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Sunday, 3 February 2013





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Integrity lies beyond honesty

Everyone knew that Abraham Lincoln was a capable lawyer, but he was very choosy when it came to accepting cases. One day, Lincoln listened to a client for some considerable time and then gazing abstractedly on the ceiling, he swung around his chair and told him, “Well, you have a pretty good case in technical law, but a pretty bad one in equity and justice. You will have to get some other fellow to defend you. I cannot possibly do it. While talking to the jury, I would be thinking, ‘Lincoln, you’re a liar,’ and I believe I should forget myself and say it aloud.”

Although some of the lawyers practising at present may not endorse Lincoln’s views for obvious reasons, his ideas confirmed that he was a man of integrity. At a time psychology, philosophy and jurisprudence had not developed, Lincoln along with several other men and women stood by their principles without going along with the crowd.

The word “integrity” comes from the Latin adjective “integer” meaning “whole or complete.” Integrity is the inner sense of “wholeness” deriving from qualities such as honesty and consistency of character.

When Ethics was a subject for the Advanced Level examination a few decades ago, students learnt that integrity was regarded as the honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one’s actions.

Sense of satisfaction

Integrity is not merely a concept of academic interest. As we grow old, we often sit back and reflect on things we have accomplished. We often wonder whether our lives were well spent or wasted. If a man can feel a sense of satisfaction with the way he had lived his life, he will enjoy integrity, a basic sense of wholeness or of being complete.

Abraham Lincoln, a paragon of integrity

If a man is unable to feel a sense of satisfaction, he will be overwhelmed by a sense of despair. During the retirement years, a man’s prime concern should be to achieve ego integrity. Those who are unable to do so can look back on their lives with a sense of satisfaction. Those who are not fortunate to do so have the tendency to dwell on the mistakes of the past and bemoan the paths not taken.

As a result, they will contemplate with bitterness the fast approaching death. Facing death stoically in a spirit of acceptance is far superior to wallowing in regret and resentment.

First duty

We can draw inspiration from men and women of integrity who are no longer with us. Confusius, the celebrated Chinese philosopher, believed that a person’s first duty was to be virtuous. While Abraham Lincoln applied integrity to law, United States Congresswoman Barbara Jordan remained a model of honesty in politics. Martin Luther King led the Reformation Movement against the existing church with honesty and unflinching courage.

Philosophers down the ages considered integrity in the context of accountability. On many occasions integrity serves as a measure of willingness to adjust a value system to maintain or improve its consistency. Lincoln as a lawyer did just that before declining to defend one of his prospective clients. Sometimes integrity, as a virtue, gives rise to moral responsibility.

On the other hand, integrity involves personal honesty or acting according to one’s beliefs and values. Philosopher Ayn Rand considered that integrity does not consist of loyalty to one’s subjective whims, but of loyalty to rational principles.

Value system

In common parlance, we use the word “integrity” to refer to a single “absolute morality” rather than to the assumption of a value system. In this sense, “integrity” conveys no meaning to those with differing definitions of “absolute morality.” Then it becomes a vague assertion of perceived political correctness or popularity. In other words, integrity is synonymous with virtue in a moral sense.

Law Professor Stephen L. Carter says that integrity needs three steps: “Discerning what is right and what is wrong. acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost; and saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right from wrong.” Prof. Carter regards integrity as being distinct from honesty.



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