How The Light Gets In: Hilary Lawson on Integrity

The creative director of the philosophy and music festival, filmmaker/philosopher Hilary Lawson, on the troublesome concept of integrity

Court artist drawing of former energy secretary Chris Huhne and his ex wife Vicky Pryce appearing at the Magistrates Court in London

Politicians promise us integrity. Business leaders defend theirs. Some clamour for it and lament any lack of it vocally. But what is it? Honesty and adherence to principles or a plot on the moral high ground? As a concept, integrity seems rather out of fashion, perhaps even somewhat Victorian. In recent months and years we have seen a host of public figures who have slipped up when it comes to their honesty or their morals – take March’s flavour of the month, Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce – and tellingly for many of these ‘slipping up’ can simply mean leaving oneself open to discovery rather than acting without integrity in the first place. But the expectation is no less palpable than ever; if the voter, the fan, or the customer is the setter of fashion, integrity is always in vogue. And even those whose professions are not traditionally held up as moral exemplars cannot hide behind this if they are in the public eye. While calls for integrity remain what is expected becomes ever more various. What we’re dealing with is the difference between one person’s conception of right and wrong and those of another, and another, and another… a gap out of which a great proportion of debate and disagreement emerge. One person’s principled stand is another’s criminal behaviour. One person’s deceit is another’s necessary secrecy. Did Wikileaks demonstrate the lack of integrity of the world’s leaders, or the character of diplomacy? Was the provision of this information itself an act of integrity or did it show a callous disregard for the consequences? Did Tony Blair pursue his own beliefs with integrity or was he a deceitful liar? While integrity is frequently used to refer to actions and beliefs we approve of, its origin is much more specific. Coming from the Latin integer: oneness, completion, wholeness – it indicates a coherence of ideas, beliefs and actions. Surprising though it maybe, integrity is not essentially a moral concept. Integrity demands internal consistency but it doesn’t require attachment to any particular outlook or code of behaviour. A case could be made for the integrity of a Stalin or Hitler just as much as for a Churchill or Roosevelt.

So why might this unity of person be important to us? When Frazer wrote The Golden Bough a century and more ago, morality was widely thought to be absolute and objective. It was his comparative description of religion charting beliefs of hundreds of different groups and tribes that first led us to see our system of beliefs and morals as dependent on our cultural perspective. Since then moral relativism has become ever more prevalent. What is one culture’s heinous crime, is another’s righteous and courageous act – no more vividly seen than in the attack on New York’s twin towers. In our relativistic age where are we to find a foundation on which to build a code of behaviour? And it is here that just perhaps integrity, a notion that has nothing inherently in common with morality, might enable us to find some footing in a world of shifting sand. For while an eternal framework of objective moral rules may be a fantasy, and some might argue a dangerous one at that, integrity encourages a consistency of thought and behaviour that requires each of us to create their own sense of self and morality. And perhaps that sense of morality is the best that we can hope for. The nature and potential of integrity are subjects I’ll be examining further with Joanna Kavenna and Parashkev Nachev later this month in a debate entitled True to Myself at How The Light Gets In, the world’s largest philosophy festival. This year’s theme at the festival is Error, Lies and Adventure, and will explore many facets of integrity and its role, be it Michael Howard investigating whether all politicians are liars, Stephen Frears discussing if there can be such a thing as truth in artistic and literary representations of life, or an esteemed group of scientists and philosophers chewing over how prepared we should be to change our minds and shift our understanding. At the centre of our theme is the idea that by identifying the errors in our thinking we are able to uncover potential and find fresh intellectual adventure and new ways to live. Accepting our errors and finding new ways to be is also seemingly at odds with the idea of integrity and holding firm to one’s beliefs. So maybe integrity has its limits as well.

Hilary Lawson will be speaking at HowTheLightGetsIn, the world’s largest philosophy festival, held annually from 23rd May-2nd June, in Hay-on-Wye