For reasons that I will explain, I return today to the subject of integrity, which was the focus of my previous column (“Grace Poe and the politics of integrity,” The Manila Times, 16 June 2015).
After reading and noting all the comments and reactions to the piece, I realized that I left a number of points hanging and unresolved. The biggest is that I did not find space for a definition of integrity that will aid public understanding of the virtue and principle, and help people in becoming persons of integrity.
Second, I could not find space for Stephen Carter’s “eight principles for a politics of integrity,” which I believe will be particularly useful for us at this time when we see the ethical roofing of politics and government sagging badly, and when we cannot trust our leaders, beginning with President BS Aquino.
Integrity: First among the virtues
Stephen Carter, in his book on integrity, defines integrity in a clear and specific way.
He says integrity requires three steps:
Discerning what is right and what is wrong;
Acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost; and
Saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right from wrong.
Carter moves on to explain why integrity should be considered as the first among the virtues that make for good character.
“Integrity is in some sense prior to everything else. The rest of what we think matters very little if we lack essential integrity: the courage of our convictions, the willingness to act and speak in behalf of what we know to be right.
“No matter what our politics, no matter what causes we may support, would anybody really want to be led, or follow or assist people who lack integrity?”
The answer of course is no. We would not want leaders of that kind, even though we too often get them. The question is how we move our institutions and our lives closer to exemplifying integrity.
Principles for a politics of integrity
Toward constructing a politics of integrity, Carter offers eight principles that people and communities can use as guides:
The nation exists for its people. The first principle of a politics of integrity is to remember that people are ends, not means. People and people alone are the reason there is a Republic of the Philippines. In a true democracy, the people rule.
Some things are more important than others. A politics of integrity sets priorities. Priorities are essential, because not all programs are equally important. Justifications cannot substitute for the setting of priorities.
Consistency matters. A politics of integrity requires that the principles on which our parties and institutions stand should be treated truly as principles.
Integrity requires that the principles on which the government operates should be applied consistently.
Everybody gets to play. A politics of integrity does not draw arbitrary boundaries around the public square, screening out some citizens whom some elites may disapprove of.
We must be willing to talk about right and wrong without mentioning the Constitution. A politics of integrity must respect the fundamental and constitutional rights of its citizens, and must be vigilant in protecting those rights, even when they are exercised by those we disdain.
Our politics must call us to our highest selves. In a politics of integrity, we must try to respond to politicians who call us to our highest rather than lowest selves. In particular, we must respond to politicians who talk of the national interest and our shared obligations.
We must listen to one another. A politics of integrity is a politics in which all of us are willing to do the hard work of discernment, to test our views to be sure that we are right. In a democracy, it is vital to dialogue with our fellow citizens, seeking not only to persuade others, but allowing the possibility of being persuaded by others.
Sometimes the other side wins. This is perhaps the most important principle of an integral democratic politics. Politics comes down to votes. Somebody wins and somebody loses. When both sides play by the rules, we must hope that the losers would have the integrity to accept the people’s verdict.
The integrity of voters
Interestingly, Carter closes his book with a discussion of a problem that worries many thoughtful citizens today: the seeming stupidity of our voters. He writes: “The greatest error in building an integral politics is to judge the integrity of our politics by the integrity of our politicians. In an electoral democracy, what matters far more is the integrity of voters and their willingness to consistently vote in support of the national interest.”
We citizens cannot expect our politicians to create a politics better than we are. If we the citizens think only of our narrow interests, we will reap a politics as parochial and selfish as we are.