By Stephen L. Carter
Basic Books, 261 pages, $24
I am probably the wrong person to review this book. Although I don’t much like playing card games, one that I do like a lot is a game called Rage. What I like about it is that players are “permitted” to cheat. Of course, if your opponents catch you in the act, you suffer a penalty. But if they don’t, you enjoy the feeling of having won even when you really didn’t have the cards. I don’t think Stephen Carter would approve. For example, he seems very upset by those who try to fool the official in a game of football, whereas it seems to me quite an acceptable part of the game. In short, there may be places where either this book is too serious for me or I am too frivolous for it.
Despite the moments when it seems a bit earnest, however, Integrity is both good and interesting in many ways. It is the first in a projected trilogy that will include volumes on Civility and Decency. Whether that will turn out to be too much of a good thing I’m not sure, but certainly we should applaud Carter’s attempt to write about the moral life in a manner that is accessible not just to scholars but to general readers. We should applaud also his willingness to talk not only about a few intractable moral dilemmas but also about the problems of everyday life.
Readers interested in such problems are likely to find least helpful Part I (“Explanations”) of the book in which Carter defines what he means by integrity. Part II (“Applications”) is, by contrast, interesting and often insightful as Carter discusses integrity in the academy, the press, the legal profession, marriage, and the world of sports. Part III (“Ruminations”) moves from ethics toward politics, treating important questions, though with less argumentative precision than Part II.
Put most simply, Carter understands integrity as having the courage of one’s convictions. And that simple theme does, in fact, reappear at a number of points in his discussion of particular moral issues. More precisely, however, he describes integrity in terms of three characteristics: (1) One must take pains to try to discern what is right or wrong. (2) One must be willing to shape one’s actions in accord with that discernment, even when it is difficult or painful to do so. (3) One must be willing to acknowledge publicly what one is doing. In short, a person of integrity must be reflective, steadfast, trustworthy—and whole. “A person of integrity . . . is a whole person, a person somehow undivided.” This more developed three-part definition is harder to trace throughout Carter’s “applications”; indeed, the notion of integrity at work in them often seems simply to be having the courage of one’s convictions, and it is not always clear what the more involved definition adds to the discussion.
The more complicated definition does, however, raise some very difficult theoretical issues. In “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Dr. Watson provides the following description of Mr. Neil Gibson, who has come to consult with Holmes: “His tall, gaunt, craggy figure had a suggestion of hunger and rapacity. An Abraham Lincoln keyed to base uses instead of high ones would give some idea of the man.” The question, though, is whether that is possible: a man with Lincoln’s virtues, but with those virtues “keyed to base uses instead of high ones.” By building discernment of right and wrong into his definition of integrity, Carter makes it difficult to imagine a person of integrity doing what is wrong. That makes the moral life a little too uncomplicated; it relieves us of the terror engendered by the realization that bad things can be done by people whom we in some ways admire greatly.
Carter does not want to ignore such complications. Indeed, he says explicitly that we can admire the integrity of those we believe to be wrong. He manages this by distinguishing between those who do what is wrong and those who do certain great evils (which, he thinks, a reasonable person could never discern as right). He identifies—and discusses all too briefly—three such evils in his concluding chapter: racial hatred, violence based on difference, and violence resulting from a closed mind. Why violence based on difference rather than violence based on, say, greed he does not make clear. We are not, therefore, sure whether the problem is violence or whether it is hostility toward those who are different. Much the same is true with violence resulting from a closed mind. In that instance he seems to suggest that the problem is not just violence but the closed mind, since “democracy demands dialogue.” He never presses himself, however, to ponder whether there are possibilities it would be corrupting even to contemplate and debate.
Many of the “application” chapters in Part II are more penetrating, and in my judgment these chapters will be more useful to readers. One can find here thoughtful discussions of freedom of speech and of the press. One can read a sensitive exploration of the difficulties jurors and, especially, lawyers face. Thus, for example, without denying or obscuring the problems lawyers confront when trying to act with integrity on behalf of their clients, Carter also does not ignore the importance of an adversarial system of justice and of having an “advocate” within such a system. His depiction of the lawyer as the only friend the accused may have is compelling and convincing. Just as interesting, if more mundane, is his discussion of the way academicians write letters of recommendation, routinely dispensing superlatives and inflating grades.
Two chapters in Part II are devoted to marriage, and in them Carter is refreshingly direct. A person of integrity must, he argues, struggle long and hard against the temptations that would lead to failure in marriage. The vow is taken precisely because we know how often conflicting desires may keep us from realizing the good to which husband and wife commit themselves. By taking a vow that limits our freedom, “we free ourselves to be better and truer people for our spouses.” Without that restriction the good of marriage cannot be realized.
Carter does not oppose divorce in every instance, and, in fact, he advocates a notion of “integral divorce” that may be incoherent. (People who could achieve what he calls an integral divorce are probably quite able to stay married.) But even here Carter is better than our churches often are. He asks, all too reasonably, why churches would be willing to solemnize the marriage of a divorced person whose spouse had not consented to the divorce, and he finds it “truly bizarre that a church in which marriages are sealed in the name of God would give decisive effect to a civil divorce,” by presiding over a second marriage.
More important, he sees good reasons for many couples to remain together; he argues that their principal concern should be what is best for their children; he thinks that children are harmed more by divorce than by their parents’ less-than-optimal marriage; and he suggests that quite often parents should “swallow their own pains and needs,” eschewing the “trendy contemporary philosophy that we can make others happy only when we are happy ourselves.”
Part II closes with an excellent chapter on civil disobedience, in which the theme of integrity comes again to the forefront. Although he recognizes certain exceptional circumstances, Carter argues that in most instances integrity requires that one who practices civil disobedience be ready and willing to accept punishment for that disobedience. Without such willingness, civil disobedience is difficult to distinguish from political resistance. He recognizes also that religions are “natural centers of dissent” in our world, arguing forcefully that expression of religious belief cannot be excluded from the public sphere. I do not think he takes as seriously as he might the way in which religious belief may divide the self and make it difficult to achieve the wholeness he defines as a part of integrity, but he does recognize its centrality in life.
When in Part III he turns to developing a “politics of integrity,” Carter outlines eight principles that ought to guide our public life. General as they are (e.g., “everybody gets to play”), they still form a good basis for beginning reflection on how to conduct political argument. And here again Carter emphasizes that we cannot say that “everybody gets to play” if we simultaneously “craft a vision of public life in which America’s religious traditions play no important roles.” Among his eight principles is one which states that “Our politics must call us to our higher selves.” Without denying at least some truth to such a statement, I think Carter’s own religious convictions might lead him to be more cautious about connecting politics with our higher self, more appreciative of interest—group politics, more attuned to intractable divisions that make wholeness a questionable political goal, and more sensitive to the Niebuhrian insight that politics is a realm where justice and power must meet and work out their uneasy compromises.
Along the way, Carter allows himself a puzzling “interlude” on the problem of abortion, arguing that we must get over our tendency to regard it as our most important domestic political issue. He writes:
It is shameful that so many otherwise principled liberals and conservatives have made abortion a litmus test of genuine commitment. As Jean Bethke Elshtain has noted: “Dealing with abortion . . . cannot be compared to building a great interstate highway system or desegregating the schools.
Any reader who takes the trouble to check the cited page in Elshtain’s Democracy on Trial will quickly realize that she has no intention whatsoever of suggesting that building a great interstate highway might be a more important domestic concern than abortion. To the contrary, Elshtain is arguing almost the exact opposite of Carter’s claim. She contends that judicial fiat on abortion made impossible the widespread public debate we should have had, thereby making a “politics of resentment” all but inevitable. She recognizes, of course—and this, I suppose, is why Carter quotes her—that such public debate might end in a compromise acceptable to true believers on neither side. But she is far from downplaying the importance of the question for our public life. We can sympathize with Carter’s concern that our politics become more civil without forgetting that, at earlier periods of American history, our politics might in a sense have been more civil had there been no public debate over abolition or civil rights.
What is missing from Integrity is chiefly, I think, an appreciation of the role institutions play in shaping character. The chapters on marriage are to some extent an exception here, but even in them a greater emphasis on formation of character would have nudged Carter in the direction of controverted questions about “family values” that he pretty much avoids. It would also have required a much more complex discussion than he provides about the possibilities for legislating integrity. Integrity for him is explicitly a matter of the will. “Doing the right thing rather than the wrong is neither habit nor instinct. It is will.” We should not ignore the will, but I suggest that doing the right thing—indeed, even the capacity to discern what ought to be done—is in large measure dependent upon habituation. Overlooking this, Carter may underestimate the educative force of law.
Because he ignores the character formation supplied by institutions, Carter also ignores the complexities created by the fact that our habits are formed in many different settings, which pull and push us in different directions. It is not so easy to achieve the integrity he seeks, and the divisions within the self often go deeper than he seems to imagine. To pay some heed to that fact will invite us, finally, to think of religion in ways that go beyond Carter’s compass here. It may be, finally, that integrity—if it really includes wholeness of the self-must be bestowed, not willed.
Gilbert Meilaender, a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of First Things, is author of Letters to Ellen (Eerdmans)