2012-03-13

Integrity

I was at a seafood restaurant a week ago. I ordered flounder. This is not something that I do very often. I identify as a vegetarian, and 363 or 364 days out of a year, I am. In the last couple years, though, once or twice a year, I’ve had fish.

So there was some cognitive dissonance for me in ordering that flounder. We humans have strategies for dealing with cognitive dissonance. I am as adept at those strategies as anyone. When it comes to “not thinking about it,” as I proceed to do something that the better angels of my nature wish I would think about, my skills have not been formally measured, but I guess they are at least average.

Our passions – or just our comforts, and our habits – pull us this way and that, often leaving our cognition, well, dissonant. In some other churches, they express this by saying, “what sinners we are.” I’m not sure that’s the best way to put it, because I’m not terribly confident I know what’s a sin and what isn’t. I do know that we are all struggling with how to live a life of integrity. I know we often fail. I know I do.

“Integrity” is an important word – a helpful guiding concept, and it’s helpful to see where the word comes from. Integrity means integrating. Integrity is about our opinions, values, and actions, all integrating with each other. A life of integrity is a life that is coherent, that coheres. Integrity has to be dynamic, because we’re always learning, growing, changing, revising our opinions, developing deeper understanding of our values. The work of integrating our values with each other and with our actions is never finished.

Let me offer an analogy: grammar. Suppose you have the job of composing a grammar textbook for a language that has never had a grammar book, and has no tradition of grammar instruction. The native speakers have come to you to help them better understand and use their own language, and you have agreed to take on this extensive task.

Your research will be focused on two questions:
1. The descriptive question: how do people speak?
2. The prescriptive question: How should people speak?

You must begin with the descriptive. What are the norms? What are the nouns and verbs and how are they normally arranged and inflected varied to signify plurals or tense? Only out of the deep, deep descriptive work can a prescriptive guide emerge. When we’ve identified how we do usually speak, then – and only then – can we identify the aberrations.

Grammar instruction, you see, is about integrity: coherence and consistency in the principles that guide our speaking. Ethics works the same way. The ethicist’s first and primary job is to delve deeply into what we actually do – what decisions we make, how we really behave. From that grounding in descriptive work, the ethicist can notice ways that we deviate from our own norms.

Ethical inquiry is about trying to work toward a greater integrity.

When Unitarian Universalists engaged the question of ethical eating, the first question, as with any ethical issue, was: what do we in fact value, in word and in deed? And second: What can we articulate about our values that could help us live with greater integrity?

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By Meredith Garmon
Part 3 of "Consuming Pasions"
Next: Part 4: Meredith: "Hard Questions"
Previous: Part 2: LoraKim: "Planet Chalice"
Beginning: Part 1: Meredith & LoraKim: "The Eating Conscience"