The confluence this week of the Eliot Spitzer resignation and yet another round of discussions about the Barack Obama-Tony Rezko connection led me — like, I’m sure, many of you — to wonder a bit about the political consequences of the fact that “personal integrity” seems to have become the most important commodity that a whole slew of U.S. pundits and even large swaths of the U.S. electorate looks for in a candidate for public office. Besides the usual concerns, such as the fact that I can’t for the life of me understand why participation in shady real estate deals or a habit of visiting prostitutes has anything whatsoever to do with someone’s capacity for governing, the thing that really struck me in watching these stories unfold is exactly how much misunderstanding is involved in this focus on personal integrity. And I mean “misunderstanding” in a strict sense: criticizing someone’s personal integrity is, literally, a misapprehension both of how political rhetoric works and of how social action arises in the first place.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that people mistakenly assume that the truth-value of the statement “X is a person of great personal integrity” tells us something about what person X is likely to do in the future. If that were the case, then knowing that someone always behaved in accordance with various ethical precepts would give us confidence that the person would go on doing so. But it’s not the case, and so there’s something rather absurd about trying to evaluate someone’s future performance — especially a public someone, virtually all of whose statements about everything have been carefully vetted and test-marketed and engineered to achieve a desired effect — based on a judgment about their personal integrity. To do so strikes me as a classic example of a category mistake, in this case a misreading of a practical-moral claim as though it were an empirical description.

What does it mean to have personal integrity? In my usual Wittgensteinian / pragmatist manner, the only way I can think to cash out the operational meaning of the phrase “personal integrity” is to look at how it’s used. And at least politically, “personal integrity” seems to refer to a consistency between someone’s words and their actions. If someone makes a statement of principle and then undermines that principle with all of their subsequent behavior, then they get accused of not having personal integrity; if they “stick to their guns” and refuse to compromise, then they are esteemed as having great personal integrity. This is especially the case when it comes to the relationship between public statements and private behavior — remember Nannygate? That’s a good example.

If we take consistency between public words and private actions as a working definition of “personal integrity,” then it seems to me that one of three things is likely the case about any public political figure esteemed for her or his personal integrity:

1) he or she has a very good set of spin doctors and PR people;

2) he or she is very good at explaining away seeming discrepancies, perhaps with the help of the aforementioned spin doctors and PR people; or

3) he or she actually does conform actions to words.

Options 1 and 2 tell us nothing whatsoever about whether the public political figure has any personal integrity, and seem a very weak basis on which to evaluate what they are likely to do in the future. Indeed, all they tell us is that if the public political figure changes her or his position, someone from the Ministry of Truth, er, the political staff, will make it appear as though the public political figure has always been strongly opposed to / strongly in favor of whatever the option now on the table is. But option 3 is hardly any better, because it is impossible to decide between

3a) he or she is really, really concerned with acting in accord with her or his declared principles

and

3b) he or she is really, really concerned with appearing to act in accord with her or his declared principles.

Once again, there’s no secure basis here for making a prediction about future actions, since 3a and 3b are empirically indistinguishable — and if 3b is the case then perhaps the public political figure might be a bit more inclined to take advantage of options 1 and 2 in an effort to shore up her or his image . . . leaving us right back where we started.

The more profound problem here is that we misread “X is a person of great personal integrity” if we regard it as an empirical proposition. If we did try to read it that way, then we’d be saying something like “X’s words and actions have corresponded in the past,” and the proposition could only be evaluated if no more words or actions were forthcoming, i.e. if the person were dead or otherwise completely incapacitated. But that’s not how the statement functions, because it’s a practical-moral claim rather than an empirical one. “Practical-moral” is a term I borrow from John Shotter; it highlights the extent to which such claims do important social and cultural work in a given context, since they arise from and participate in a whole complex ecology of commonplace notions on which people draw to make sense of things. The truth-value of a practical-moral claim is irrelevant, or undecidable, or nonsensical. Saying “X has personal integrity” is like saying “we are a just society” or “we are a compassionate and environmentally-friendly organization.” On one hand, it means nothing in particular, and on the other hand, it can exercise a profound shaping effect on future action — which is what practical-moral claims are supposed to do in the first place.

Consider “we are a just society.” If “justice” exists as a commonplace among both speakers and the audience for such a statement, then the practical-moral claim functions not to describe the society, but to guide and shape subsequent discussions about possible courses of action: from here on in they have to make reference to “justice,” and various participants in those contentious conversations can deploy “justice” as a way of impressing their positions on others. The same is true of “X has personal integrity,” which I submit ought not to be thought of as a description but instead as a contribution to the shaping of an ongoing flow of action — after the practical-moral claim is made and accepted, debates and discussions about options have to take “integrity” into account. This does not mean that any particular action is excluded as much as it means that the whole terrain on which actions are considered has shifted; that’s the kind of effect that a successful practical-moral claim has.

It’s silly to try to evaluate anyone, especially a public political figure, on the basis of their supposed internal disposition towards “integrity,” visible in their past behavior. Any living breathing human being, I’d posit, has some morally questionable actions in their past someplace, actions that involve a compromise of principle; whether this looks like a violation of their “integrity” probably depends on the vim and vigor with which the media pursues their investigation, and the skill and resources of the media handlers trying to spin the story back in a direction that the person in question finds more acceptable. So we’re all imperfect, we’ve all compromised, we’re all flawed. And? Does this make all of us unfit for anything? Such would be the logical consequence of treating “personal integrity” as an empirical judgment.

Instead, if we re-think the claim in practical-moral terms, we discover that claiming to have (or being claimed to have) “personal integrity” means that future actions can and should be evaluated for consistency with previous declarations of principle. This can obviously get someone in trouble — Eliot Spitzer is a good case — if they are discovered to have large gaps between principles and behaviors. But you can’t evaluate that in advance, because such gaps are always produced and made meaningful in the present, and the process of doing so is always social and political. It is futile to look for a person who appears to empirically manifest “personal integrity” and declare them a better candidate for public office; better by far to examine the constellation of commonplaces surrounding the candidate, size up the potentials for various courses of action to be justified, and choose the candidate whose rhetorical universe inclines in your preferred direction. And if “personal integrity” is part of the mix, watch out — that’s an avenue that opponents are almost certain to be able to exploit, most likely at a time and place of their choosing.

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