Integrity and the Good
Several people have raised interesting questions about my column on Integrity in Politics. Careful readers will notice that I did not endorse Sarah Palin’s integrity; rather, I welcomed the fact that the integrity question was being aired in response to her selection as McCain’s running mate. Only time will tell how well she can withstand the intense scrutiny of the next two months, but there are clearly some difficult decisions in her history of which she can be extremely proud.
Nor did I say that integrity should be the sole determinant of our votes. It is one of several factors, and probably not even the most important. To understand this, it is useful to consider integrity under two different aspects. The first aspect is what we might call perfect or divine integrity—the kind of integrity God has. If we had this perfect integrity, our judgment would never be clouded, and so we would never make a consistent moral commitment to a false belief or a faulty course of action. Jesus had this kind of integrity, being God, and Mary had it through her freedom from Original Sin and the superabundance of grace she received.
But the rest of us can only aspire to what we might call ordinary human integrity, which enables us to commit ourselves seriously but imperfectly to the good insofar as we have been able to perceive it. Because true integrity of any kind involves the proper subordination of our pride and passions to reason, a person of integrity is better able to properly understand the true and the good, a capability that can certainly be very much assisted by grace. But a great many factors enter into our relative blindness, not all of which are under our control. Therefore, the operations of integrity at the natural, human level are imperfect enough to permit a separate consideration of our understanding of the good and our commitment to it. A person is ordinarily said to have integrity if he seeks to know and follow the good, but no matter how great our human integrity may be, any one of us is capable of being deeply, consistently and even nobly committed while at the same time being seriously wrong.
Now with respect to that perfect or divine integrity, even someone with the integrity of the Blessed Virgin Mary might not make the best ruler, simply because such a person's particular gifts and talents might not be the gifts and talents needed to excel in politics and government. But if integrity made perfect by grace is insufficient, how much more dangerous is it to rely solely on human integrity! For it is far more conducive to the common good for a politician to understand properly the legitimate means and ends of government, despite occasional weaknesses in execution, than to be integrally committed to the wrong things. St. Teresa of Avila made a similar point in a very different context when she said that the most important attribute of a good spiritual director was not holiness but knowledge.
Our knowledge of the good precedes our ability to move ourselves toward it. To govern well we must know the good, but we can still possess considerable human integrity even if we are wrong about what is good. It is inescapable, then, that a ruler who weakly and inconsistently pursues the good is to be preferred to one who sincerely, consistently and fervently pursues evil that he believes is good. I do not say that all those who pursue evil believe it to be good; nor do I say that all who believe evil to be good have a valid excuse. What I do say is this: Personal integrity is important. It might well be all-important in determining our supernatural destiny. But it is not the only thing and, politically, it is not even the most important thing. An understanding of the good is the prerequisite to all effective governance. Without an understanding of the good, there is no hope for decent governance at all.
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