One of my favorite books is “Integrity” by Yale law prof Stephen Carter. In it, he offers three steps to follow to lead a life of integrity:
1) Discern right from wrong. This is harder than it looks because so many of us make decisions without slowing down long enough to discern whether we’re acting within a consistent moral framework.
2) Struggle to live according to the sense of right and wrong you have discerned. This is tough because it could often be time-consuming or expensive. For instance, whenever I park in my downtown Atlanta parking garage, I get a discount because I’m a student. However, the garage asks that I park on one of the top three floors. I’m always tempted to park on a lower level because it’s more convenient. Can’t do that and live in accordance with this principle.
3) Be willing to say what we are doing and why we are doing it. This can be the toughest of all and will often point out that our moral foundation is shaky. (It plays on Kant’s publicity principle.) It’s one thing to take a moral stand, but quite another to so publicly. For instance, I once justified downloading music illegally because the record companies were charging too much per song. That’s a fine moral position — as long as I’ve slowed down and discerned it — but am I willing to tell the record companies that I’m stealing their music? In my case, I had neither discerned the position nor was I willing to announce it publicly.
You should buy the book. It’s a great read — he takes you on a series of ethical propositions and explores each one within this framework. Is it OK to exaggerate on a recommendation letter? Is it cheating for a baseball player to steal signs? Can a politician live in integrity and yet compromise on his principles?
Great questions, and Carter provides some great answers.