Everyone you know tolerates dishonourable behaviour, a lack of integrity, and expects betrayal. More people than you might think have absolutely no idea why that is a pathology of self-harm and nihilism. It is the resignation or surrender to anti-humanism, rationalisation, which actually has nothing at all to do with rationality, and a personal betrayal of yourself, and of all those you say you love, honour and respect.
You doubt me?
What do politicians, business executives, judges, lawyers, police officers, accountants, and priests have in common? They are in the same profession really. That profession is lying to us. Sometimes because lies are what we want to hear from them. Sometimes because that’s what gets them what they want. Mostly because they have no conception any more of what is principle, what is integrity, what is honour, what is exception to a rule, and why betrayal is a kind of perverse self-flagellation that is in itself worthy of suspicion.
Still with me?
So, let me ask you, before you go on, define the word ‘principle’ without looking it up. Just what it means to you personally. Got it? Now define integrity, without looking it up. Have your answer? Now the same for honour.
I’ll take a guess that if you’re being honest about it you had some difficulty coming up with the words to do justice to the definitions I asked you to think about.
Here’s the thing: define betrayal the same way, without asking someone else or looking it up. I’m betting you had fewer problems coming up with a definition for that one. I even have a theory of why this might be so.
The theory is that you have greater direct experience of betrayal than you do of integrity, principle, and honour.
How did I come to that conclusion? Because I looked up those words on Wikipedia, several dictionaries, and in some philosophy texts. It struck me that the definitions of all those words, with the exception of betrayal, are completely meaningless without the singular context of principle, perhaps the most conspicuously void concept in contemporary Western debates.
What do I mean when I use the word principle?
Before we embark on any half-baked, undergraduate, smart-arse venture to hedge our bets about this one, let’s acknowledge that the words principle, integrity, honour, and betrayal already used above define a fairly clear context, which rules out math and other scientific theories for the purpose of this contemplation.
Principle, in the present context, is an internalised paradigm according to which you evaluate and judge. It is not formulaic. It is not amenable to doctrines or absolutes. It is your own internal ethics in the context of all you know about the world. It would be self-deception for you to confuse it with the self-betrayal and dishonesty of saying and doing what you think others believe to be right, or ‘just’, or honourable; that would be merely following orders or deceiving those around you.
Principle arises for you personally only through your own synthesis of everything you know, but particularly about circumstance and context, about what you ‘feel’ is right or wrong.
More than that, though, principle has integrity. That may be a hard concept to deal with because principle is not rigid enough to be entirely predictable, and therefore not formulaically dependable.
The integrity of a principle is that it does not make delusional exceptions to the application of principle in practice. That does not mean you will always form the same judgement and act the same way under similar circumstances. It just means that you will not turn a blind eye to your principles for the sake of, say, personal gain, social cachet, or peer pressure. If it’s not OK to lie to the tax man, then it’s not OK to lie to a business partner, or a client/customer, or anyone who approaches you in good faith as a member of your society, who is therefore a compatriot bound to you by social contract.
There aren’t any escape routes or technicalities, the way lawyers and politicians suggest there are. The law is not principle, and it has no integrity because it is entirely unpredictable how it will be applied or enforced until human actors are put into the mix. It is they who inject or drain principle and integrity.
Only human beings have the capacity to choose principle and integrity … or not. Letters and numbers on paper or a screen do not have the capacity to contain that quality, nor to be substitutes for it.
So, what I say to you is that principle without integrity is an empty word. Don’t use it to describe yourself unless you have the integrity not to abandon your principles for the sake of expediency. To do so would be to lie to yourself and to deceive all others around you.
It is not my intention to suggest that it’s honourable to follow orders and ‘serve’ your country, to focus on just one stereotype here. It is honourable to do that if your principles tell you this is the right or appropriate thing to do. It is not honourable to do ‘the honourable thing’ if all that means is doing what is expected, not what you know to be a principled, ‘right’ action.
Honour is the quality that makes you adhere to your principles even if this is to your disadvantage, like going to war and risking your life because you judge this to be necessary. It is admitting mistakes if your principles tell you that is what should happen. It is even changing your principles when faced with new insights that tell you this is what should happen; not as a matter of vacillation to suit mood and advantage, but as a matter of significant insight, the way you might refuse to obey, on principle, and against military law and precedent, the orders of a commanding officer who has been revealed to you as a potential or actual war criminal.
Honour is the pursuit of integrity, which is the adherence to principle. So how do you make all of this impossibly complex and apparently contradictory discipline work?
Judgement, every time
There is no escaping the fact that the only binding force that holds these concepts together, and that at the same time lubricates their moving and grinding parts, is judgement. Not someone else’s, but yours alone. Every time, not once and then accepted as eternally settled.
So, when you decided yesterday that it’s right and proper to think ill of someone for something said or done, you don’t get a free pass to forever judge that person as worthless. You make a new judgement today, and every time something new is said or done, and your estimation is the aggregate of your judgements, not a fixed category you apply once and for all time.
Judgement is no more formulaic than principle. It relies entirely on context and circumstance, the way a ‘drive-by’ shooting in a suburban neighbourhood is judged differently from enemy fire in a war zone.
As soon as you are too tired or blasé to form new judgements for every circumstance, and as soon as you reach for some settled stereotype, or some convenient calculus of relativity, you are no longer acting on principle, or with integrity, or with honour.
You might be asking yourself how you could possibly be that disciplined and get through your days. Unfortunately there is no shortcut, cheat sheet, or delegation to some external, higher power, because as soon as you do that you are not to be taken seriously any more. And you know that.
The reason I mentioned politicians, business executives, judges, lawyers, police officers, accountants, and priests when I started was that when you were a kid, chances are these people were held up to you as rôle models for honour, integrity, principled action, and, most importantly, for emulation.
Chances are that as you became aware that most of these people are actually liars, thieves, hypocrites and beholden to nothing more than self-interest and expediency, you might not have realised that you nevertheless held on to them as subconscious rôle models, which made it easier for you to become a liar, a thief, a hypocrite, a mercenary predator, stalking the expedient. No? Well, at the very least you accepted that the mercenaries were not honourable, and you slipped into a moral torpor of letting it go at that, and letting it go that increasing numbers of people all around you behave the same way.
And that makes you guilty, doesn’t it, of creating or collaborating with a tolerance for that kind of deceitfulness. You allow it to happen, so it’s OK for everyone else to allow it happen. Or is it that everyone else allows it to happen, and so you do as well? What’s the qualitative difference between these two types of culpability?
There is some sense of such culpability being like Nietzsche’s ‘Mensch’ staring into the abyss and finding that hollow, yawning, indifferent, inhuman chasm looking back. Or, perhaps, like you looking in a mirror one day and realising that all the nihilism in the society about you is in fact looking directly at you.
Still with me?
If you are, I have a confession to make. I lied to you. This entire harangue about your moral turpitude was a conversation with myself. All the second person pronouns to this point refer to me.
I misled you deliberately. Mea culpa.
Because I wanted you to think on this as a personal matter, so you would either understand or seek to understand the process I struggle with when I write, when I think, and when I act. Mostly so that you would know how some ‘other’ reaches conclusions.
It is a contemplation that arose directly from an angry and dispiritingly nihilistic interlocution. It is me looking for my own grounding in principle, in integrity, in honour. It is me asking whether I have these.
It is my realisation that maybe my process for doing that is opaque and mysterious to others. That my public writing and responses are seen as divorced from the always difficult struggle of reasoning.
Over to you
I will accept a third motivation as valid. That it is obsessively narcissistic navel gazing, seeking validation and approval. A process that has no real product except ego gratification.
Perhaps, though, if you’ve read this far, you actually engaged with the ideas here, and you might have some opinion that would enlighten me a little about how this works for other people. You get no answers worth a damn if you don’t risk the question, and you get no depth of commitment to an answer unless you put something on the table first.
What is your judgement?
Note on the images
Gargoyles at Magdalen College, Oxford University, by Chris Creagh, Wikimedia Commons.
The Langjökull Abyss by Ville Miettinen, (Helsinki, Finland, http://www.flickr.com/people/wili/), Wikimedia Commons.