Integrity (part I) – in part but also whole

Looking at various dictionary definitions of integrity we may highlight two prominent aspects:

1) Integrity as quality of being whole & undivided

2) Integrity as normative & evaluative function of being true to one’s moral principles & values

Can we manage to integrate these two perspectives?  Let’s start by noticing where they diverge…

A caricature of someone who interprets integrity as wholeness… tends to speak of being non-judgmental, promotes healing, emphasises oneness, unconditional love and a free-spirited, uninterrupted flow of energy between you, me and that tree. “Give me a hug, we are all one interconnected life force”.

Similarly, a caricature of someone who interprets integrity as adhering to moral principles… speaks of discipline: “play your part”, “toe the line”, “show some character”, “walk the talk”, “be accountable and responsible”, “do the right thing, even if no one is looking”. This attitude is motivated by a sense of righteousness, justice and judgement.

None of us fit simply in the one category or the other… but we can view them as ethical perspectives we can take up:

1) an ethic of care & unconditional love

2) an ethic of justice & fairness

So, these perspectives are both, in a way, evaluative; focusing on praiseworthy or blameworthy actions. From the ethic of care we may consider how judgmental attitudes divide and fragment us.  From the ethic of justice, we may consider the need for good judgement, discernment to do the right thing and make good decisions. I hope we can see value in both and not treat them as either/or…

In my experience, most businesses & organisations are more focused on what they believe is the right thing to do and less about the care and contemplation needed. Thus, you hardly hear mentioned, “let us contemplate the beauty of our interconnectedness.” Or “our organization needs healing” (the root meaning of health being wholeness). Rather in terms of integrity, the focus is on identifying the bad apples, to screen them out, make transgressors pay, isolate them from society. Judge others for their lack instead of asking how we could be generous in connective care to flourish as a whole society. This over-emphasis on integrity as rightness, does not do the word ‘integrity’ justice. This is my motivation for exploring the concept from other angles: not to diminish the definition but rather to find a way to integrate our sense of justice with our sense of care.

‘Integrity’ comes from the Latin root ‘integer’, meaning ‘whole’. We still use the term in mathematics when we talk about whole (integer) numbers. We only arrive at fractions, when we start dividing.  

Here’s another way to look at wholeness: look at your phone, your whole phone. Now smash it with a brick. #thoughtexperiment #don’ttrythisathome. You will see bits of phone flying everywhere. These bits are fragments, not whole parts of the phone, though they may have been integral. Ergo, your phone is now not working anymore. If you carefully take your phone apart for repairs, you may note that the parts form a functioning whole, only if the parts are whole themselves. Hence, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, could not put your phone back together again, from those smashed fragments.

This is a way to look at personal integrity, in terms of being a whole and a part (an integral part). But ‘integral’ to what? 

When we don’t feel like we are a part of something, we ask: “What is my part in all this?” or “How do I fit in?” We feel isolated and ‘fragmented’, full of anxiety. We experience a sense of meaninglessness over it all.  Many of us have seriously questioned whether we form some integral part of humanity and the cosmos. Individual human beings can really seem insignificant in the bigger scheme of things.

I think we give ourselves a raw deal by confusing human being with human doing. Cause we really don’t seem to be doing all that well. Slowing down, so that we can look at our thought processes (which sit behind our actions), is worth it: to ensure that for all our effort we are at least part of the solution, not the problem. 

We all know the importance of critical thinking and yes, we need more of it to improve our judgement and decision making. However, what I see less of is caring and connective thinking. That is a thinking process where we suspend our judgments and assumptions, to notice the integral relationship of parts to a functioning whole. What David Bohm called, participatory thought (Bohmian Dialogue – Future Blog entry).

To bring this closer to home, when we use Integrity assessment or any assessment for that matter… are we only using it to judge other people? Let us be reminded that our aim is to improve our judgement and decision making, which should then also include being critical of the tools we use and how we use them. Let us then not forget to bring a connective and caring thinking to our work: an ethos of care and generosity as a potential path of healing towards wholeness. As from the ubuntu ethic: a person is a person because of other persons. That is, I am an integral part as I share and participate in our common humanity. 

Allow me to pause here… to leave space for your participation (end Part I) 

Johann L Botha
Dialogue enthusiast

P. S.
I view these blog posts as conversation starters… If you care for a connective and participatory thought process then hop on over to our Firefly Network, where we try to keep the conversations alive via our dialogue circles and collaborative inquiry into how we ought to go about our business. To host these type of dialogues in your organisations see #Integrity Dialogues