Has integrity become the preserve of the idealist?

Being honourable used to be something to aspire to; now, it just seems like a lofty ideal


Karen Ann Monsy

Published: Wed 23 Sep 2020, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Thu 1 Oct 2020, 4:47 PM

Is it just me or is there a shocking lack of integrity in the world today? Being honourable used to be something to aspire to; now, it just seems like a lofty ideal - something to teach in moral science classes, then corporately shove under the carpet as you get older and learn from the 'school of life'.
Does it matter at all whether you're downloading content illegally, using company resources for personal gains, or intentionally telling half-truths? The apathetic shrugs and blank looks that such questions are routinely met with stem from a simple root: everyone else is doing it - so the matter of right or wrong doesn't even get a look in. Ironic, considering the simplest definition for integrity is doing what's right even when there's nobody looking. 
But the trait now seems to have become the preserve of the idealist. Or worse, the foolish. Everyone sells out, so swallowing the bitter pill and getting on with it seems to be the easier philosophy to peddle. Who cares if you return extra change to the petrol pump attendant? The argument is that there's very little to gain, save for personal satisfaction; on the contrary, committing to integrity puts you on the back foot in a world where all your peers are getting ahead otherwise. 
I think what we're conveniently forgetting though is that our personal code of conduct is inextricably linked with our values. What we're writing off as personal satisfaction is actually self-respect. And the little things matter, because the problem only gets compounded as you go higher up the leadership chain. After all, if you can't be trusted in little things, it naturally follows that you won't be trustworthy in bigger things.  
I've been asking myself if leaders who don't display integrity make such decisions because of the position they're in. And then I'm reminded of Abraham Lincoln, whose commitment to honesty was so unflinching that his other widely accepted moniker was Honest Abe. Did you roll your eyes? You could. But the man was a president. If anyone could argue for compromises in the name of office, it would be him. Evidently, it is possible to display that level of moral fortitude, even in positions of power. 
It's not just about self-righteousness anyway. Integrity helps us respect the humanity of others. We recognise that they too have value and are as entitled to rights, and opportunities for growth, and happiness - just as we believe we are. It's respect for self, but also for the other. How can that not challenge us to do better? 
I wonder how old Abe would've fared in 2020. In his 1860 Cooper Union speech, Lincoln said, "Let us have faith that right makes might and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it." A hundred and sixty years on, the word 'dare' stands out to me, in particular. In the current era, integrity will require bravery - even temerity. But even if we fall short, I'd hope that we'd recognise that loss of character in ourselves, and resolve to grow.

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