Some considerations on integrity

by Eric

When teaching business ethics, the a frequent general question one gets is, “Well, what is integrity?” (That’s after “Well, what’s ethics?”) This is my brief attempt at setting out some of the ideas of one could use to deal with this sort of question.

 I. Defining integrity

A good general definition of integrity is that a person or organization has integrity when that person or organization identifies with and normally implements a reasonable moral standpoint (or the relevant part thereof), especially under circumstances in which the prudential value for that person or organization of that identification and implementation is compromised. We can break this definition down in order to come to a more complete understanding of the notion of integrity:

1. “…a person or organization…”: There are often debates about whether or not firms can be understood to have moral obligations by virtue of being in some sense ‘persons’. Without getting into the details of this, we can be safe in saying the following:

a. Firms are not ‘natural’ persons, with all that this implies, in terms of general moral significance.

b. Firms can count, however, as rational agents—as unities that act and are responsible for their actions. In as much as the typical firm is sufficiently integrated in terms of its communication (internal and external), its decision-making and policy-making processes, and its implementation procedures, the firm is a single entity which can deliberate over options, choose the one it finds best, and bring about effects in the world by acting on it. Thus, a firm has a character and capacities for deliberation, choice, and action. On this basis we can say that firms can have more or less integrity, since they can have policies (to which they either adhere or not) and these policies are informed by some moral standpoint (reasonable or not).

2. “…identifies with…”: It is not sufficient for a person to have integrity to follow rules or act to promote values that are imposed on him/her from outside (by another person, the government, etc.). Integrity implies the integration of the person. Thus, in order for an entity to have integrity, it must be beholden to its own standards. A person does not exhibit genuine integrity if she refuses to falsify a report because she is afraid she’ll get caught or even because she knows that that is what her superiors would want her to do. Integrity, at least in its full sense, would require that she refuse to falsify the report because she identifies with the values that make the report necessary or required (e.g., transparency, honesty, compliance with the regulations of a legitimate government, etc.).

3. “…normally implements…”: A person or firm that identifies with a norm of, say, honesty, must, in order to embody integrity, actually “live out” (whatever that may mean in the context) the moral standpoint identified with. In the absence of this implementation, there is little reason to take that identification seriously. A person of integrity distinguishes herself by being capable and consistent in that implementation.

4. “…a reasonable moral standpoint…”: Moral standpoints are ideals, principles, attitudes or goals pertaining to matters of moral concern (such as well-being, respect, self-interest, the good of society, friendship, honesty, etc.) that guide a person in her conduct and her attitudes. A moral standpoint need not be either worked-out or explicitly thematized from a third-person perspective, but it must be one that the person herself can rely upon as a guide in many, though not necessarily all, cases in which moral issues arise. A moral standpoint can relate to one particular issue or set of issues, e.g. lying or cheating; alternatively, it can be constituted by a set of—more or less related—attitudes, principles, etc., e.g. all of those involved in treating other persons in a fair way. What it is for a moral standpoint (or a person) to be reasonable will be explicated below.

5. “…especially under circumstances in which the prudential value for that person or organization of that identification and implementation is compromised…”: The issue of integrity as a rule emerges in connection with a choice between prioritizing moral as opposed to prudential considerations, that is, when adherence to moral standards is either costly or deprives of subject from some potential benefit. In such situations, acting on one’s moral considerations often cannot be taken for granted, which motivates looking upon integrity as a virtue.  


II. Etymology

‘Integrity’ comes from the Latin integritas, which means ‘wholeness’ or ‘being intact’. Integrity also has the connotation of moral fortitude in the face of adversity, and integer could be translated ‘upright’ as in Horace’s Ode 1.22: “Integer uitae scelerisque purus/
non eget Mauris iaculis neque arcu” (A man who is upright and pure/does not need Moorish spears or a bow).

A relatively common understanding of integrity simply equates it with honesty and keeping one’s agreements (Minkler 2008, 1-12); but this is too narrow. We would not want to say that integrity always requires honesty, since there will be cases in which acting in a morally reasonable way may require deception or dishonesty (say, if one has promised to keep a secret and must deny knowledge of it). Nor is keeping an agreement, especially in the context of an organization, necessary for integrity. If you have agreed to help someone move out of their flat but discover that the person is packing boxes with some of his flatmate’s property, then it would be a sign of a lack of integrity if you upheld the agreement. In a corporate setting, you may find that your predecessor in your position at the company has promised preferential treatment to a particular vendor. Your integrity (as the occupant of that position) and the integrity of your company does not require that you keep that promise—quite the opposite.           

The following sections will first point out the formal character of integrity, which leaves it open to potential misuse, and subsequently explore its actual moral content (under the term ‘reasonableness’

III. Integrity as a formal virtue and its hazards 

The formal character of the above definition can be removed by giving a specification to reasonableness (below). In spelling out the nature of integrity and which cases and instances exhibit integrity (or exhibit best or most paradigmatically), a certain measure of vagueness and contestedness will be ineliminable. This is a characteristic of ethical discourse, though, which the point of which is just as much to register disagreements as it is to solicit agreement.

 It is to be noted about the use of the term ‘integrity’ that, given its formality, it can easily slip from the status of a morally substantial term that marks out a pattern of behavior or set of dispositions that really do call for our approbation to one of a slogan or dodge,  used in a way analogous to appeals to environmental values that, as it happens, only amount to rhetorical ‘greenwashing.’ While lip service is paid, there is no commitment, or at least none that is not easily defeated by potential benefits or harms. 

 ‘Integrity’ be abused this way as well when it is used to excuse behavior that is inflexible, insensitive to context, or narrowly moralistic. Refusal to renegotiate a contract with a supplier when it meets unexpected problems (destruction of facilities by fire), is not necessarily a sign of integrity (or the demand that others act with integrity), but may well be just stinginess or lack of flexibility and commitment to stakeholders. To demonstrate this point further, it is not the case that such a refusal is necessarily wrong—not everything that is acceptable is a sign of integrity.

In business discourse, ‘leadership’ is another term that has this potential. While we can give some concrete content to the notion of leadership, it is easy to ignore uncomfortable implications of trying to live it out in one’s role as a manager or a CEO. While it is plausible to say that integrity or responsibility have to be inculcated into the company from the top (a common slogan), with the CEO personally setting an example, this might be hard to square with the insistence that CEO- and other company officer-level compensation really is (that is, should be) a matter of market forces, even when the company has, for instance, been involved in financial schemes of a morally and even legally dubious nature. Arguably, under such circumstances, consideration of moral virtues of a personal and professional nature, integrity among them, would recommend pay and benefit cuts for the heads of the company.

This sort of self-deceptive or manipulative misuse of moral terms might be called, depending the valence of the relevant term, ‘approbation drift’ or ‘disapprobation drift.’ There are at least two ways that one can cope with this. One is to read widely and pick out through dispassionate reflection examples of real persons or fictional characters who exhibit integrity and use those examples as guides to your thinking about actually problems. Richly elaborated exemplars can provide content for your moral reflection about integrity, and having chosen them yourself through your own cultural and personal predilictions you are likely to be able to work with them effectively. A second is to think about the integrity issue as if no one were to ever know what your decision was. Imagining the decision situation this way leaves you just with the issue itself, and not a further issue of social perception which can lead into the slide into sloganizing rather than genuine moral thinking.        

IV. A reasonable moral standpoint

‘Reasonable’, when applied to a person, has connotations such as ‘non-dogmatic,’ ‘willing to compromise,’ ‘open to new evidence,’ ‘aware of the effects of his actions on others and their significance to those others,’ ‘aware of the likely consequences of his actions,’ and ‘willing to do his part for a group of which he is a member when his turn comes.’ A person or organization that formulates a moral standpoint in a way that makes exceptions for him- or itself lacks both reasonableness and integrity in that respect. What is central to these connotations is that a reasonable person is significantly motivated by the requirement of being able to justify his views and  actions to others and is significantly cognizant of the difficulty of arriving at a final or complete justification, acceptable to any thinking person, about a wide range of moral matters.[2]

A moral standpoint is unreasonable if it

A. precludes the regarding other persons as worthy of basic respect;

B. implies that those who occupy that standpoint are inherently in a privileged relation to the truth, which cannot be justified or explained to others;

C. is baldly egoisitic or fundamentally cynical about moral reasoning;

D. requires that persons mechanically apply principles to situations or blindly follow ideals regardless of context;

E. allows for ignoring or not inquiring into the risks one’s actions make others vulnerable to or allow for only cursory review of such matters when the stakes for others are very high (e.g., one or a few persons stand to be harmed greatly or many persons are put at non-trivial risk);

F. sanctions free-riding and denies the importance of impartiality in moral judgment;

G. demands, in game-theoretic terms, that one always cooperate with defectors or, more colloquially, that persons or organizations patently disregard their own interests and moral standing and act in self-destructively altruistic ways.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Conditions (A) and (B) are fundamental to recognizing others as morally and epistemically significant. Conditions (C) and (D) address very basic errors into which practical deliberation and evaluation can fall unless persons remain both sincere and critically reflective. Condition (E) requires that a moral standpoint take into account others as vulnerable to one’s actions and requires the recognition that vulnerability comes in degrees. Conditions (F) and (G) loosely specify a standard of reciprocity: a reasonable moral point of view enjoins that I should do my part when my turn comes, but that I am not obligated to do “my” part when others are negligent in doing theirs.

It should be noted is that the above negative characterization is compatible with a wide variety of moral standpoints, secular and religious. On the one hand, on the basis of this characterization integrity remains a somewhat formal virtue; on the other hand, if it is plausible, we can accommodate different moral viewpoints and acknowledge the integrity of others whose moral position is reasonable without actually sharing that position.

 IV. Professional integrity

Integrity stands out paradigmatically when the person who has integrity acts in a way that resists or ignores temptations to deviate from her reasonable moral standpoint. However, persons are often required by the demands of their profession or job to adopt a different (and perhaps conflicting) moral standpoint than that from which they would take guidance in non-professional, non-work contexts. We should distinguish, then, between the difference between the general integrity of persons and the professional integrity that may be expected of them by virtue of their organizational role and responsibilities.

How seriously, though, should we take the idea of role-based integrity? It would seem that if a role is itself of little moral significance then integrity in that role need not be particularly important either. This is especially a problem for white-collar work in our age. 

Persons move from one position to another with a great deal of frequency, which might make it difficult for them to identify morally with the requirements of any particular role or job. The question in a business context is: can we make sense out of specifically business integrity or the integrity of managers and CEOs? In this section I will make the case that we can, with reference to the idea of professionalism.

Just as we expect doctors to give each patient the appropriate standard of care or refer them to another doctor who can, we expect managers to not use the firm’s resources for their own personal benefit or to act contrary to sound business judgment. We also expect managers to treat employees impartially and to not allow personal friction between themselves harm the work environment. Of course, managers frequently fail at these tasks. Those failures are recognizable as failures because of our expectations of professional integrity. Professional integrity is, as these examples suggest, a way of specifying and filling out the notion of integrity, as applied to a specific role (rather than to a person in general). Where then do these standards of professional integrity come from?

A professional is generally beholden to certain standards or norms that are (partly) constitutive of the subject matter of their profession and its attendant institutions. Doctors and lawyers have obligations to the health care profession and delivery system and to the courts. The professional integrity of doctors requires collegiality with other doctors, staying abreast of the literature in their specialization, and avoiding compromising entanglements with suppliers and other organizations, such as pharmaceutical companies. While we expect defense lawyers work hard for their clients, they clearly have duties to the court that supersede the duty of doing what they can to ensure that their clients are not convicted—they cannot conceal evidence, for instance.

There is a great deal to be said about professional integrity and the extent to which business managers are appropriately thought to be professionals (and what that signifies). On a “romantic view,” a professional exhibits integrity through selfless devotion to his or her calling. Profit, prestige, and influence are pursued only to ensure that the professional can adequately participate in his or her field (Schaefer 1984, 270). This might not apply convincingly to business managers; at the same time, there is an important grain of truth in it. Plato, in the Republic, has Socrates distinguish between various arts such as doctoring and shepharding and the “money-making art.” The point of this distinction is to show that the arts (which we might now call skilled labor or work that requires expertise) as such look to the good of that of which they are arts—to continue the examples, the human body and the herd of sheep. The money-making art is the art of extracting from others a wage for having done the work characteristic of one of the other arts. What I want to draw from these points is that while the manager as a professional rightly wants to be remunerated (and perhaps quite handsomely) for his or her services, it is not as a money-maker that the manager is a professional.[3] 

But, is management an art in the relevant sense? Do managers have a common fund of expertise and educational background analogous to that of lawyers and doctors? Thomas Donaldson is optimistic on this score:

Now, when it comes to business practitioners, the issue of whether they truly count as “professionals” is indisputable for the “knowledge and skill set” component of the definition. Trained business practitioners clearly possess a skill set and draw on a pool of knowledge (Donaldson 2000, 89).


By “business manager” I refer to those who are formally trained in the skills designed to effect successful management, to, for example, the students who graduate from MBA and undergraduate business programs. The instrumental skills of the manager are entirely relative to the conception of the function of the corporate organization. A successful manager is one who serves the corporation as an agent well, achieving the ends of the organization successfully” (Donaldson 2000, 89-90).

Donaldson concludes this train of observations by questioning whether or not business professional serve the common good, echoing Schaefer’s point (see also Donaldson 2000, 90-1).

Though individual professions (physicians, lawyers) have fairly specific criteria for what should count as a profession and standards of professional integrity, there is no reason to simply take their criteria as correct and given. Licencing boards, professional organizations (e.g., the AMA), and so on seem to be specific institutional expressions of implicit standards of competence, ideals, practices that are more widely shared—what we could call the “culture” of the profession. Professional integrity might best be understood not as a matter of membership and loyalty to particular institutions, but rather to these implicit standards and practices themselves. The expressed institutions serve to more effectively continue the culture of the profession. As Christoph Heintz has put it (his example is professional science):

Institutionalization is a common mode of fixing parts of the cultural environment. Many cultural particularities are stabilized partly because they are used as means for identity formation. There is, in these cases, a process of self-maintenance: people adopt the cultural features to manifest their identity, and the identity itself exists because people have adopted the cultural features. Some institutions regulate much more than the distribution of their constitutive representations. Systems of reputation are such institutions. For instance, the modes of attribution of prestige and visibility to scientists and their work are institutionalized in journals’ reviewing processes and other assessment procedures. In turn these reputation systems constrain and structure the flow of scientific representations (Heintz 2007, 248).

So, despite the fact that managers do not have organizations such as the American Medical Association, firms, the market, and business schools themselves could work as institutions that constitute and propogate a culture of professional integrity, perhaps now nascent, for managers. There also exist such institutions as Chambers of Commerce that, while not in the position to “licence” managers or examine them for integrity and competence as a state bar might in the American legal profession, can serve as institutional focal points for propogating standards of managerial integrity.

If we do want to pin down one area where we might look for standards of professional integrity for managers, we might look to the rules imposed on managers and corporations by one of the most important markets in the world. The New York Stock Exchange requires each listed company to have a code of conduct that addresses the following issues:

1. Conflicts of Interest. Avoid conflict or potential conflict between an individual’s personal interests and those of the organization.

2. Corporate Opportunities. Do not use corporate information or assets for personal gain.

3. Confidentiality. Do not disclose nonpublic information that could benefit competitors or harm the organization.

4. Fair Dealing. Abstain from any unfair treatment of customers, suppliers, competitors, and employees, such as concealment, abuse of privileged information, and misrepresentation of material facts.

5. Protection and Proper Use of Assets. Use assets efficiently and avoid theft, carelessness, and waste.

6. Compliance with Laws, Rules, and Regulations. Proactively promote compliance.

7. Encouraging the Reporting of Any Illegal or Unethical Behavior. Proactively promote ethical behavior and do not allow retaliation for reports made in good faith (NYSE Corporate Accountability and Listing Standards Committee 2002, 21-2).

Presumably, these requirements are seen as important to the proper functioning of the market by the NYSE. It is also notable that the breach of each of these rules could be understood as a failure of integrity. This is a good example of a business institution making explicit standards of conduct that are implicit in the practice of business and defining professional integrity for managers and CEOs.

 V. Conclusion

This is meant to be a work in progress, not simply because it cannot be a complete account of integrity. As I learn from students (and from instructors who learn from students) these consideration would have to be expanded and refined. This is just to say that the classroom where theory and practice meet an inform each other, not just in subject matters such as operations research and marketing, but in how to live Horace’s upright life.

[2] My understanding of reasonableness is influenced by Rawls 1996, 48ff. and Scanlon 1998, 162, 191ff .

[3] See Plato Republic 341c-343a.