What Happened to Integrity?
A LITTLE over one hundred years ago, Barney Barnato, a diamond speculator, returned to England from South Africa. Upon his arrival he took exception to a newspaper story written about him. So he gave the editor some handwritten notes for a second article, “just putting things right,” with a check for a large sum of money.
The editor, J. K. Jerome, threw the notes into the wastepaper basket and gave the check back. Surprised, Barnato immediately doubled his offer. That was likewise rejected. “How much do you want?” he asked. Recalling the incident, Jerome says: “I explained to him it wasn’t done—not in London.” His editorial integrity was definitely not for sale.
“Integrity” has been defined as “moral uprightness; honesty.” A person of integrity is worthy of trust. But today, improbity—a lack of integrity—is undermining all walks of life.
In Britain the media have popularized the word “sleaze” to describe the loss of moral integrity. As The Independent newspaper put it, sleaze covers “everything from love affairs and local government gerrymandering to kickbacks on big export orders.” No area of life is exempt.
Integrity’s Fluctuating Standards
Integrity does not, of course, mean perfection, but it does reflect a basic quality in a person. In our get-rich-quick world, integrity may be seen as an encumbrance, not a virtue. For example, student use of sophisticated gadgets to cheat on exams is on the increase, and these new devices are almost impossible to detect. One British university professor claims that more than half of all British students have cheated, and Britain is surely not alone.
Not to be overlooked is the cost to innocent people when untrustworthy individuals lie and deceive. Take the case of the Indian town of Bhopal where, in 1984, toxic gas killed more than 2,500 men, women, and children and injured hundreds of thousands more. The Sunday Times reported: “Relief schemes to help the victims are mired in corruption. . . . The task of sifting through legitimate cases has been complicated by thousands of bogus claims, forged documents and fake evidence.” As a result, ten years later barely $3,500,000 of a $470,000,000 damages settlement had been distributed to those in need.
What about religion? How does it rate in this matter of integrity? Sadly, standards are often no higher than in the secular world. Take as an example Roman Catholic bishop Eamon Casey, who confessed to fathering an illegitimate son, now a teenager. Casey’s situation, as Britain’s Guardian newspaper pointed out, was “far from unique.” In a similar vein, The Times reported: “The truth about Bishop Casey’s disgrace is not that his misdeed was exceptional, but that cheating on celibacy is neither new nor rare.” Supporting this contention, The Glasgow Herald, Scotland, claims that only 2 percent of Roman Catholic clergy in the United States have avoided both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Whether this figure is accurate or not, it indicates the reputation of Catholic priests in the matter of morality.
Faced with such examples, is it possible for an individual to keep moral integrity? Is it worth it? What would it require, and what are the rewards for doing so?