Posted 9/13/96

"Integrity, Commitment and the Concept of a Person," American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 1 (January 1996), by Nancy Schauber (University of Richmond),

Reviewed by Duncan Richter (Virginia Military Institute)

s-drop.gif - 1.3 Kchauber argues that integrity is not a virtue. Her working definition of a virtue is "an admirable trait of persons that we should try to cultivate," (119) and she looks at both moral and nonmoral integrity. She considers two conceptions of moral integrity. One is integrity conceived as "a matter of doing what one believes is best," (119) and the other is steadfastness "in the name of worthy principles." (120) Both commitment to what seems best and commitment to what is best are identical with morality in general, Schauber claims. She concludes that if integrity is to be some distinct thing worth pursuing as a virtue it must be conceived of nonmorally.

It is worth questioning the claim that to identify integrity as doing what one believes is best is to identify it with virtue generally. Consider this example: Being a convinced ethical egoist, I virtuously fled the Bosnian Serb troops, leaving my family to fend for themselves. Noting that I did what I believed to be best is not, pace Schauber, "the same as noting that [I am] a good person." (120)

Let us turn now to the second form of moral integrity, integrity as steadfast "commitment to what is best." Schauber says that this kind of integrity is again just virtue generally and its core, steadfastness, is not in itself admirable because "A steadfast person may be worse than someone more inconstant." (120)

But steadfastness surely is admirable. At least it is widely admired. Of course what is admired is not the same as what is admirable (although there surely is a link), but steadfastness is a desirable quality, much like strength or determination. Whatever one's goal, steadfastness will help one attain it. Perhaps being useful is not the same as being moral, but at least according to some vaguely utilitarian conception of morality, integrity is a moral virtue. And this virtue need not be identical with morality or virtue in general.

Schauber focuses on what she calls nonmoral integrity, which is concerned with being true to oneself, being true to one's commitments, regardless of their nature. Here Schauber distinguishes between "active" and "passive" commitments. Active commitments involve the taking on of "special obligations and responsibilities." (120) A passive commitment "is a relation one finds oneself in by virtue of one's beliefs, or in virtue of one's concerns."(121)

Schauber considers two possible kinds of active commitment. The first kind is promises. But promising "essentially involves more than one person," (121) so a promise made to the self can only be made by a divided self, if at all, not an integrated one. The second conception of active commitments to self she offers is on the model of vows, solemnly undertaking to do something, or committing myself to something. Is this admirable? Schauber says that that depends on whether what I have vowed to do is good or bad. If, on the other hand, I vow to do something morally neutral, such as practice on the piano every night, what then? To keep a vow of this kind out of a concern for one's integrity is "morally suspect." (121)

Schauber implies that nothing is gained by keeping a vow to play the piano, except perhaps a spurious sense of self-righteousness. Apart from a probable improvement in one's playing, I think that a measure of self-respect would be gained (or at least not lost, as it might be if one quit). Schauber's question then would be whether this self-respect is admirable. I think it could be. There is certainly nothing admirable about quitting because of not feeling like going on. Another gain is in continuity in one's life. If I stick to certain ideals or projects throughout my life then my life will be more coherent than if I frequently change my mind. Integration of this kind is at least desirable, if not positively admirable.

This brings us to passive commitments. Because of their passivity, being true to such commitments is not a virtue because it is "virtually unavoidable." (122) On the other hand, "Attempting to retain a passive commitment that no longer has a grip on the agent is to turn it into dishonesty," (122) Schauber says. One might wonder about this. If I cease caring whether my father lives or dies and try to make myself care am I to be criticized for dishonesty or hypocrisy? Questions of honesty just do not seem relevant here.

Schauber, though, presumably has in mind someone who loses some commitments only to find new ones. Is there any point in trying to turn back the clock on such changes? Perhaps not, but being incapable of strong commitment is not admirable, so the capacity for lasting commitment, if not such commitment itself, seems virtuous.

To speak of trying to retain or regain a dying commitment is to recognize that one can be somewhat active in choosing one's passive comitments. Generally, though, Schauber does not speak in this way. She goes on to say that, "An integrity which endured with these features [i.e. thoughtlessness, lack of imagination, or a failure to get involved in the world] would hardly be interesting or admirable." (122) However, in the sense of being useful and agreeable, I think that even such integrity is virtuous in some people's eyes. People like and depend on reliability in others.

Unthinking commitment is not really admirable, and might be commitment to an evil cause. Still, courage and patience can serve bad purposes, yet they are virtues. Why not regard steadfastness, commitment or integrity the same way?

Schauber's main answer to this seems to be that one might try to be courageous or patient, but that one cannot try to have integrity in the sense of truth to one's passive commitments. But if I find myself falling out of love with my wife, then there is no inevitability about my never caring for her again. It is possible to make a marriage work, not just as a matter of being civil and doing one's duty (active commitment), nor just as a result of luckily finding oneself in love (passive commitment). Love can be cultivated. Mere trying does not guarantee success, but it is not simply a matter of putting oneself in the way of something and hoping to feel the right way. The truth is more complicated than Schauber's dichotomy of active, consciously chosen, commitments and passive, uncontrollable, discovered commitments allows for.