Honesty, Integrity, and All That

“The measure of any man’s virtue is what he would do, if he had neither the laws nor
public opinion, nor even his own prejudices, to control him.” –
William Hazlitt (Characteristics, 1823)

I like the general idea of honesty and integrity and would like to think of myself as a good person. But I can’t believe I’m any different
from anyone else in that regard — and when I take a hard look in the mirror of reality, I have to recognize that I’m terribly flawed. Because I don’t know too many people who feel that they are really better than I am, I have to be
suspicious of what people do and mean when they talk about these virtues.

Integrity is a tough thing to define (see “Word to the Wise,” below) and a tougher thing to find in people. Most of the people I know who talk a lot about honesty and integrity do so when it suits their own purposes. When it’s to their advantage to give someone a royal screwing, they do so … but with plenty of good reasons why the so-and-so deserved it.

Honesty, too, is a very mercurial attribute. When I’m firing someone because he’s a complete and useless putz, I don’t feel it’s best to be honest with him about my reasons. I want my partners to be honest about their other business relationships — but why? Because I want them to be virtuous? Or because I’m afraid of what they might do to hurt me?

As I’m writing this, I stop to look at the latest issue of Forbes Small Business — which AK just dropped on my desk. In a feature titled “Goodbye Greed,” the author — Ellyn Spragins — says that “more and more entrepreneurs believe that business should be good for the soul.”

She cites the example of a Mr. Patrick Sweeney, who feels he is a very virtuous guy because his goal is not only to be worth $40 million himself but also to make 40 other people into millionaires along with him. The best part of getting rich, he told Ms. Spragins, won’t be the freedom, the status, or the fancy toys. It will be proving that “the qualities of integrity and honesty and respect for individuals can be used to build a wildly
successful company.”


Another example of this new kind of good businessperson is personified in Eileen Fisher, whose stores are devoted to “aligning personal meaning with corporate objectives” as an “art form.”
After thinking about it for a while, Ms. Fisher decided that ” a big bundle of money is not what it’s all about.” She got “really interested in the larger purpose of [her] business.”

To demonstrate her point, Ms. Fisher points out that she bonuses her employees 10% of the profits and gives them a $1,000 credit for yoga and exercise classes.


And David Sidman finds his own personal virtue in the fact that his business, which makes some kind of bar-code device, will spread democracy around the world by making “information flow more freely.”

Ms. Spragins is very impressed by all this. My feeling, however, is “Give me a break.”

When it comes to morality, I like to judge people by what they do, not what they say. And as far as leadership is concerned, it has nothing to do with virtue. (Nixon and Clinton were not honest, but they
certainly were very effective leaders.)

Bottom line: Be good because you believe that being good has some absolute value in the universe, not because it will make you better at what you do.

More on this when there is more.