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On Integrity

Photo: Jordan McQueen.

By Keith Silvester

Several centuries ago it was reputedly the case that mapmakers based in London would routinely invent roads that did not exist in the remote far north of Britain, which would only be discovered by those travellers unfortunate enough to get lost in distant parts.  The mapmakers were lazy, wanted to sell their maps, and presumably did not think they would be found out.  Was this just laziness? Did the maps or their producers lack integrity, or did the mapmakers trade on the likelihood that their errors would never be discovered?  Was this just careless or downright immoral?

When we speak of ‘integrity’ it is normally in the context of something ethical or moral – very often to do with how a person acts in the world.  Clearly, this is very close to our hearts in psychosynthesis, particularly when we talk of ‘right relations’.  In this respect we might consider integrity as a transpersonal quality.  And given that in psychosynthesis we tend to see a continuum between psychological maturity and moral or ethical maturity (ie. the development of conscience is an extension of our psychological processes), it is surely reasonable to speak of ‘integrity’ as a type of psychospiritual faculty.  The management consultant Roger Steare takes a pragmatic view of integrity as «those shared values, attitudes and behaviours that help us act correctly in our lives at home, at work and in society» (Steare 2003: 31).

But we live in very complex and confusing times.  Some would call it the postmodern or liquid modern age; others, the internet or digital age.  The pressures on us are probably quite different than in previous generations.  And it is arguable that this imposes a different set of questions about how we relate with and to integrity, and how this translates into everyday life and average standards of behaviour.  For example, in the pre-internet age, if we received a letter, we might have taken time to consider an answer before writing back.  Nowadays, when the average person might receive an average of 100 communications a day electronically, we might become brief, inattentive to details or forgetful.  Is this about a lack of integrity or care in response, or is it a symptom of too much confusing pressure?   As Piero Ferrucci remarks in his latest book ‘Your Inner Will’ (see interview in this issue): «In an age marked by a lowering of standards, sloppiness, and getting by as a philosophy of life, integrity is a formidable asset» (Ferrucci 2014: xix).

Now, although the essential moral questions are likely to be timeless  (‘thou shalt not kill’ is just as relevant today as it was in ancient times), I would argue that questions of integrity now extend into other areas of life that are not specifically to do with conventional morality, but which may be of interest to us as part of the whole gestalt of living.  Because everything is so interconnected, a lack of integrity in one sphere of life may affect many other spheres of life.  This means our expectations of ourselves and others has increased. Although it could be argued that all questions of integrity are ultimately subsets of morality (in the sense of becoming a ‘moral human being’), I do believe it is worth articulating the many facets of life in which important questions might be asked.

To discuss this I am going to categorise ‘integrity’ into six domains:

  • Functional integrity
  • Intellectual integrity
  • Aesthetic integrity
  • Psychological integrity
  • Social integrity
  • Moral/ethical integrity

Functional integrity concerns the use and application of everyday things.  Normally we would not include the design of objects as something worthy of study in psychosynthesis.  But when we are confronted with teapots that do not pour properly, computer software that has not been tested by manufacturers, and tradesmen who use inferior materials, we are left questioning the way modern life functions.  We are probably all familar with ‘banana hardware’ – computer equipment which is sold before being tested and which relies on customers doing all the fault-finding – akin to bananas picked while still green and which ripen on the boat.  In his landmark chapter ‘The Psychopathology of Everyday Things’, Donald Norman, writing in the late 1990s says complains: «Why do we put up with the frustrations of everyday objects, with objects that we can’t figure out how to use….Poorly designed objects…provide no clues or sometimes false clues.  They trap the user and thwart the normal process of interpretation and understanding….The result is a world filled with frustration, with objects that cannot be understood, with devices that lead to error» (Norman 1998: 1-2).  An interesting example of how makers attempted to get things right is the recently designed (and rather eyecatching) London ‘New Routemaster’ bus, where the project managers, who wanted an ‘iconic’ bus based on good technical design, said to the bidders: «we would disqualitfy anyone who showed us a picture.  It’s easier to judge the pictures than the engineering, but first and foremost we had to have a bus that worked.  Looking pretty was in all honesty the second consideration» (Lewin 2014: 69).

Intellectual integrity will be familiar to those who have ever had to mark an essay or dissertation, or who have perhaps had to review a book.  It is about assessing qualities of thought, evaluating lines of argument, and entering philosophical discussion or deconstructing use of language.  The integrity lies in being able to test the ideas being put forward and finding they hold up in a robust and thorough way.  This argument also extends to the thorny area of plagiarism – the stealing or non-attributing of other people’s ideas and intellectual property.  Recently, a friend of mine had given a short interview to a television company concerning a pressing world problem, only to find that when it was broadcast, a short clip from somewhere else had been deliberately inserted, which had the effect of distorting and misrepresenting the viewpoint she was making.  The philosopher Bernard Williams, attempting to define ‘Truth and Truthfulness» identifies accuracy and sincerity as two particular qualities in legitimate argument.

Aesthetic integrity is possibly much harder to define.  By aesthetics I mean something much more than ‘beauty’ or ‘taste’ or ‘style’.  And appealing to certain classical forms, such as those governed by the well-known golden ratio, for example, will not help us when looking at postmodern and deconstructionist models of art.  Although we might each have a different view of what makes a good painting or a beautiful building or a great piece of music, perhaps the most we can say is that within each art form, where there exist different genres, there are ‘exemplars’ which, by some form of common consent, have the ability to move energy and spirit within us.  For example, people tend to either love or hate the music of Abba.  Yet, even for those who hate it (that’s not me by the way), it might be possible to say that, as a form of pop / glam rock, their music can be regarded as technically and artistically exquisite.

Psychological integrity is possibly what tends to concern us most as therapists.   We relate this not only to the treatment of life problems, trauma and disturbances, but also to the field of social relations – the ability to love and work.  Perhaps the simplest way of looking at this (and which seems to feature strongly in Ferrucci’s work) is the idea of compartmentalisation, or what we might clinically refer to as splitting.  Put simply, if some parts of ourselves are cut off from other parts, we act in a dissociated way towards ourselves and others.  There is a strong argument to suggest that such splits are caused by trauma, most probably in our formative childhood years.  Such splits, usually in the lower unconscious are called ‘vertical splits’.  As with other therapeutic approaches, in psychosynthesis, we would see our role as healing such splits.    But there are also horizontal splits – usually referred to as repression – involving either our complexes (the lower unconscious) or the sublime (the superconscious).  Both types of splitting are relevant to psychological integrity and whole-person functioning.

Social integrity sits somewhere between the psychological and the moral/ethical, as it encompasses both.  The case for considering this as a distinct domain is that often the expression of social integrity (or lack of it) is played out seeming independently of appeals to either psychological or moral/ethical questions in our everyday norms.  The obvious case in point is the way people relate using social networking media. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman remarks:  «The advent of virtual proximity renders human connections simultaneously more frequent and more shallow, more intense and more brief.  Connections tend to be too shallow and brief to condense into bonds…..Contacts require less time and effort to be entered and less time and effort to be broken.  Distance is no obstacle to getting in touch – but getting in touch is no obstacle to staying apart…Virtual proximity can be, both substantively and metaphorically, finished with nothing more than the press of a button” (Bauman: 2003:62).  So, who exactly do we call a ‘friend’?

Moral/ethical integrity is possibly the most difficult and slippery domain to define.  And it is potentially a vast subject, taking in the whole realm of ethics which we shall not attempt to cover here.  In looking at moral integrity, Piero Ferrucci states the problem so well: «We can make compromises, reformulations, rationalisations.  But in so doing we will feel cut off from a part of ourselves that can nourish us with strength and vitality.  We will feel, perhaps darkly, that we have betrayed what we most believe in» (Ferrucci 2014:165). Kohlberg has been one of the clearest writers on the subject, having attempted to define six stages of ‘moral development’.  Broadly speaking, these stages can be defined as (i) blind egoism, (ii) instrumental egoism, (iii) social relationships perspective; (iv) social systems perspective, (v) contractual perspective, and (vi) mutual respect as a universal principle. (See Wikipedia entry on Kohlberg for an accessible discussion.)  Now, although this categorisation has been open to criticism, it is at least an attempt to progress from narcissism through to a social, collective and universal conscience.  In this sense, it fits with psychosynthesis psychology, which regards the development of conscience as crucial and possibly synonymous with personal development and Self.

To my thinking, it follows from this that moral and ethical integrity is not possible to achieve without psychological integrity.  In other words, we cannot meaningfully speak of self-actualisation while significant splits remain in the psyche.  Okay, it might be argued, from a Jungian perspective, that «every time we light a candle we cast a shadow» and, almost by definition we can never be fully aware of our shadow.  But, I would argue, there is a world of difference between someone who is not open to the possibility that every great truth we hold is open to shadow versus someone who does.  This faculty of thought would be called dialectical thinking. As John Rowan says:
«The lessons of the dialectic are hard ones.  It tells us that any value we have, if held to in a one-sided way, will become an illusion.» (Rowan 2000).

This leads us, to some extent away from an absolutist view of integrity.  Whereas Kohlberg’s six-level scheme is roughly grouped into pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional levels, I would argue that this formulation stays within the realm of what we might call ‘modernist’ perspectives.   What might a ‘postmodern’ perspective look like – in any of the five domains I stated earlier on?  I would argue for the following ‘levels’:

formative level of integrity: where the intention to design or act with integrity is there, but the psychological skills are undeveloped – perhaps what we might want to call simple integrity;

conventional level of integrity: where the notions of what constitutes the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ are in reference to the relative norms and values of the culture(s) and times we live in;

dialectical level of integrity: where behaviours and values might seem shocking and paradoxical to us in that they do not conform to the cultural ‘norm’, but nevertheless have an integrity about them – certain radical art forms might be illustrative of this.  In 1913, people at a concert protested at the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

In opening up a postmodern perspective, I am not saying that ‘everything is relative’ so ‘anything goes’.  What I am saying is that it is rarely possible to be totally conclusive and judgemental about what we are looking at, because we can never hold the whole perspective.  In this respect I am arguing for a degree of chaos and ‘wildness’ in our appreciation of what does and does not hold integrity – perhaps most visibly problematic in questions involving the aesthetic domain, but there in all the other domains too.   Once, when in a men’s clothing store I questioned the seemingly poor quality of what I was buying and queried the shop assistant: «This garment does not seem well-made?»  The answer I got was «Sir, you will get bored with it long before it wears out!»  I bought it.


Bauman Z (2003) Liquid Love (Cambridge: Polity)

Ferrucci P (2014)  Your Inner Will (New York: Tarcher/Penguin)

Haronian F (1967) «Repression of the Sublime»

Kohlberg L & Lickona T, ed. (1976 «Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach». Moral Development and Behavior: Theory, Research and Social Issues. (Holt, NY: Rinehart and Winston)

Lewin A (2014) London’s New Routemaster (London: Merrell)

Norman D (1998)  The Design of Everyday Things (London: MIT Press)

Rowan J (2000) ‘Dialectical thinking and humanistic psychology’  in  Practical Philosophy  3/2  July 2000, pp18-21

Steare R & Jamison AC (2003) Integrity in Practice (UK: Financial Services Skills Council)

Williams B (2002)  Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy (Princeton University Press)

©  Keith Silvester October 2014