Integrity and the Value of an Integrated Self

The Integrated Self View of Integrity


My goal in this section is not to provide a comprehensive overview of the literature on integrity but to introduce The Integrated Self View of integrity and an objection that has been raised against it. Gabrielle Taylor sums up this account of integrity as the view that the person of integrity is someone, “whose life is ‘of a piece’, whose self is whole and integrated.”Footnote2 Similarly, John Cottingham describes this as the view that the person with integrity is someone who possesses, “a certain psychological wholeness — an understanding of the significance of all her various goals and desires, and the true place of each in her overall life-plan — how they fit in with her sense of who she really is.”Footnote3 According to this view, then, the person with integrity is someone for whom the various aspects of her self (her projects, ambitions, values, emotions, desires etc.) are integrated. These two accounts of The Integrated Self View are not identical. An integrated ‘self’ need not be understood as ‘psychological wholeness’. However, I take it that the psychological wholeness Cottingham proposes is an attempt to unpack what it might take for a self to be integrated. I will be following Cottingham’s understanding of The Integrated Self View in this paper and taking an integrated self to involve coherence amongst one’s projects, ambitions, values emotions and desires.Footnote4

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On this view, integrity is to be contrasted with fragmentation. While the person with integrity has reconciled the various aspects of her life into a coherent whole, the fragmented person is someone whose self is ridden with internal conflict. This fragmentation may take a number of different forms.


First, it may involve being committed to two or more incompatible desires, projects or ambitions. These need not be logically incompatible but may rather be incompatible for the agent to pursue given the particular circumstances that she finds herself in. Second, it may involve a lack of coherence between what the agent claims to be committed to or to care about and what she actually cares about or is committed to.Footnote5 Likewise, it could also be a lack of coherence between an agent’s commitments and her actions (i.e. weakness of will). Alternatively it could take the form of the leading of a compartmentalized life. Alasdair MacIntyre claims that a distinctive feature of modern times is the compartmentalization of life:

Into a variety of segments, each with its own norms and modes of behaviour. So work is divided from leisure, private life from public, the corporate from the personal. So both childhood and old age have been wrenched away from the rest of human life and made over into distinct realms. And all these separations have been achieved so that it is the distinctiveness of each and not the unity of the life of the individual who passes through those parts in terms of which we are taught to think and to feel.Footnote6

This view of integrity as involving a life that fits together as a coherent whole is not the only account of the virtue. According to both Greg Scherkoske and Cheshire Calhoun, integrity should be viewed as a social virtue, one that involves standing for one’s best judgement in front of one’s fellow deliberators.Footnote7 We might also view integrity as a matter of practical identity. According to these accounts, integrity is understood in terms of possessing a character that is founded on identity-conferring commitments.Footnote8


Supporters of The Integrated Self View have claimed a number of advantages over these accounts. First, some supporters of this view have noted that it provides a natural fit with the etymological origin of the term.Footnote9 The term ‘integrity’ stems from the Latin adjective ‘integer’, which means ‘wholeness’ or ‘completeness’, fitting well with a view of integrity as a virtue which involves one’s life hanging together as a complete and coherent whole.Footnote10 The Integrated Self View also fits well with psychoanalytic approaches to understanding the personality.Footnote11 In psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, the term integrity is used to refer to a personality that is free from division and internal conflict. For example, in Anthony Storr’s description of the assumptions upon which psychotherapy is based he claims that:

I do not believe that anyone ever reaches a condition of complete inner harmony; but those who seem to approach most nearly to this ideal share certain attributes. […] People whose public and private lives are widely discrepant can hardly be said to be integrated; and maturity demands that the personality shall be recognizably the same under varying circumstances.Footnote12

This account of what the integrity of the personality amounts to fits easily with The Integrated Self View. According to both views, integrity is a matter of psychological wholeness and harmony and a lack of internal conflict.


However, one objection that has been raised against The Integrated Self View is that it fails to account for the value of integrity. This objection is raised in a number of different ways. Cheshire Calhoun has argued that it can be valuable to conceptualize oneself as a duplicitous or multiplicitous being, “whose identity is differently constituted in different cultural “worlds” or meaning systems.”Footnote13 Greg Scherkoske, on the other hand, has argued that having an integrated self can be morally dangerous, as it would help both the morally good and the morally bad achieve their goals.Footnote14 The fundamental problem that both these objections raise is that if integrity is understood as the possession of an integrated self then there does not appear to be any reason to think that integrity is a valuable trait to possess. Given that integrity is widely regarded as a virtue, if this objection is on target then it is a devastating one. The challenge to the defender of The Integrated Self View is to explain why possessing an integrated self is valuable.


Cottingham attempts to respond to this objection by claiming that the person with an integrated self will have a more stable life.

The person who pursues his projects and desires in a piecemeal way may, let us grant, manage to live quite well, for weeks or months or even years […] his life, I suggest, will be less stable. He gets along all right by accident, as it were. Either the parts of his life fit together by pure chance, or, more likely, they are potentially liable to clash, but it just so happens that they have not, so far, come into conflict. So although the way he lives has not so far been such as to threaten his happiness and security (or those of others), there are, in the very nature of the case, various tensions in his way of living that are always waiting to surface, and which, in moments of crisis, may erupt to damaging effect.Footnote15

In other words, the person who lacks an integrated self runs the risk of the various divided aspects of herself running into conflict. Unless she can find a way of integrating these various parts of herself into a coherent whole then she is in danger of facing damaging internal conflict. Of course, this conflict is not guaranteed. Someone with a fragmented self may never face circumstances that bring about conflict between the agent’s conflicting projects, ambitions, values, emotions and desires. However, she will always be at risk of such circumstances arising.


This response succeeds in providing some reason to value the possession of an integrated self. However, it could reasonably be objected that it fails to provide a full response to the objection. After all, it seems reasonable to object that this fails to fully account for the value of integrity. In particular it might be thought to fail to do justice to the moral value of integrity. While possessing a stable character may have indirect benefits to others, it would be surprising if this were all that was morally valuable about integrity, given the high importance that we place on this virtue. It is hard to see why possessing this form of stability should make someone admirable or a worthy recipient of our trust. If The Integrated Self View is going to be a viable account of integrity then some explanation of the moral value of possessing an integrated self will need to be given. In the next section I will provide such an explanation.