Carter's Three Steps

Law Professor Stephen Carter is worried. He fears we have become a people who pay lip service to the idea of integrity but don't want to do the hard grunt work to be a people of integrity. It's easy to see examples of his complaint in public life. After all, we have had a president who flat-out lied to us rather than face the music about his adulterous affair; we have federal budgets that play fast and loose with the numbers, and we have major corporations and their accounting firms that defraud investors.

Moreover, when these things are revealed, no one accepts the blame. Instead, like the generals in the poem we read during the first class, the perpetrators whine on their knees before posterity, praise their heroism and innocence; accuse their colleagues [and] envious subordinates. Yes, they say, I was the CEO of that corporation, but I was misinformed; I didn't know. I am not responsible. Here are just a few events from the past 20 years. How many do you remember?

How about the Savings and Loan fiasco in which S&L's avoided responsibility for the bad loans they made and were bailed out by taxpayers?

How about the tobacco industry execs that told Congress that cigarettes weren't carcinogenic, and so executives themselves weren't responsible for causing cancer?

How about the industries that lobbied for a taxpayer financed Super Fund cleanup bill so they could avoid the responsibility for cleaning up the toxic wastes their plants created?

This is not to mention the lack of integrity we see in everyday life: students who blame everyone but themselves for a bad grade or missed deadline, people who embezzle money and then claim they did so because of a gambling addiction, or people who complain about their taxes; then they turn around and complain because high school classrooms are overcrowded and they have to wait in line at the DMV.

Everywhere we see people who go on and on about their integrity until it costs them something. And then we get endless excuses. In this sad state of public affairs, Carter calls for some real clarity of thinking, and he tries to provide it by defining the thought process and behavior one must do to be a person of integrity.

Indeed, he lays out three steps, and it's helpful here to review them. First, he says acting with integrity requires serious moral discernment. In other words, we must soberly reflect over questions of right and wrong. It isn't enough to just go with our impulses or follow the crowd.

To be a person of integrity, Carter argues, we must examine the ethical questions that confront us: should we pad our expense account just because everyone does? Should we lie about our address so our kid can attend a better high school? He doesn't answer these questions for us; he merely states that we must seriously reflect upon them, and when we have decided what's right, we must act on our belief.

This is his second step. People of integrity don't just hold beliefs; they act upon them. Now some students in past classes have felt that Carter is insisting that we all have to take to the streets in vigorous advocacy of our principles, lest we become hypocrites. One stated she was pro-Life, but didn't feel it necessary to scream in people's faces as they entered an abortion clinic.

So does that make her a hypocrite? I don't think so. She seemed to have another principle about respecting other people's decisions. Where's the hypocrisy? She didn't donate to causes that supported abortion or urge her friends and family to have one. I think we misunderstand Carter if we take his step two to mean that we must all became street protesters. After all, there are many ways to act on one's principles. What he seems to be saying is that having principles and doing nothing about them is a mark of hypocrisy.

But then we come to step three, perhaps the strangest one of all. Carter argues that we have to openly state the reasons for our actions. In short, he says we can't have integrity without being public about it. Okay, why not? We might object to this step by asking, "Isn't enough that I stay true to myself? Why should it matter whether everyone knows how I believe? Besides, I certainly don't want a bunch of people in my face telling me their beliefs all the time. I'll worry about my integrity and you worry about yours, pal."

But this response misses a key point in Carter's argument, for step three is not completely about us. No, step three also concerns other people. In fact, Carter's step three is an attempt to map out a way for people with strong and perhaps conflicting principles to get along. After all, what happens if you have thought deeply and acted on your principle and I have done the same, yet we completely disagree?

If you're doing something I strongly disagree with, how can I be your neighbor? To solve this dilemma, Carter says we must make a commitment to being open about our principles. And this openness accomplishes several goods. First, it allows people to judge the seriousness and rigor of our moral discernment.

Think about it: maybe a Democrat could respect her Republican opponent if she could be sure that he had seriously thought about the issues and deeply felt the Republican position was more moral. It is possible to respect people who believe differently than us if we can see that they are thoughtful and have seriously wrestled through the possible answers to a moral problem. But we can't respect them if we don't see their reasoning. So being open about our principles allows others to respect us even when they disagree-- and it allows us to respect them as well.

What a better society we would have if people on opposite sides of issues could learn to differ without vilifying each other. When liberals sneer at conservatives or when conservatives are convinced that liberals are jerks, the general tone of public life devolves into mere gutter sniping. Today, it isn't enough to lay out your views or suggest weaknesses in your opponent's views. To win office you must trash your opponent's character, charge him or her with being a liar or, worse, incompetent. Carter seems to believe that there's a better way, but one that requires us to be open about our principles.

There's another good that comes from step three. If we are open about our beliefs, someone might be able to point out a flaw in our reasoning. Remember how anxious Socrates was to have his principles critiqued by Crito? Remember how he asked Crito to help him review his reasons for accepting the death sentence, saying, "Let us consider the matter together, and do refute me if you can."

Shouldn't we be just as anxious to have our errors of judgment pointed out to us? Certainly it is not pleasant to be corrected in a mistaken belief, but it is far worse to persist in one, right? And how can we learn our errors if we are never up front about our reasoning?

Thus Carter's third step is vital if we are to improve the moral tone of society (and remember he introduced the book with a gloomy portrait of current society). Just as importantly, though, Carter argues, like Socrates, that we should actively seek our soul's improvement, a task greatly aided with a little help from our friends, and maybe even from those who disagree with us.