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A Contradiction of Integrity

I had a great telephone conversation tonight. You know the sort, talking with your best friend for several hours and hearing about fun stuff. I was thinking of going to sleep afterward (it's been a long, busy week at the office) but she told me I should do some blogging first, so here I am. :)

Ethics was the major topic of the night (she's in a philosophy class) and I have something worth saying to a larger audience. Contradictions in logic are universally condemned, and rightly so. But contradictions in ethics are often not even noticed. This is a tragedy.

Many people have observed that, for example, people who say we have a serious moral obligation to help the less-well-off seldom help as much as they could. There is no parade of rich altruists selling their estates in order to send money to the desperately poor in developing countries. They "feel" the pain but don't follow through with money. This is a clear manifestation of a phenomenon that is, unfortunately, extremely common.

The basic problem is that people are not very disciplined about ethics. If a person claims to believe they have a serious obligation to help others, and admits to not following through, they'll report a feeling of guilt. An economist might retort that their stated preference is not the same as their revealed preference. But this is really a philosophical matter, not an economic one. Why do people put up with this semipermanent state of guilt?

Integrity is a virtue, and guilt is the penalty for breaking it. It is a form of contradiction for one's beliefs and one's actions to be incongruent. Either one's beliefs are wrong, or one's actions are wrong, or possibly both. In logic, the discovery of this contradiction would prompt a search for the error. In ethics, for most people, guilt does not create this response. It creates a desire to avoid the matter rather than to resolve it.

Yet there is an error here.

People are hesitant to reexamine their beliefs because they simply don't know how. Most people acquire their ethics implicitly from their environment and do not have strong ethical reasoning skills. And people are hesitant to change their actions both because it would be to admit an error, and because they actually don't want to change. ("Sell my house and give away the money to some poor people I've never met? That would be so uncomfortable for me!")

The root of the trouble is that they hold conflicting ethical principles. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" conflicts with "I've earned what I've got, so I can keep it." Resolving the conflicts between explicit ethical principles controlling statements and implicit ethical principles controlling actions is important. It is the ethical equivalent of seeking to understand the error that lead to a contradiction in logic.

It ought to be done. And I think it would be, if people took integrity more seriously. Your thoughts and your actions should be congruent. Guilt is the emotional warning that something is wrong — don't try to bury it because it's unpleasant.

If you buried your hunger because it was unpleasant, you would starve to death. By burying guilt, you're doing a different sort of harm. You're letting yourself continue to operate with an ethical system that you know is wrong. In any particular instance, there's no way to tell if you'll be guided by the correct or the incorrect principle. Or perhaps both of your principles are wrong, so anything you do is harmful.

Fix your ethical machinery. Think about it.

Tiny Island