by inner conflict and indecision, who vacillates between various options, says one thing and does another, or changes his or her mind every time the wind blows. Consistency—both within oneself and in relation to the world—is important. However, if there is something important in Whitman’s, at first glance, irrational embrace of self-contradiction—and I think there is—then it is possible to care too much, or in the wrong way, about consistency. In that case, we can’t simply equate integrity with a life of practical and psychological consistency, even if a life of integrity requires these in some degree. Or, paradoxically: consistency might sometimes require that we live with inconsistency.
I fear I may be playing much too fast and loose (a little fast and loose I can live with, for now at least), so comments will be appreciated. I anticipate a separate essay on steadfastness (in which, among other things, I will again take a crack at Winch's discussion of the Amish elder in his essay, "Moral Integrity"), although you can probably get some ideas about where that might go if you make it to the end of this one.

UPDATE (12.16.11): It occurred to me last night that one thing I should consider here relates to what Gaita says about the "child of two cultures" he imagines in his own discussion of integrity--that the conflict between the two cultures is the source of this person's weaknesses and strengths. I want to think about what some of those strengths might be. (This probably connects up with Whitman.)


  1. I like this. It doesn't seem too fast and loose to me. I do have two small comments, though, which might (or might not) be worth thinking about.

    On p. 5 you make yourself sound more naive than you presumably are about the free will debate, almost as if you had never heard of compatibilism. It might be worth saying explicitly why you don't find it completely satisfying. (I think the answer is implicit in what you say, but leaving it merely implicit creates the false impression I'm talking about.)

    Then on p. 6 you suggest that integrity requires mindful attention to one's internal tensions. I can see how integrity might require some self-awareness, but how total does this have to be? Perhaps by 'tension' you mean something like active conflict rather than theoretical inconsistency. In that case I have no problem with your view. But if you mean that integrity requires me to foresee every possible dilemma that might arise because of my various loyalties then I think you might be going too far. Must it occur to me that I'll be in trouble if two of my friends need help at the same time?

  2. DR, thanks for the comments. I get your point about compatibilism.

    Your point about p. 6 is important, and I should in that case make clearer that I agree (I think Williams says something about this, similar to Wiggins, in "Ethical Consistency") that it does NOT make sense to try to foresee every possible dilemma. It's one thing not to want to make clearly conflicting promises, but would be, for lack of a better word, neurotic to worry aboout more remote possibilities. This is related to the end of the essay.

    Happy Holidays, by the way!

  3. Thanks! Happy holidays to you too.