We know it when we see it, but integrity—in the abstract—can be uncertain, vague, and even elusive. Yet, many who have thought deeply on the subject maintain it ranks first among the cardinal virtues. Undoubtedly, for without it other assets and advantages decline in value, or become of no value at all.
The men and women of the French Resistance in World War II exemplified the very essence of integrity. From them we see this indidpensable virtue is about making the deliberate choice. A choice to stand by the right principles, at the right time, for the right reasons—even when it is unprofitable or inconvenient to do so.
In May of 1940, Germany invaded and occupied France. The invaders soon clamped down with an iron heel. Young Frenchmen were deported to work in German war industries. French Jews were deported to concentration camps. Great treasures of French art and culture—the pride of the nation—were soon being looted and shipped to Germany. What should they do? What could they do, if anything? asked the citizens of France.
An overwhelming majority said “nothing,” and adhered to their usual routine. Another contingent collaborated with their occupiers. A tiny element, looking on from the safety of their homes and jobs, became outraged and decided something must be done. They made a deliberate choice; they joined forces with the resistance fighters. No one made them do it. They acted freely and voluntarily. Their motivations arose from patriotism and love of country.
Once the choice was made, France’s practitioners of integrity drew upon a separate and distinct virtue—courage—to enforce it.
In his highly popular book, Your Greatest Power, Psychologist J. Martin Kohe contends that the power to choose is the greatest single power of the human psyche.
The deliberate choice, not necessarily the superior choice, but by all means avoidance of the bad choice, that is the fundamental underpinning of integrity.