Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Integrity, Tranqulity, and Conflict

If you have comments on my (draft) paper "Integrity and Struggle," now is the time. I've gotten some helpful feedback from an anonymous referee, and have some work to do.

In the paper, I challenge a conception of integrity that I call "psychological integrity" and attribute to (among others) John Cottingham. This may seem puzzling since Cottingham argues that either psychological wholeness is not sufficient for a good life (though it may be necessary), or "true integrity" requires not only psychological wholeness, but also an orientation to the (objective) good.

However, I think the label is apt for my purposes because Cottingham appeals often to the notion of psychological wholeness in articulating integrity before turning to the question of whether integrity is sufficient for a good life. He reads the Psalmist's prayer for an "undivided heart" as a desire to attain sufficient psychological wholeness (or order, or unity) in order to be capable of orienting oneself wholeheartedly to the good.

The bone I have to pick is not with the desire to be oriented toward the good, or with the idea that the good is something transcendent of our own desires, projects, or commitments. (Here, Cottingham argues against the notions of integrity and authenticity flowing from the work of Williams and Frankfurt, or against the notion that authenticity or wholeheartedness itself is sufficient for a good life.) Rather, it has to do with the attitude Cottingham takes toward conflict and struggle. The person who struggles against temptation may show fortitude, but not integrity--the struggle reveals a lack of full integration. There is, I agree, something to this, and on the other hand, Cottingham acknowledges that the person of integrity is not an "angelic zombie for whom there are no hard questions" (p. 8).

However, while Cottingham rightly acknowledges that cultivating integrity involves a great deal of self-understanding--among other things about the sources of desires that give rise to conflict, or which threaten to lead us down paths which are reasonably seen as temptations--my sense is that Cottingham too easily assumes (or hopes, as he suggests at the end of his paper), that full integrity culminates in a kind of tranquility which contrasts strongly with our typical existence as "conflicted beings," which is part of our "lot as flawed creatures" (p. 13).

Perhaps. But my basic question, and challenge, is: why can we not allow that integrity could involve a deep understanding of oneself that recognizes--and perhaps in some cases, embraces--the conflicts that are part of self and life? This is not to suggest that we celebrate conflict for its own sake, or do not seek integration where possible (perhaps resulting in new creative discoveries or possible ways of living), but without being lured into the tempting thought that a kind of Stoic tranquility in all things is where we should, after all, be heading. If we are essentially conflicted beings--which we could see in the positive light of our being attracted to many positively good things, and not just conflicted in the negative sense of being prone to immoral temptation--then that aspiration for a tranquil reconciliation and resting place is unreachable, unrealistic, a desire to be something we are not, and yet another instance of yearning for a kind of "living death."

I'm not exactly saying, contra the last point, that we must rage against they dying of the light, either. Rather, I mean roughly that we grow through our struggles, and may take the particular challenges and even afflictions life throws at us--which we may overcome or may have to contend with for the duration of our lives--to be the very things through which our integrity (or lack thereof) is manifest. This has to do with what Gaita calls facing our situation in an "uncompromising spirit of truthfulness," and I think we can do that whether or not it results in the elimination of conflict. Facing our situation in a spirit of truthfulness, we may discover the limited extent to which psychological integration is possible for us. (Think of the cases in my paper in which I discuss addicts and people with multiplicitous identities, for example.)

It might be thought that Cottingham is right after all, and that while such cases will require great (and perfectly admirable) fortitude (or courage)--including the courage not to give in to despair--such conflicted, fragmented lives are not what we desire when we aspire to greater integrity. Certainly, they may not be the kinds of lives we would desire (or trade for), but there are perhaps other kinds of admirable lives that, in that desire for tranquility, we would prefer to admire from afar (the tormented artist and so forth). Nevertheless, I agree with Gaita (and need to find better ways of articulating this) that a conflicted life can be lived with integrity. This may depend upon the fragmentations not being too deep, or upon their not making reflection and self-understanding impossible. And such people would presumably have some sense of who they are and aspire to be, and recognize giving into certain temptations, or making certain self-compromises, as inconsistent with that. But if we begin with conflict, and not all conflict is bad, then integration is not simply the elimination of all possible conflicts within the self. Cottingham might agree with this.

I can agree with Cottingham that it involves attempts to bring, as far as possible, one's first-order desires and dispositions in line with one's second-order desires (or, one's values), to understand hidden or repressed motives and so forth. And so integrity would rule out certain kinds of temptation (if by temptation we mean actually deliberating about doing or taking what tempts us, and not just being aware that it has a kind of pseudo-attractiveness that our own values rule out as giving us a reason to fully consider it). So then where is the difference between us? Perhaps in this: that at the end of his paper, he hopes for tranquility, and (again) sees that as the culmination of full integrity. Whereas I would picture things as: making something grand or beautiful or meaningful of our struggles, on the basis of some guiding principle or ideal (and, again, I agree with the spirit of Cottingham's views about the good), though I would see the hope for a kind of tranquility itself as perhaps (or sometimes) a temptation to be overcome, and at least as unnecessary for our taking a person to have shown great integrity in how she led her life.

While some degree of psychological wholeness thus matters even here, I contrast Cottingham's "psychological integrity" with what I call "practical integrity," since the accomplishments I associate above with integrity are not just psychological accomplishments, but practical accomplishments that outshine the inner struggles from which they were born, and yet without which, they might not, in many cases, have existed at all. (I'm thinking for example of people whose testaments of their own struggles with addiction and to maintain sobriety can reveal the kind of spirit of truthfulness Gaita mentions, as well as steadfastness in the face of forces difficult to control, and who, among other things, make themselves living examples of what is possible for others facing similar problems.)


  1. I don't have any big comments, I'm afraid. It's a fine paper and your argument seems sound to me. But I was a little confused when you say on p. 18 that a bad reason is no reason at all. Do you mean that a bad reason for doing something is no reason to seriously consider doing that thing? I think that's at least close to what you mean, but it could maybe come out more clearly. That's the only nit I found to pick.

  2. Thanks. I'll look at it. I'd sent it off with the hunch I would need to shorten it, and though I've presented different truncated versions, wasn't sure how to re-orient things, to streamline it. It might make sense to focus more up front on "divided selves" of the sort I discuss later in the paper, and to simplify what I say about temptation, since under the description of temptation which involves actually deliberating over that which is tempting, at least in some cases, I would more or less agree with Cottingham. (What to say about cases like the Hienz dilemma--about stealing a drug to save one's spouse--is still, I think, a different kind of case, say, from the person tempted to take a bribe.)

  3. Yes, if you need to shorten it that strategy makes sense. I don't think you do need to, though, unless someone tells you otherwise (which maybe they have done). (And I agree about the difference between being tempted to take a bribe and being tempted to steal in order to save your spouse.)

  4. I'm making some progress today. A bit of a new start, and getting clearer on what it is that the emphasis on psychological integrity (say, as sufficient) leaves out. For example, the person impervious to the world might rest in utter tranquility, but we need to know more before pronouncing that integrity (and I think this is not just a question of what's going on psychologically, but what that person's situation in the world is...though this is a different sort of case than the "divided selves" ones).