Dave Snowden

Twelvetide 18:10 integrity

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In my opening post I mentioned integrity as one of the key words I wanted to address and in this post I want to link it to the idea of virtue – Philosophers amongst you will anticipate a reference to Aristotle here and I’ll come to that. The reality of human existence that that we both change, and are changed by our social and physical environments. We are materially engaged (and its not always for the good – think global warming) but that engagement tends to the particular rather than the strategic. That which animates (another Aristotelian reference by way) us is more than the material but it based on it. From time to time in the flow of human meaning and understanding we get saints – those able to stand above the tyranny of the immediate and the mundane – and change the environment. But sainthood is rare and we can’t predicate the future of organisations or society on an assumption of sainthood. Mind you, too much of the popular management literature assumes that with its multiple idealist models of the perfect leader etc. So if we want to institute or enable ethical behaviour we will need something more realistic and pragmatic.

In yesterday’s post I talked briefly about habits and the reality is we fall into these and many are socially constructed. The phrase Don’t take it personally its just business for example is a unethical trope all too common in Anglo-Saxon mercantile traditions in which the ability to make a profit is used to justify what in an family interaction would be enough to have you ostracised. I often think that’s a good business heuristic by the way – would you do this to a member of the family? If not then why are you doing it to me? To claim you have always behaved with integrity while betraying long standing friendships and interactions involves a discontinuity between rhetoric and action. In fact as a general rule the more you claim an ethical quality the more it tends to indicate you know in your heart of hearts you have lost it. It’s not enough to excuse or explain, you need to hold yourself to account. The adage of Do unto others as you would have others do unto you goes hand in hand with an eye for an eye in this respect!

Given the constant novelty of human life (the essence of the brilliant Gaping Void illustration) the context of ethical decision making constantly changes. That brings us to the idea of virtue and here I want to quote from the Stanford online Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Aristotle conceives of ethical theory as a field distinct from the theoretical sciences. Its methodology must match its subject matter—good action—and must respect the fact that in this field many generalizations hold only for the most part. We study ethics in order to improve our lives, and therefore its principal concern is the nature of human well-being. Aristotle follows Socrates and Plato in taking the virtues to be central to a well-lived life. Like Plato, he regards the ethical virtues (justice, courage, temperance and so on) as complex rational, emotional and social skills. But he rejects Plato’s idea that to be completely virtuous one must acquire, through a training in the sciences, mathematics, and philosophy, an understanding of what goodness is. What we need, in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together as a whole. In order to apply that general understanding to particular cases, we must acquire, through proper upbringing and habits, the ability to see, on each occasion, which course of action is best supported by reasons. Therefore practical wisdom, as he conceives it, cannot be acquired solely by learning general rules. We must also acquire, through practice, those deliberative, emotional, and social skills that enable us to put our general understanding of well-being into practice in ways that are suitable to each occasion.

They key point here is that is not something called ‘goodness’ that can be defined. Instead we have to create circumstances in which the habits of virtue emerge naturally. In which social interaction excludes behaviour that is unethical. We combine abstract knowledge of what is right with the day to day habits of behaviour which mean that virtue comes naturally to what we do. In that respect the more physical interaction we have the better – virtual interaction too readily falls into hostility and conflict because it is not mediated or constrained by the multiple clues that we pick up in social interaction. In a virtual environment we can avoid the micro-conflicts and contrasts that make us think again. We lack integrity both in out interactions and in our self, our soul.

The banner picture is from the summit of Carnedd Llywelyn looking south to Tryfan and beyond taken yesterday. One of those magical winter days where the sun creates a sense of mystery with only the silhouettes of the mountains are visible.