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By Lou Marzeles

An introduction to Integrity Literacy


February 19, 2020

Over the years this community has heard talk of a performing arts center coming to Goldendale. If you’ve heard that talk, you’ve likely also heard that it’s to be based on a concept called Integrity Literacy. That center is indeed coming, and it is indeed based on this concept. After repeated questions about it, I’ve decided it’s time to share in detail what the concept means and how it applies to the performing arts and, really, life in general. With that in mind, this is the first in a series of pieces on Integrity Literacy.

To take a look at Integrity Literacy, there are two primary tasks at hand. First is to define the term. Second is to explain why the concept is something greatly, and inevitably, to be desired. This discussion is not intended to be academic; my aim is to keep it conversational and as simple as possible while still covering the richness and broad ramifications of integrity.

Before Integrity Literacy can be defined with any real utility, I must explain that I’m creating a lexicon of integrity that freely borrows from long-established terms and concepts but re-purposes some of them. The reason for this re-purposing will become clear as we proceed.

Integrity and morality

Integrity could be easily mistaken for morality, especially since the two share a great deal in common. But I propose that integrity is more fundamental, more primordial, a precursor even to morality. Let’s think of integrity as a formative, innate, inexorable quality of human consciousness and something else even more basic and primary than consciousness. I call it a core attitude of heart. More on this later.

Working with this view of integrity, it’s reasonable to say it is antecedent to institutional religion. Religions, whatever the basis of their theology, all have well-articulated values and beliefs which look to the betterment of the human spirit and condition as they see it. As I’m working with the term, integrity is a foundational wellspring giving rise to the moral senses embraced and espoused in institutional religions. For people of faith, this will sound as if I’m ascribing qualities of divine essence to integrity—and indeed I am from that perspective. (There isn’t a person on the planet who doesn’t follow some form of faith, though many are unaware or in denial of this; even atheism is faith in the roll of nature’s dice, and its god is circumstance.) But I’m also framing integrity as a natural phenomenon inherent in the nature of life itself. The two perspectives need not be contradictory, and by the end of this conversation it will be abundantly clear they are not.

There is one last thing to say about morality as it applies to integrity before we move on. This is the notion of Moral Law, and it has much to offer this discussion, chiefly because it’s something different from morality itself. Perhaps C. S. Lewis presented the most compelling apologetic for a Moral Law in his book Mere Christianity. There, he posited that people are innately aware of a moral standard without having to acquire it from religion or upbringing. This is evidenced, he wrote, in the fact that people can argue about whether or not something is morally right or wrong, but everyone agrees that there must be some standard beyond themselves against which things can be morally measured. Lewis argues at length this sense is inherent in human nature because, among other reasons, while what constitutes moral rightness can vary among cultures and attitudes, there is no culture that does not acknowledge some kind of moral measuring stick.

Lewis’ argument echoes a conversation about morality that goes back millennia. In Western culture, the ancient Greeks and Romans debated the nature of something beyond common understanding that informed human consciousness on moral rightness or wrongness. The Latin term Summum Bonum, meaning “the highest good,” arose in Rome to refer to an earlier Greek notion of the Idea of the Good, a standard against which human thinking and conduct could be measured; its nature was debated by Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, and others and in later centuries became fodder for countless philosophers and Christian apologists. In the East, “proper” conduct was examined by renowned people of thought for thousands of years, exemplified in the sayings of Lao Tse and Confucius, among others. And this of course doesn’t include the volumes of related conversations contained in the literature of the world’s great religions.

Morality is a highly suggestible term these days, easily appropriated to any number of causes and values. In a time of such a strong cultural bias toward relative values, morality is a term insufficient to designate a deeper quality more indigenous and natural to the human condition. To meet that need, I choose the term integrity, elevating it from its everyday connotations (which themselves typically don’t go deep enough), and I call the capacity to recognize, articulate, and exercise its qualities Integrity Literacy.


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