I’m teaching a section of the core ethics course at the US Naval Academy. Taken by all 2nd year Midshipmen—or youngsters—the course begins with an instructional block on moral perception. This includes consideration of how moral narratives—those stories, cultural and religious creeds, rituals, shared histories, and convictions that shape both communities and individuals—help form how we see the world, what we understand to be our place in it, and what we find significant. The course is not simply about the kinds of ethical behaviors we endeavor our future Navy and Marine Corps officers to deploy but also about the kind of character such ethical behaviors presuppose. That’s to say, it’s one thing to study just war and it’s another to recognize that only just warriors will fight those just wars. We have to be in the business of forming the former while promoting the latter. We also take a look at integrity, a frequently cited term in discussions regarding virtue and character.

In the ethics course, as elsewhere, integrity is in the first instance defined as being that character trait allowing one to demonstrate consistency, whatever the hardship, between their moral beliefs and their actions. James Davison Hunter asserts the same thing this way: “Character is formed in relation to convictions and is manifest in the capacity to abide by those convictions even in, especially in, the face of temptation.” It’s all about self-integration, wholeness. When such consistency is present, all is essentially well. Acting in ways inconsistent with moral beliefs, however, can rattle the system and shake us to our core. What we call cognitive dissonance can result. This dissonance—at least in someone who remains morally sensitive—results in distress and, in more extreme cases, a crisis of self-understanding and identity. At this point, we generally have two options to alleviate the turmoil. We can take a moment and recalibrate, reshaping our behaviors to better correspond to what we believe to be right. Or we can reshape what we believe to be right so as to better match our behavior. In most circumstances, it would seem that the better way forward is the former. The latter is to depart from the moral life.

However, at this point the alert observer should flag a challenge. What if what we believe to be right is actually wrong? This brings us face-to-face with the uncomfortable requirements of judgement. Some moral narratives—some of the stories by which we pass on cultural norms and cultivate right behavior in our young—are ample reflections of what is good, and beautiful, and true in the world. Other moral narratives are not. Some are false, ugly, and morally abhorrent. Integrity, then, ought not simply to mean firm adherence to a code. It ought to be firm adherence to the right code, to one that is morally coherent. To insist otherwise, to suggest that integrity is subjective, merely the perfect integration of a self that is free to choose what is good, is to allow the Nazis hellbent on the annihilation of the innocent to be a person of integrity. This won’t do.  

A thicker conception of integrity would take its bearings from a commitment to moral belief as objective, not subjective. If one’s beliefs are grounded in objective moral truth, then fidelity of action in accordance to those beliefs is morally praiseworthy. We can get at the importance of this with a nautical analogy. Imagine the hull of a ship. To say that a hull has integrity is to say that it is structurally sound, or whole. The conditions in which a ship’s hull is structurally sound—integrous?—are not up for grabs. There are physical and mechanical rules regarding this sort of thing that we have no real choice about. Just so, I submit, the conditions under which a human being can be said to have integrity is equally not up to us. Just as there are physical laws to which a ship’s hull must adhere, so too are there moral laws to which a human being must adhere if they have any hope of being a human being whose integrity—whose moral structure—is sound and whole. Turning to Hunter again, we see that the turning away from objective morality means the death of integrity. “The demise of character,” he asserts, “begins with the destruction of creeds, the convictions, and the “god-terms” that made those creeds sacred to us and inviolable within us.” He goes on, “This destruction occurs simultaneously with the rise of “values.” Values are truths that have been deprived of their commanding character. They are substitutes for revelation, imperatives that have dissolved into a range of possibilities.” Though often used synonymously, values and norms are not, at heart, the same. Norms, principles, or moral truth says something about the condition of the created universe. Values say something about us. They are not nothing, but left to our own devices–and appetites–human beings value all sorts of wrong things.

I want to add one more thing to all of this. The integrity of a ship’s hull—it’s wholeness and soundness—bestows upon the ship a great good: it allows it to do unimpeded that thing for which it was made. Were it to loss integrity, it could no longer meet its purpose and it would flounder and sink. Moral integrity—the consistent coupling of action with right belief—allows human beings to pursue unimpaired the purposes for which they were created.

To that endeavor I say, “Fair winds and following seas. And don’t give up the ship!”