The faces of political integrity

By: Edward Hall

Despite the deeply concerning details, the questions raised by the Greensill saga and the renovation of the Downing Street Flat are nothing new; concerns about the integrity of politicians and public officials flare up with depressing regularity. These scandals lead political pundits to grumble about the decline of integrity in public life. Those of us who pay attention to such stories respond with disappointment, but not surprise. Few individuals ever seem to get sanctioned, and meaningful reforms rarely materialise, despite a slew of promises to ‘clean up’ politics. We all know that the next scandal is just around the corner, even if we don’t quite know which players will be involved, or quite how depressing it will be.

However, rather than directly commenting on the controversies of the moment I want to step back and reflect on the key concept at the heart of these lamentations by focusing on two questions: What is integrity? And why is it politically important?

Personal integrity

The term ‘integrity’ is used in two different ways when we talk about private individuals. On the one hand, integrity is often taken to be a matter of acting in accordance with a set of basic moral standards. Take a look at the ‘Integrity Test‘ that the Centre for the Study of Integrity at the University of Essex put together. Those of us who have the fortitude to refrain from such things as cheating on our taxes, lying in our own interests, and making things up on job applications, are said to have integrity, while those of us who give in to such temptations are not. On this ‘negative’ view, integrity is basically a matter of refraining from acting unethically in order to promote our self-interest. It is fundamentally a matter of complying with a set of basic moral obligations.

Though many people do think about integrity in these kinds of terms, it has serious downsides. It makes it hard to see why being classed as a person of integrity is supposed to be a mark of high praise. It is not obvious why complying with these basic obligations is something that should gain our strong moral admiration, which being judged to have integrity typically carries. Not being bad is the bare minimum requirement, not enough to warrant special praise.

Rather than simply thinking in these negative terms, philosophers typically urge us to think about integrity in a more ‘positive’ light, foregrounding the idea of self-integration. That can sound rather grand, but the underlying idea is not hard to grasp. As the philosopher Cheshire Calhoun has helpfully put it, the idea is that the person who possesses integrity has a firm understanding of their convictions and has the resolve to ‘stand for’ these convictions, even when this may be difficult for them.

When one adopts this perspective, our sense of the range of characters who can be said to lack integrity increases. People who lack a sense of moral identity insofar as they modify and change their principles in order to please others, or to opportunistically further their short-term interests, can be said to lack integrity. So too can hypocrites and weak-willed people, insofar as they espouse a set of principles which they fail to live up to. Yet all of this is compatible with complying with a minimal set of moral obligations, calling into question the adequacy of a purely negative view.    

Political integrity in a negative key  

This distinction between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ ways of reflecting on integrity reappears when one thinks about the nature of political integrity. When pundits discuss ‘political integrity’, they are usually complaining about the inability of public officials to accord with a minimal set of moral standards. The claim, in effect, is that these politicians lack integrity because they prioritise their own self-interest over the basic moral minimum expected of people who hold their office.

Such an approach influences the way that integrity is described in the Principles of Public Life:   

‘Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.’

It is not hard to see why the idea that politicians must resist using their public office to further their financial self-interest is given such prominence. For as long as there has been politics, there have been politicians who have enriched themselves at the public trough. Politicians who act in this way corrupt politics because they make private gains when we have entrusted them not to do precisely that.

But as I have argued elsewhere, this understanding of political integrity is far too reductive. Politicians can betray the public’s trust in many other ways beyond simply acting in a financially inappropriate manner. They can purposefully mislead the public on matters of great importance; undermine the democratic process; engage in electoral misconduct; and so on. So, a more adequate understanding of political integrity in negative terms has to work with a broader understanding of how politicians can fail to display integrity. Yes, not being self-serving money-grubbers who do the bare minimum expected of them is important. But it’s not the end of the story.

Yet even if an official body managed to come up with a more inclusive definition of integrity incorporating the kind of things I just mentioned, any negative approach to political integrity faces a similar problem to the negative approach to personal integrity – it describes a mere baseline of behaviour by telling politicians about which behaviours they must refrain from, rather than thinking about integrity as a more attractive character trait: as something to aspire to.

In addition, the attempt to fully codify our sense of political integrity can have damaging consequences by cheapening talk of integrity. No set of official standards – whether legal or more informal  – is going to be able to faultlessly capture the relevant instances of misconduct that we may want to sanction. This is a simple truism; however far one goes in this direction, there will be loopholes and grey areas. This matters. There will be many instances of behaviour where a public official undeniably pursues their private interest in a way that violates the public’s trust, but where they do not directly violate any of these codified standards or rules. When this happens, a political culture that encourages us to think about political integrity in purely negative terms enables politicians to proudly claim that they have acted with integrity because they haven’t directly violated the ‘rules’. But these proclamations ring hollow. Even if one avoids directly violating a set of codified standards, this is not the same as exemplifying the values and principles that those standards promote.

Even if a politician has not directly broken the law when lobbying for a firm, for example, it does not follow that they acted with integrity in the sense of standing for the principles and values that the laws that regulate lobbying aim to promote. A politician’s behaviour could be unimpeachable as far as the codified standards go, without it being at all praiseworthy.

Political integrity in a positive key

Our politics would benefit from us paying more attention to a ‘positive’ conception of political integrity. Recall that the core idea of the positive approach is that a person stands for their convictions even if this promises to be costly for them. The question of whether or not a politician has meaningfully stood for something should affect our judgement of their political conduct too.  

In his famous lecture on the vocation of politics, Max Weber argued that that there is ‘no more pernicious distortion of political energy than … [the] worship of power for its own sake’. He develops this point with reference to his idea of a cause, that ‘meaning and purpose’ which the politician seeks to serve by striving for and using power. Although Weber claims that the ‘nature of the cause the politician seeks to serve’ is, ultimately, ‘a question of faith’, he is adamant that some kind of belief must motivate their political strivings if their political achievements are to avoid being ‘cursed with the nullity of all mortal undertakings’. The point is that commitment to some kind of cause is a necessary requirement of admirable political conduct. Politicians who do not act in the service of such a cause will seek power either because it satiates their vanity, or so they can use it for their ends. We need to worry about these politicians; they are not in it for us, but for themselves.   

If we think about political commitment in roughly these terms, we can make sense of the idea that politicians may be able to display a distinctively political kind of integrity by showing a kind of fidelity to principles or ends that are, in some sense, constitutive of their identity as political agents. They stand for something more than just themselves and their own ambition.

Such politicians will still have to engage in bargaining, compromise, and negotiation with their opponents. They will have to make sacrifices and think strategically. It is naïve to think that a successful politician could get anything done if they did not. So, this kind of political integrity will differ from the kind of personal integrity private individuals display. But if a politician stands for some deep political commitments in a principled way over a long period of time, even if they periodically have to compromise and act strategically, we might come to see that it makes sense to say that they have achieved some kind of meaningful integration between their actions in politics and their deepest political principles and commitments. They possess integrity, where this means considerably more than simply having refrained from being bad.

It is common for us to admire politicians who display such commitments to a cause even if we do not happen to endorse their particular political views. Unless we have been completely blinded by partisanship, we can all probably think of some people from opposing parties whose conduct can be regarded in such terms, and who we admire for that reason. Those who cannot plausibly be said to act in the service of a set of deep political commitments, either because they shift principled positions so frequently that any supposed commitment to a set of ends is highly dubious, or because their supposed endorsement of various principles or ends is obviously opportunistic and self-serving, simply seem to lack the kind of character that enables them to be classed as politicians of integrity, even if they are politically successful in certain other respects.

Thinking about political integrity in this kind of positive way is demanding. It requires us to make complex political judgements and be fair to those who are not on our side. It is often much easier to identify rank failures of the negative type of integrity than examples of the more positive sort – probably because the latter sort of integrity appears in short supply. But these judgements matter. The point of politics is to do some good in the world, beyond one’s own self-interest, however one decides that greater good is to be construed. Avoiding misconduct matters in this regard, but it is far from enough. If we think about political integrity solely in the ‘negative’ sense, we stop ourselves from reflecting on political conduct in a fuller and ultimately more ethically enriching manner. We also lower our expectations regarding the behaviour that we expect from our politicians, and make it easier for them to rest content with appearing to do the bare minimum.

Edward Hall is a Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Sheffield. This piece draws on his chapter on political integrity which is forthcoming in the volume Political Ethics: A Handbook (Princeton University Press, 2022), that he is co-editing with Andrew Sabl.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.