We live in an already-soiled world. That is to say, we do not live in a vacuum, where moral problems can be kept out like the cold air from a house. Keeping our integrity is a constant battle, rather like the fight of a body against foreign bodies. If we do not have the ability to stay vigilant, and to recognise when we are being asked to do the wrong thing, then we will sway with the wind, and get into all sorts of trouble.
KNOW AND APPLY YOUR VALUE SYSTEM
An understanding of principle is important for maintaining some kind of moral integrity. Unless we are able to consider general rules, and apply them to specific situations, we will get lost quite quickly. In order to do this, we need to be familiar with our chosen system of values.
The general rules we operate by are rarely single and simple. In fact, most people’s value systems are agglomerations of principles from several different value systems. Much thought is needed to apply these mixed systems to practical situations. For instance, a doctor may believe in honesty at all times, but also kindness at all times. That same doctor may encounter a patient with amnesia, who has forgotten their partner’s death. They ask every day where their partner is, and cry every time they are told the truth. Is the doctor to be honest every time, and cause suffering in the patient, which is arguably very unkind? Or are they to distract the patient and hold back the truth, in the interests of reducing the patient’s suffering?
The important thing for integrity, is that someone in a dilemma actively applies the principles they stand by. In the above example, neither blind adherence to honesty, nor blind adherence to kindness, suffices. Engagement with the dilemma is necessary, an active rather than passive moral approach.
BE PREPARED TO UPSET PEOPLE
A second skill involved in the maintenance of integrity, is to be able to tolerate the suffering you may cause by taking a stand. Unless we can bear the effects of our refusal to cooperate, we do not have true moral freedom.
We may choose to be kind to one group of people. In doing so, we may find we are going to hurt another group of people. For example, during a health crisis, a country’s leader may have a choice: divert resources from foreign countries to their own country, or from their own country to foreign countries. In the same way, a family parent may have a similar choice between giving resources to their own family, or giving resources to others outside the family.
In difficult situations, we cannot just avoid criticism. Where scarce resources are involved, usually someone is going to be upset, and someone a little happier. A free moral decision assesses the situation, and then makes a choice, based on the application of principle, but also a careful analysis of the circumstances. The person who cannot upset others is not really in a position to take effective moral decisions.
BE PREPARED TO REVIEW YOUR DECISIONS CONSTANTLY
Finally, integrity can only really be maintained if we are prepared to review our decisions regularly. Situations change, people change, even principles can change. We must be honest with ourselves in our regular assessment of ourselves, those we know, the situations we see, and the development of our own value systems.
This is particularly difficult when many of our lifestyles become habits. It is very easy to apply the habit, and then apply the justification. In this way, we are just doing what we always do, and then using our rational minds to invent excuses as to why, coincidentally, our way happens to be the right way. We can see this throughout the world: is it a coincidence that people born into social value systems magically adopt those systems? That people born in Islamic countries adopt Islam? That people born into liberal societies adopt liberal value sets?
We must face the fact that we often mindlessly adopt the home value systems of our home territory. This is because we are greatly influenced by social pressure. While this has benefits in terms of societal stability, it does not sit well with the good use of our critical faculties. Humans can think things through, and evaluate whether things are true or not. Be prepared to use these critical faculties well. This is essential if we want to maintain personal integrity, rather than simply follow the herd.
Whether you want to develop a good value system, apply it in the face of potential opposition, and review your decisions constantly, is up to you. No one will notice if you do the opposite. A huge number of people simply adopt the nearest value system, go along with it so as not to upset their friends, and then sit in habitual obedience as the easy way. That’s their choice.
I suggest that positive change can only happen if people use the active method of maintaining personal moral integrity. Otherwise, how can a society of sheep truly go anywhere new?
What are your values? Are you prepared to upset some people in applying them carefully? And do you have the humility and courage to be watchful over yourself, and to keep reviewing your own decisions?