"no harm, no foul"
Friday, August 29, 2003
INTEGRITY AS A VALUE: Is there any value to integrity, discernable apart from, e.g., the cause one is committed to, or the beliefs one strives to uphold in the face of adversity? I’ve been thinking of this question lately, in regard to those who are protesting the removal of the Ten Commandments monument from an Alabama courthouse. Isn’t there something admirable about those who are resisting the monument’s move, even if we might (as I do) disagree with them about whether such a monument in a public place is a good idea? Don’t they embody the value of “standing for something” or “sticking up for what they believe in”?

This particular question is part of what might be considered a skepticism about “formal virtues.” We might ask the same sort of question about the virtue of courage, e.g., whether there is anything admirable about being courageous in defense of a bad or wicked cause. And the question here, framed more generally, would be about whether there was anything intrinsically valuable about just being courageous, of facing down danger. Courage, isolated like this, is what I’m calling a “formal” virtue, because we’re considering it apart from the content, viz., what one is being courageous about.

I’m inclined to think that there is no intrinsic value to the formal virtues – that integrity or courage are on their own valuable, that is, valuable abstracted from any specification about what one has integrity about, or what one is courageous for. There are two ways of putting this point. The first way is to say just what I said, that courage is only valuable when one is, e.g., courageous in fighting an evil cause, and standing down danger in defense of that cause. The same thing with integrity: it’s only valuable when one sticks up for what is genuinely right and good. When you stand up for something wrong, or trivial, or misguided, your integrity isn’t admirable. So we might say that the protesters in Alabama have integrity, but that in itself doesn’t make them worthy of admiration. There’s nothing intrinsically good about their integrity, because they’re standing up for bad beliefs (about the relationship between church and state, about whether America is a “Christian Nation”).

But there’s a second way we can put this point, which I tend to favor. We can say that words like “courage” and “integrity” are words that are only properly applied when the cause they are in the service of is right and good. In cases where the cause is bad, courage and integrity aren’t demonstrated – rather, courage in support of an evil cause is “zealousness” (or something like that); integrity in standing up for a bad belief is “stubbornness” or even “pigheadedness.” On this reading, the content of the virtue in question affects whether or not we call it a virtue. Put another way, there’s no neutral virtue of “integrity” which someone might have, which can be abstracted from the content question of whether the cause the person is standing up for is good or not. The broader point might be that we can’t define the virtues as virtues apart from a conception of the good.

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