Integrity is the sort of subject that most properly demands philosophical silence. If it is spoken about at all, it should be spoken about in others. But it should not be spoken about in others, unless it is resident in oneself (for how can a witness without integrity attest to integrity in others?). Yet speaking of your own integrity is moral braggadocio (how can a witness be judge in his own case?). It is invariably more effective to have others do your bragging for you. Of course, my concern here with the effectiveness of moral bragging no doubt taints any moral sense I may be speaking, and casts a question and a shadow over my own integrity. But I will bear these aspersions and go on.

Firstly, one’s own integrity ought to be kept silent for prudential reasons. Pure self-interest alone insists one shut up about one’s own integrity. To speak in public of one’s virtues is to raise the eyebrow of the crowd. The more one emphasizes it, the more one appears to be drawing attention to oneself, to be trying to establish a reputation, which integrity does not inherently seek or require. The more one openly touts one’s integrity, the more one seems to be managing impressions, putting on a show or a mask, even covering something up. People feel the compensatory defence mechanism at work, so that it would in no way serve one’s integrity, if one had it, to promote it so proudly.

Secondly, speaking up about one’s integrity is simply not credible. To speak publicly of one’s public virtues would seem to be redundant. But to speak publicly of one’s private virtues is the moral equivalent of telling fishing stories, except in this case it is about the big one that didn’t get away. Conveniently, as in fishing tales, there was no one else there to witness it, or the witnesses are out of reach, so all one has to go on is the bare words of the story-teller. And that is enough, if one is content with stories. But if one is curious about the truth, one has nothing. For integrity revolves around the relationship of word and deed; words alone, even our track record, is insufficient proof. The public is intelligent enough to know that insufficient proof is insufficient.

Whenever anyone commends themselves too handsomely, we instinctive feel we are being sold to. And who believes a salesman uncritically, but the naïve and gullible? Or we interpret claims of integrity as we do a political campaign, expecting each side to put its best foot forward and to paint its opponent’s boots the blackest. We expect the skewing, and adjust our ears to cancel its effect. And we expect the best foot forward to be a false foot, polished up to look nice, a foot in the door, and just another sales job. It is easiest above the fray to maintain integrity, or rather, to maintain the perception of integrity. And there is the prudential point: except under compulsion, one should say little or nothing openly of one’s integrity, or it costs you the perception of integrity, which means you are spreading falsehoods even if you are speaking the truth. Rather cultivate it in private and in a clear quiescent conscience just for oneself. This plant grows best in silence.

We are suspicious of politicians when they think they are so great that they can help us, and so virtuous that they will. They tout their own integrity directly and indirectly in the struggle to come out on top, but mostly integrity comes up as an issue in an attack on opponents. It is generally more effective to attack the integrity of opponents than to broadcast one’s own. But people know how to compensate for the bullshit that is derived from self-interest. Integrity — this silent unknown — is like the joker of the deck, it has shifting value, the highest and sometimes the lowest card amongst the virtues. And when you find out the truth, it is usually game over. Public figures who appear to be have the most integrity are those who speak low of themselves, if not identifying with the people, enabling the people to identify with them. It also helps to put shared higher principles ahead of personal gain and private interest. To say you have it may suggest that you don’t have it, insofar as it implies there is some doubt and an implicit critique to which one owes a response. Generally, if you have it, it speaks for itself; so you don’t have to say it. And yet, however hard it may be to affirm outright, it is fatal outright to deny it; — like death by shooting yourself in the foot.

Integrity in the moral sense means sticking to principles over convenience, to what’s right over expediency. But integrity also has a non-moral sense, that is, a physical or a metaphysical sense. Integrity means wholeness, without necessary reference to the right or the good. This ambiguity tracks quite closely to that of compromise, which also has both a moral sense (a sell-out) and a physical sense (as in an unsafe bridge or other architectural structure). Just as the material integrity of a structure may be compromised, leading to physical collapse, so too the slings and arrows of fortune may impugn our moral integrity, leading to moral collapse. But all this is but metaphors abounding. Is there anything of non-verbal knowledge in it at all? Is any of it worth saying at all? Silence has its advantages over even the best of metaphors.

Integrity is a feeling. It is very personal, very quiet. The entire world may doubt one’s integrity, and yet it remains true. One’s integrity may be perfect, though one’s reputation is in the mud. Your reputation is in the hands of others. But no one can take away your integrity, except only you yourself, since it is an inward orientation, an inward gesture, toward whatever principled truth you may recognize. Integrity can only be faithfulness to one’s own principles, not to anyone else’s. Herein lies another reason not to publicize one’s integrity: it doesn’t concern anybody but you and your relationship to your god or truth. To feel what one feels, it is not necessary to proclaim it.

And yet this inner feeling — so positive, so sanctifying, so heart-warming — is also subject to delusion. Indeed, every great scoundrel is bound to persuade himself of his own integrity. Obstinacy prolonged produces its own principles, and we may cleave to these with great pertinacity; it will be hard to resist styling this as our integrity, at least whenever we are questioned. The feeling of integrity is a moral slap on the back, and who could not use one of those every now and then? So what if we smugly congratulate ourselves on integrity attained? The slightest breach in our own perceived integrity is experienced as a fatal compromise, and covered up as quickly as if we were found suddenly nude in public. More painful still is the perception by a loved one of one’s own inner dis-integral fault lines. So the whole energy and full devotion of the waking consciousness is normally directed toward maintaining the appearance of integrity, and to self-generate the feeling of integrity, so that our performance comes off well. From great evil-doers to common ego-dwellers, the appearance of integrity must be maintained at all costs, even integrity.

What is so intensely private does not bear publication; but it is also wise to hold one’s tongue about what is so liable to delusion, lest it shift and change again. Again silence is cautious, silence is wise.

Integrity means to be everywhere the same, but also nowhere indifferent. It means to be wholly present everywhere you are, and to leave nothing hidden.

Integrity is a moving target. Covey (1989) has anchored his concept of integrity in certain “lighthouse principles,” certain fixed points and guiding lights not adjustable by the trends and tastes of the age. But this rather binds one to the same old harbour, to home port, to the well-trodden and the well-known. Integrity to the known in the end confines one to the known. Integrity to the unknown, to foreign ports and uncharted seas, serves even when the old lighthouses have gone out. It allows us to travel to new harbours and explore without harm and without harming. What is needed for that is an integrity that moves in the world but is not moved by the world. And for that, perhaps, a whole new world will be required. Integrity to the known is a tether and a leash; integrity to the unknown is openness and sensitivity.

Notes from the road. Let me end with this one qualification to my long-winded silence on this issue: if in the end integrity must break its silence, let it speak in foreign languages.