A question of integrity

In 2017, the Captain of School, Nick Bartlett, discussed the idea of integrity with Nick Evans, Deputy Headmaster & Head of Senior School.

Nick E: What do you understand by integrity?

Nick B: For me integrity is about holding your own set of personal values and having the courage to act on these, even in light of confrontation. It can be easy to discard your values in difficult circumstances, and to drop your sense of morality. It is important that you don’t.

Nick E: So, is a lack of integrity the inability to live by the values that you set yourself?

Nick B: Yes. It is so much more difficult to do certain things with integrity, rather than to do them with no sense of moral obligation or underpinning set of values.

Nick E: There is a very fine line between being completely true to your own sense of integrity and being entirely dogmatic. When are there circumstances where it’s difficult to hold true to your values? When might you need to modify them according to the circumstance in which you find yourself?

Nick B: In a school environment, it can be hard to stick to an opinion or set of values when a larger contingent of people isn’t supportive of that view. Last year a group of us were keen on getting the Gay Straight Alliance up and running. I was concerned that this might not sit comfortably with some people. But in that particular instance, we thought it was more important that we stood by what we believed to be important to us and to the nature of the whole School, so we continued even in light of a possible clash of values. Luckily the School shared our viewpoint.

Nick E: The Gay Straight Alliance is a great initiative and has worked well. However, hypothetically speaking, if you had a sense that continuing with the establishment of the Gay Straight Alliance would split the School community, that it would cause conflict, would you still have gone ahead with it?

Nick B: I definitely would have had to consider our plans more seriously because the conflict arising would have been something I would have been responsible for. I would have had more reservations, but I believe that the long-term benefits would have outweighed any initial conflict that would have arisen. We might have had to give more thought to how we introduced the Alliance. Anyway, if there was initial conflict, it would demonstrate why the Alliance was so healthy and necessary to introduce it to the School.

Nick E: Is it more important what your values are or the fact that you remain true to them, or is it a combination of both?

Nick B: I think most people would say it is a combination of both. For the most part, I don’t particularly care what people’s values are – it is more important to me that you abide by them because I don’t think we are in any position to judge the values of other people. While I understand the principle of cultural relativism can be important, obviously if someone’s values are barbaric or without any sense of goodness, we need to question those values and ask why that person has come to that set of morals or values. But, in general, I think the most important thing is to stick to your values, which may take courage.

Nick E: I am not sure I agree with you. As a historian, I have spent time examining people who would argue that they stuck to their values, and one could admire them for sticking to their values, but their values were abhorrent.

Nick B: Oh no, I agree. If their values were abhorrent, then that is different. I suppose it is a question of degree. There cannot be absolute judgement. I can admire someone’s integrity at sticking with their values without sharing their values. But I acknowledge the essential truth of what you have said. There are certain points at which it doesn’t matter how steadfastly someone holds to their values, if their values are so foreign or abhorrent to me, then I simply cannot admire them.

Nick E: Can values change during your life?

Nick B: Yes. Obviously, the way I perceive something to be right or wrong and the value set I have is going to be different to, for example, my parents because of the difference in age and the experiences that we have. I think they can change throughout a lifetime. Experience will shape the type of person that you are, the values that you have and the courage you have to uphold them.

Nick E: Do you think it is easier to act with integrity when you are your age than when you are older?

Nick B: I recognise that I don’t have the experience or responsibilities that you do. Sometimes I imagine you must be bound by those responsibilities and have to adjust your principles or ethics or values around them. I think it is much easier for passion to rule over logic when you are younger and without so many responsibilities.

Nick E: So, is there a potential for a different type of integrity to emerge? For example, I feel strongly about the welfare of the School and everyone within it. This underpins my decision making. Is it possible to act with integrity when, and I am not saying that it has, my decisions conflict with my own personal views?

Nick B: Many things in life are a compromise. That’s the nature of working together to create a harmonious, productive community. However, it seems to me that you could only perform in a professional role if the values of the organisation and your own values are mostly consistent. Values have a subjective nature. There must be some wriggle room within them. But, in the end, it is really a question of integrity.

This exploration was previously published in Grammar News No 122, April 2017.