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Social Philosophy

Integrity and Supererogation in Ethical Communities

Eugene V. Torisky

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ABSTRACT: This paper explores the connection between supererogation and the integrity of ethical agents. It argues two theses: (1) there is a generally unrecognized but crucial social dimension to the moral integrity of individuals which challenges individual ideals and encourages supererogation; (2) the social dimension of integrity, however, must have limits that preserve the individuals's integrity. The concept of integrity is explored through recent works by Christine Korsgaard, Charles Taylor, and Susan Babbitt. A life of integrity is in part a life whereby one 'lives up to' one's own deeply held values. Yet, as one seeks to transcend the realm of the morally customary or the dutiful, one must check one's progress not only against one's own ideals but against the ideals and behavior of the ethical community. To answer affirmatively to one's own ideals is to hear the call of integrity both from within oneself and from without. However, by being free to hear, the freedom to close one's ears inevitably will arise. Only actions displaying such freedom can be actions of moral integrity. Since supererogatory actions are always left to an agent's discretion-that is, are fully optional-they show in paradigmatic fashion the integrity of moral agents. While an ethic of integrity and supererogation provides challenges to members of an ethical community by encouraging them continually to reevaluate their actions and character in reference to postulated ideals, it also leads us to be quite wary of judging individual's moral motives from the outside. A passage by Jonathan Kozol is cited that suggests our society routinely demands supererogatory action from its poorest members. This is illegitimate since they live in conditions that alienate rather than integrate them both with themselves and with the rest of the community.

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In this paper, I explore the connections between supererogation and the integrity of ethical agents. I argue two theses: (1) There is a generally unrecognized but crucial social dimension to the moral integrity of individuals which provides challenge to individual ideals, which encourages supererogation. (2) The social dimension of integrity, however, must have limits preserving individuals' integrity. It must provide support as well as challenge.

1. The Social Dimension of Integrity

In The Sources of Normativity Christine Korsgaard provides a summary of the concept of integrity: "Etymologically, integrity is oneness, integration is what makes something one. To be a thing, one thing, a unity, an entity; to be anything at all: in the metaphysical sense, that is what it means to have integrity. But we use the term for someone who lives up to his own standards. And that is because we think that living up to them is what makes him one, and so what makes him a person at all" (Korsgaard et al. 1996, p. 102). I agree with Korsgaard's contention that integrity is a practical notion, not a theoretical one. There is no set of necessary and sufficient conditions accessible from the outside, from a third-person perspective, determining whether a person is living with integrity. And yet commonly we take this stance toward each other of expecting integrity, and most significantly, we expect it of ourselves from the first-person perspective, even when we recognize the halting character of our efforts in this regard.

But while a primary meaning of integrity is devotion to one's own ideals, it is important to notice that the concept is not entirely self-referential or ingrown. One's integrity as an ethical agent necessarily is affected, positively as well as negatively, by the ethical community in which one lives. Such a community has ideals according to which one is called to live, and this call cannot simply be ignored by an integral agent. Thomas Hill (Hill 1991) has put this nicely: "By 'integrated life' I mean a life in which various aspects are in harmony; for example, one's plans and policies cohere with one's values and ideals, one's deeds cohere with one's words, and the whole pattern of one's 'inner' and 'outer' choices cohere over time not only with each other but with others' in a larger moral community" (pp. 77-8). To illustrate this complicated relationship between the agent and community in integrity, let us take a recent historical example. Those battling in the Civil Rights marches of the 1950s and '60s sought integration rather than segregation for the descendants of American slaves. Integration had a specific legal meaning in the context of the fight for civil rights, namely equal access to public goods such as education for citizenship, equal opportunity to rent or buy housing, and the like. Of course this entails the integration of civil rights activists' actions with their ideals, with their visions of their selves and values. But more broadly Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders sought for a deeper and truer integration of African-Americans into the everyday life of the rest of the nation, not merely its legal and economic machinery. They sought to become more fully that which they already were: full citizens, members of the American polity. Their goal was to do this without giving up their own most deeply held ideals about meaning and value, including their equality with their oppressors as citizens and human beings. While recognizing what still separated them from their fellow (white) citizens, they insisted on bridging that gap so that both sides could see the way American political reality should be.

These two aspects of the problem of moral integrity the social dimension and the presence of an individual ethical ideal have been stressed by Susan E. Babbitt in Impossible Dreams: Rationality, Integrity, and Moral Imagination (Babbitt 1996). Babbitt argues that integrity is difficult if not impossible to achieve if the surrounding culture is one that denies one's status as a person: if it is sexist, ageist, or racist. For the possibilities inherent in a culture can limit the attainment of future possibilities: "Certain concepts, such as that of genuine autonomy for women, are . . .unimaginable in current, explicitly available, conceptual terms because the accepted understanding of such terms disallows such possibilities" (Babbitt 1996, p. 26).

This means that integrity is not merely a subjective matter of maximization of one's goals and making the set of one's goals coherent. It requires attention to the objective conditions in which humans may flourish and develop. Integrity also demands a faculty of moral imagination, with which those denied equal status and development can see, however dimly, beyond their culture's conceptual limitations and make moral decisions that may be viewed by the culture as immoral or even deeply irrational. Thus Babbitt characterizes integrity as " . . . the process of defining unities and relations in the context of an ongoing effort to effectively order the world and act in it politically that provides grounds for making nonarbitrary judgments about real similarities and differences" (p. 23). As a result, even though integrity is a function of a person's most deeply held commitments and projects, such notions still remain criticizable from the outside.

Charles Taylor, in his short work The Ethics of Authenticity (Taylor 1992), largely concurs with this analysis. As explicated by Herder, authenticity is something like autonomy plus originality, one's individual genius at work in moral matters:

There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else's. But this gives a new importance to being true to myself. . . . [This ideal] accords crucial moral importance to a kind of contact with myself, with my own inner nature, which it sees as in danger of being lost (Taylor 1992, pp. 28-9).

Authenticity thus involves a process of self-exploration or discovery which is open-ended, indeterminate, open to development and surprise in the future. Taylor argues however that even the genius of oneself is meaningless, "insignificant" or at best "trivialized" (p. 40), absent background social conditions against which the individual ideal, in relation to which one seeks to be authentic, can be compared and itself measured. Like Babbitt, Taylor argues that integrity must be tested socially over time and in relationship. The moral life, and life in general, is inescapably dialogical (p. 33), and so Taylor argues that a life striving to be independent from the demands of other, or to live only for one's own desires, is self-defeating.

Human beings must seek to uphold their sense of integrity, their oneness, in the face of division both within themselves and without. (1) They do this by assessing their genius, the uniqueness of their own values and projects, in the context of challenges from the values of their community (and of course from those of other known communities as well). To live with integrity or authenticity in this sense is to live in tension, since an evolution toward increased oneness with a pluralistic group may seem to demand that one loosen one's attachment to certain deeply-held personal values, or vice versa. "If authenticity is bring true to ourselves, is recovering our own 'sentiment de l'existence,' then perhaps we can only achieve it integrally if we recognize that this sentiment connects us to a wider whole. . . . Perhaps the loss of a sense of belonging through a publicly defined order needs to be compensated by a stronger, more inner sense of linkage" (Taylor 1992, p. 91).

I would add to that there are often in the lives of moral agents multiple legitimate standards competing for attention, and that this is unavoidable due to the complexity of human nature, which is necessarily both social and self-involved in nature. While I cannot pause to argue the point here, I believe that the social dimension of integrity reflects the existence of both agent-neutral and agent-relative reasons for action that appeal to agents contemplating supererogatory action. To attempt to deny the relevance of the second sense of integrity is implicitly to appeal to an entirely agent-relative picture of values and reasons for action that I argue elsewhere should be rejected, or else to retreat to an entirely external standard for behavior to which humans must mindlessly conform. (2)

A life of integrity is in part a life whereby one "lives up to" one's own deepest held values.  As we unpack the metaphor of moral height, one's ideals are conceived as higher than oneself; thus to live up to them, one must seek to transcend the realm of the morally customary, the dutiful. But one must check one's progress not only against one's own ideals, but against the ideals and behavior of others. "Authenticity [or integrity in the way we have defined it] is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it presupposes such demands" (Taylor 1992, p. 41). To answer affirmatively to one's own ideals is to hear the call of integrity both from within oneself and from without, but to be free to hear inevitably risks the freedom to close one's ears. "To be a person implies responsibility and freedom, and both of these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one's own reality and of one's ability to give oneself to society or to refuse that gift" (Merton 1993, p. x). Only actions displaying such freedom can be actions of moral integrity. Since supererogatory actions are always up to an agent to do or not to do that is, are fully optional they show in almost paradigmatic fashion the integrity of moral agents. (3)

2. Integrity, Supererogation, and Ethical Limits

There can be societies only in the presence of mutuality and reciprocity, shared respect and concern for others as loci of value and as beings like oneself. But in some manner or another, from time to time or more often than that, this concern as expressed in action in society must go beyond mere tolerance (a negative acceptance of the other) to a more positive willing of (at least some of) the permissible ends of the other, thereby making them one's own (Korsgaard 1996). In so doing we construct a new kind of moral community, "a community of mutual aid for dependent beings" (Herman 1993, p. 60).

My contention is that an ethics of supererogation, played out over an entire society by agents acting with integrity, functions as a sort of social "forgiveness rule." Supererogatory actions, like actions in accordance with duty, help to build up trust, the ability to sustain the social good without continual or face-to-face enforcement. (4) Unlike actions according to duty, however, supererogatory actions do not require the prospect of very likely reciprocity to be performed; they by definition are not committed to a dynamic of tit-for-tat. (5) They have the ability to bootstrap trust where no trust has existed before, and to repair trust where bonds have been ruptured. All communities occasionally face times of rapid and confusing change, or crisis situations in which the very existence of the community as a moral entity is called into questions and the possibility of reciprocity is reduced considerably. At such times when a community is engaged in the business of evolving a new consensus, supererogatory action preserves and sustains the trust which enables communal and individual survival.

Thus while an ethic of integrity and supererogation provides challenge to members of an ethical community, encouraging them continually to reevaluate their actions and characters in reference to postulated ideals, it is uniquely well situated to provide support as well. An ethic of supererogation should lead us to be quite wary of judging individuals' moral motives from the outside, since the task of the integration of the self on the one hand, and of the self and community on the other, depends crucially on what it is like to be a particular agent, to have his peculiar mixture of agent-neutral and agent-relative reasons for action, his particular life of integrity to live up to. The ethics of maximization make such judgments come easy and cheap from the outside; they in fact attempt to subsume what Thomas Nagel (Nagel 1986) calls the subjective point of view to the objective point of view. But this subsumption is not integration unless the agent can freely assent to it as a result of examining her own reasons for action and sense of integrity, as well as the agent-neutral call to beneficence or benevolence made by the moral community.

This point is illustrated by educator and activist Jonathan Kozol (Kozol 1995) in Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation.

If only enough children, we are told, would act the way the heroes do, say no to drugs and sex and gold chains and TV and yes to homework, values, church, and abstinence, and if only enough good parents, preachers, teachers, volunteers, and civic-minded business leaders would assist them in these efforts, we could "turn this thing around" and wouldn't need to speak about dark, messy matters such as race, despisal, and injustice.

I am afraid these stories, if they are not qualified, can leave the misimpression that sufficient levels of heroism, reinforced perhaps by charitable help from outside groups ... are all that is required for the evolution, in due time, of what might be referred to as "good ghettoes."

... I believe that they inflate exceptionality into a myth of progress that is not based on reality. They do console us, but I think they may permit us also to congratulate ourselves too easily about the "bootstrap" possibilities for individual endeavor or for localized renewal efforts in an atmosphere where the toxicity of life is nearly universal.

So long as the most vulnerable people in our population are consigned to places that the rest of us will always shun and flee and view with fear, I am afraid that educational denial, medical and economic devastation, and aesthetic degradation will be virtually inevitable; and this, I am afraid, will be the case no matter what the individual or even shared achievements of small numbers of good human beings who are infused with the essential heroism of the people whom I have described (Kozol 1995, pp. 161-2).

Kozol's is a call for individual and social integrity. None of us could reliably integrate bootstrapping values into the life of the most poor among us, were we in their shoes, since the entire process has as a necessary condition an integration of their lives with our lives the possibility of which society at large seems unwilling to bring about. Our society is in effect demanding supererogatory, heroic and saintly, action from the poorest members of our society, the ones who are least capable of performing such actions with grace and dignity, since they live in conditions that alienate, rather than integrate, them with themselves and the rest of the community. While an ethic of integrity and superrogation does challenge all members of the ethical community to reexamine their own ideals in the light of social ideals, it also demands that society provide support so that all members can pursue lives of integrity. Thus when we seek to make heroic actions by the poorest of the poor practically and morally obligatory, mainly because they would benefit society as a whole (or the rest of us, the better-off), this command in the form of a request is morally illegitimate.

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(1) For Lynne McFall, this division is definitional of integrity: "A person of integrity is willing to bear the consequences of her convictions, even when this is difficult, that is, when the consequences are unpleasant. A person whose only principle is 'Seek my own pleasure' is not a candidate for integrity because there is no possibility of conflict-between pleasure and principle-in which integrity could be lost. Where there is no possibility of its loss, integrity cannot exist" (McFall 1987, p. 9).

(2) This is the error that I believe is made by Carter 1996. While he defines integrity as discernment, presumably an active process requiring soul-searching on the part of the agent, Carter sometimes stresses only the recognition of and response to an exterior standard of conduct. This is so especially in his discussion of religious uses of the concept of integrity: he sees it as involving following God's call without stinting, without counting the cost, without question (Carter 1996, pp. 8-9). Carter's sense of integrity thus can leave little room for individual ideals.

(3) While living up to one's ideals is living and acting with integrity, that does not imply that to act with integrity necessarily is to act optionally. For example, assuming that I accept the maxim of truth-telling, my acting in accordance with that value is an action of integrity. But at least in Kant's account of ethical duty, my telling the truth when I could get away with lying is not optional; it is a perfect duty. I am merely contending that integrity is most clearly shown when it encompasses living up to one's ideals in a situation where such action is optional.

(4) On the topic of social capital, a metaphorical commodity which can be "spent" to preserve trust in actual societies, see Putnam 1993 a-b and 1995. Putnam's examples are generally what I would call partial supererogation-optional beneficent actions with very little risk of sacrifice. Here I contend that what holds for these actions of little moral value should hold a fortiori for actions of significantly greater value, often involving much greater risk.

(5) For a complete proposal that principles of beneficence should reflect compliance levels in the rest of a community, see Murphy 1993. Murphy's point that others'compliance has an impact on one's own duties has been denied by Singer 1986, among others.


Babbitt, Susan E. 1996. Impossible Dreams: Rationality, Integrity, and Moral Imagination. San Francisco: Westview Press / Harper Collins.

Carter, Stephen. 1996. Integrity. New York: Basic Books.

Herman, Barbara. 1993. Mutual Aid and Respect for Persons. In The Practice of Moral Judgment: 45-72. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hill, Thomas E. Jr. 1991. Moral Purity and the Lesser Evil. In Autonomy and Self-Respect: 67-84. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Korsgaard, Christine M. 1996. Creating the Kingdom of Ends: Reciprocity and Responsibility in Personal Relations. In Creating the Kingdom of Ends: 188-221. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Korsgaard, Christine M., G. A. Cohen, Raymond Geuss, Thomas Nagel, and Bernard Williams. 1996. The Sources of Normativity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kozol, Jonathan. 1995. Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation. New York: Crown Publishers.

McFall, Lynne. 1987. Integrity. Ethics 98 (1): 5-20.

Merton, Thomas. 1993. Thoughts in Solitude. Shambhala Pocket Classics. Boston: Shambhala. Originally published 1958.

Murphy, Liam B. 1993. The Demands of Beneficence. Philosophy and Public Affairs 22 (4): 269-292.

Nagel, Thomas. 1986. The View from Nowhere. New York: Oxford University Press.

Putnam, Robert. 1993a. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Putnam, Robert D. 1993b. The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life. American Prospect 13: 35-42.

Putnam, Robert D. 1995. Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital. Journal of Democracy 6 (1): 65-78.

Singer, Peter. 1986. Famine, Affluence, and Morality. In Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, ed. John Perry and Michael Bratman: 573-580. New York: Oxford University Press. Originally published 1972.

Taylor, Charles. 1992. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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