This is the first tango philosophy post in quite a while... years, in fact. I've been inspired to revive the blog by a couple of factors. First, I've recently decided to stop teaching (ordinary) philosophy in a university setting, and to devote more of my time to writing. I've got a feeling that a lot of that writing will end up being in the spirit of tango philosophy (as defined in the very first post to this blog, back in 2007).
Second, and more immediately, I was provoked to think about integrity by a discussion that recently took place on Sujato's blog. The comment I wrote turned into an essay, too long to post as a comment. So here it is, the tango philosophy approach to integrity (in which moral philosophy dances with Buddhist practice and personal experience)...
What is it, to show integrity? One understanding would be that it is to stand up for what you believe, regardless of whether other people like it or not, and regardless of the price you must pay for refusing to compromise or pretend or remain silent. The price may be the loss of relationships, and the alienation of people who have previously supported you. This is surely painful, but if you value integrity, you might consider that it is worse to betray your own convictions.
I used to identify strongly with this vision of integrity. I remember, many years ago when I was studying law, I did a course on the Holocaust. The teacher passionately believed that former Nazis should be hunted down and punished, preferably killed, by legal or if necessary, illegal means. He seemed to have the courage of his convictions – he’d been involved in street fights with neo-Nazis in his own country. I spoke up against the vengefulness that I saw in this approach, and in favour of an analysis of the Holocaust, and appropriate responses to it, in terms of collective responsibility. I think the teacher respected the fact that I was willing to articulate my position, although he didn’t agree with it. What disturbed me most was not his views, but the fact that no one else in the class spoke up against them, even though several people privately told me that they agreed with me and admired me for speaking out. I remember one day leaving the law school building in tears, in despair over what I saw as the lack of integrity of my classmates, and their failure to support me publicly even when they agreed with my objections. And these were people who intended to take up the responsibility of maintaining our justice system! It was an odd situation – the person I identified with most easily was the one whose views I found abhorrent, because at least he had the courage to say what he really thought. He had some integrity!
But is standing up for what you believe all there is to integrity? What if what you believe is that people belonging to a certain category deserve to be killed? Do we want to say that a person can display integrity in proclaiming a message of hatred? The honesty and openness with which such a person expresses his views and feelings might contain seeds of integrity, but I think there must be more to integrity than this.
There’s a phrase in the Metta Sutta that has given rise to some dispute. The phrase describes the way of enlightenment, and is sometimes translated as “not holding to false views,” sometimes as “not holding to fixed views” (these are not the only options). This difference in translation reflects a difference in practice. Some say that to follow the Buddha means that we must free ourselves from false views and hold to true ones. This suggests that a person of integrity is one who sees the truth and is willing to speak it and to live by it. Standing up for false views is not integrity, it’s stubbornness, arrogance, or simply foolishness.
Others say that to follow the Buddha means that we must loosen our attachments to all views, recognizing that our grasp on the truth is only ever partial. To hold tightly to any fixed view prevents us from listening to and learning from other perspectives. This opens up a different vision of integrity, one that has at least as much to do with listening as with speaking our truth. A person of great integrity would be one who can “integrate” a great number of different perspectives, who can see the grains of truth (and separate them from the chaff) on all sides of an argument. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, such a person would know how to keep the door of their heart open to all, to the snake as well as to the frog who is eaten by the snake… or to the provocative lecturer as well as to the quiet student who disagrees with him but never says what she thinks. Standing up for views, even true ones, is not integrity if it leads us to reject those who think or behave differently to us.
While I might have shown integrity in articulating my views in that class on the Holocaust, it wasn’t integrity that made me burst into tears on the steps of the law school. At that point I was angry because I was convinced that I was in the right, and everyone else was in the wrong – I believed that I was the only student in that class who cared about the truth, while everyone else was only selfishly interested in getting a good grade. And that thought made me feel simultaneously superior to the others, and very lonely and sorry for myself. I now think that a mature sense of integrity would have allowed me both to state my objections to the lecturer’s views, and to have remained equanimous, or at least curious rather than furious, when I discovered that no one else was prepared to speak up on my side of the argument.
Interestingly, in this situation I was not overly fixed on the view that I would still hold to be true – that vengeance and punishment of individuals is not the best way to respond to collective crimes. This idea I was prepared to put into the space of public debate. I was willing to listen to counter-arguments, consider exceptions and to revise my view in response to them. (You can see some of the results, years later, here.) The view I was really fixated on – that the only honourable way to respond to the lecturer’s statements was to speak up against them – was not one that I clearly articulated, even to myself (it’s hard to articulate clearly when you’re sobbing). Now that I have identified it, I can immediately see that it isn’t true: another valid and perhaps even more effective response in this context was to refuse to be drawn by the more extreme aspects of the lecturer’s argument, simply to let them fall away into silence.
This leads me to speculate that perhaps the difference in translation I mentioned earlier can be reconciled. Maybe it’s only false views that get fixed and bound up with our emotions, so that we become enraged or fearful when they are triggered or threatened. In this case, false views and fixed views would be one and the same. Views that point toward the truth, on the other hand, never really get “fixed” in this damaging way. They are of the nature to be held lightly, open to new developments. This is why we can take pleasure in throwing them out into open debate, and let them get tossed around in argument without concern: we have confidence that they will not only survive, but be improved in the process, their rough edges smoothed away or transformed into new points of interest.
Recently, I found myself in a rather different situation in which I felt my sense of integrity was again being tested. I was at a dinner for my brother-in-law’s 40th birthday, held at a fancy restaurant. He and my sister were picking up the tab for all of us, a gesture that is typical of their generosity. One of his friends started posing moral conundrums of the “you’re in a train that’s about to hit five innocent track-workers, and you can divert it onto a different track where a child is playing, meaning that the child will be killed but the workers will be saved. What do you do?” type. (These are the questionable legacy of utilitarian philosophers to dinner party conversation.)
He asked me to suppose that immediately after a disaster, I found my sister (who at that moment was sitting directly opposite me) on the verge of death, and five other people who were also injured but whose chances of survival were much better than my sister’s. There was a chance that if I devoted all my attention to my sister and abandoned the five strangers to their deaths, she would survive. On the other hand, if I attended to the strangers and abandoned my sister, she would certainly die, but all five of them would probably survive. What would I do?
Somewhat startled, I played for time by asking how likely it was that my sister would live if I gave my attention to her. My brother evilly upped the stakes by suggesting that even with my help her chances of survival were extremely slight – but there was still the slim possibility that she might live… I remained silent, while my sister looked at me intently with an unusual expression, hovering between confidence and accusation. Someone else spoke and the conversation went off on a tangent I don’t recall – but the reprieve was temporary. The dinner-party philosopher wasn’t going to let me off. By the time he had reiterated the question, I was ready: “I’d save my sister. Logically, I ought to save the other five, but…” My sister finished the sentence for me, “the connection is stronger.” Clearly, in her mind there was no doubt: I had made the morally correct choice.
To be honest, I wasn’t so sure. I had not come up with any watertight moral argument – or indeed any argument at all - to justify favouring my sister’s life over the other five. However it had occurred to me that if I answered differently my sister would feel hurt, even horrified, at the thought that I could contemplate abandoning her in her moment of greatest need. I will probably never find myself in the hypothetical situation, and if I do, it won’t be as I imagined it. To my mind the real moral conundrum I faced was how best to answer this question in front of my sister. And from this perspective, I also felt no doubt that I answered it correctly. So strong was this feeling that as I spoke I also felt sure that what I was saying was true. Not as a statement about what I would do in a counter-factual situation, but in a more direct, self-evident sense. In that very moment I was choosing to save my sister – I was putting her feelings and my relationship with her ahead of any interest I or the five or so other people participating in the conversation at our end of the table had in pursuing the philosophical discussion.
Did I show integrity, or a lack of integrity in answering this way?
I began this piece by suggesting that the price to be paid for integrity may well be the “loss of relationships, and the alienation of people who have previously supported you.” In this situation I gave an answer I couldn’t justify in terms of beliefs, in order to take care of a relationship with someone who is important to me. My response wasn’t intellectually impressive. It didn’t fit with my image of myself as someone who values and is good at philosophical argument. In this sense, my sense of identity was challenged. And yet I wouldn’t say I felt a loss of integrity. It seemed to me that I had responded intuitively to the demands of the present moment; my answer was “integrated” with my sister’s needs in a way that an abstract discussion of principles would not have been. This was in harmony with the value I place not only on my relationship with her, but more generally on practices of kindness, awareness and sensitivity.
I still think it is important to stand up for what you believe, and I greatly admire those who manage to weaken the power of false or fixed views by opposing them with cogent arguments and fearless gestures. But now it seems to me that such effective examples of integrity depend not only upon courage and conviction, but also the flexible wisdom of an attentive mind and the steadfast kindness of an open heart.