Living with integrity is a bedrock skill for living well that requires the use of reason and is always an ongoing work in progress. It is also the primary quality of character necessary for a free society.
The best definition of reason that I've ever come across is from Nathaniel Branden: "Reason is the non-contradictory integration of experience."
As conscious, thinking beings, our task, regardless of our status, regardless of our IQ and regardless of our circumstances, is to make the best sense out of our world (objective reality), our internal subjective experience, our relationships and our options. Reason is the tool of thought that we use to accomplish this.
Imagine a day without reason: You wake up, get out of bed and do the rote tasks of personal hygiene. Then you go out to the kitchen. You're hungry. What to eat? One thing is as good as another! Could have oatmeal, could have toast, or could have leftovers from last night's dinner. How do you choose?
You can't. Choosing requires differentiation and discrimination. You have to judge one thing as more attractive to eat than another. Without the capacity to reason, you're sunk. Of course, you'd end up eating something somehow before you starve, but it could take awhile.
You've barely arisen and you're already in need of reason. As you continue with your day, there are much more complex things that you need to understand in order to function in the world.
We use our capacity for reason to make sense of what we can; and we can either live congruently or incongruently with what we understand. When we are honest about what we know and we then seek to integrate that knowledge through our words and deeds, what we are doing is living with integrity.
Living with integrity is no small feat. To be conscious of your experience and honest about what you perceive, think, feel and believe can take tremendous courage in some situations. And while Winston Churchill famously said that "courage is the first of human qualities," I believe that living with integrity is the fullest expression of courage.
Living with integrity provides the structure of personal character that makes courage matter.
To the extent that you seek to be conscious and seek to know the truth, to the extent that you are honest with yourself about what you know, think and believe, and to the extent that what you know, think and believe is consistent with what you say and what you say is consistent with what you do, to that extent you are living with integrity.
When you strive to live with integrity you grow a positive reputation with yourself and that reputation can earn you a sense of deep comfort within your own skin. The more you are honest with yourself and live what you know when you're together with others, the easier it becomes to know what to do in any given circumstance.
But this is not something that affects just you. When you think of people who have been great forces for good in the world, who do you think of? Make a quick mental list of two or three people right now.
I don't know who you thought of but I'll bet you they were not people who kept their views shrouded in endless qualifiers, or people who lied and cheated to accomplish something great, or people who talked a great game but didn't follow through.
Sophistry and appeasement do not generally enhance the good – but they can allow evil to fester and grow.
People who make a positive impact on the world are people who act with courage and integrity; and their impact – your impact – can be substantial.
A research study was done years ago by Professor Stanley Milgram on Obedience to Authority, which was a fantastic study on the dramatic impact that a person acting with integrity can have on others.
This was the study where subjects who thought they were helping an experimenter were told to ask a (fake) subject questions. If the fake subject answered incorrectly, the real subject was to shock that subject with higher and higher voltages of electricity – up to and beyond a clear danger zone, and in the face of screams, pleading and then silence from the fake subject.
When Milgram asked audiences to whom he presented how many of them thought they would go all the way up the voltage scale, very few hands would raise. I'm sure you think that you would never go along with such a directive yourself. I know I don't think I would.
But fully 65% of subjects did just that, illustrating the extent to which we can be drawn to obey an authority figure against our own beliefs. I know people who have participated in this experiment, and you would be surprised at the strength of character and will these people possess – and yet under the right circumstances they did what they wish they hadn't. I've had my own less dramatic run-ins with getting drawn into regretful situations. It's sobering to know that we can all be susceptible to such pressures.
But here's the powerful lesson from a little known part of Milgram's experiments: When subjects watched another subject refuse to continue before they themselves participated, the number of subjects who then went on to administer shocks all the way up the voltage scale themselves plummeted to a mere 10%!
One person acting with integrity can have a huge impact on other people; in this case, lowering the compliance with inflicting cruel physical pain from two-thirds of subjects to one-tenth of subjects.
Imagine if Hitler or Stalin or the current purveyors of inhuman coercion could only count on 10% of people to actively or passively go along with their evil plans. Imagine if 90% of the population of America refused to comply with the fascist directives and regulations coming from our government.
That would be a much different world than the two-thirds compliance we would otherwise expect, based on Milgram's experiment.
That is the power of living with integrity. That is the impact that you can have on others when you stay true to what you know and believe, even in the face of pressure from authority or seductive peers.
Living with integrity is fundamental to owning your own life, and to living your life well. It is also the most powerful stance to take in life, and it forms the backbone of national character that we need to regain our freedom.