In October 1972, Editors of The New York Times were asked to rank the great cardinal virtues. After due consideration, they determined that Integrity ranks first in importance. They wrote in an editorial announcing their decision that “With Integrity much is possible. Without it, nothing lasting can be achieved.” Legions of others from all walks of life agree with The Times.
Question: What is The First Great Virtue’s strongest motivation? It has more than one, of course. Reason, consciousness, will, pride, a streak of individuality are all factors. But, is there one that is weightier than others? The answer is “yes.”
None in power or usefulness exceeds the element of self-respect. Writing in the New Republic, Brad Blandshard concluded;
What above all else puts power into ideals, what sets the drive wheels of the moral engine securely in motion, is not a schedule of first dogmas of first and last things,, but the picture in one’s mind of something one has to be if one is to keep one’s self-respect. Self-respect if the most powerful of motives, for it is what no one can afford to lose; we try to be what we really admire because if we do not we despise ourselves.
Life, in its every dimension, requires making judgments. Self-respect is the inner belief that one has measured up to the task. Consequently, self-respect becomes the confidence that one has gained and established the capacity to achieve convictions, principles, and values. Self-respect manifests the individual has a good reputation with himself.
The breach of integrity diminishes one’s self-respect. Consider the person who stands by uncommitted when the very cause he favors comes under attack. Or, when the material question or issue comes to the fore, he who invokes the side step, the waffle, the dodge, or who then seeks to split the difference.
The state of one’s self-respect is determined across time, and the process is never ending. It is not—in most cases—the product of a single choice on a given issue. Similarly, the collapse of self-respect is not reached in a day, a week, or a month; it is the cumulative effect of a long succession of defaults, evasions, and avoidance—of making the right choice, the deliberate choice, at the right time, for reasons that will withstand scrutiny, for reasons that contribute to some extent to the greater good.