A free society flourishes when people aspire to be models of honor, honesty, and propriety at whatever the cost in material wealth, social status, or popularity. America’s founders knew that and wrote about it a lot. Thomas Jefferson’s advice was to “Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give up the earth itself and all it contains” before compromising your integrity. He further admonished:
And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you. Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.
Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises; being assured that they will gain strength by exercise, as a limb of the body does, and that exercise will make them habitual. From the practice of the purest virtue, you may be assured you will derive the most sublime comforts in every moment of life, and in the moment of death. If ever you find yourself environed with difficulties and perplexing circumstance s, out of which you are at a loss how to extricate yourself, do what is right, and be assured that that will extricate you the best out of the worst situations. Though you cannot see, when you take one step, what will be the next, yet follow truth, justice, and plain dealing, and never fear their leading you out of the labyrinth, in the easiest manner possible. The knot which you thought a Gordian one, will untie itself before you.
Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming, by an untruth, by an injustice. This increases the difficulties tenfold; and those who pursue these methods get themselves so involved at length that they can turn no way but their infamy becomes more exposed.
Though I haven’t explicitly defined integrity (or character) by the qualities that compose it, I think you had a pretty good idea what those qualities were before you ever saw this essay. That’s because you’ve got a conscience. Most people do, but the problem is, we don’t always listen to it. We’re tempted to push it away when it seems to be an obstacle to a quick and selfish advance. You know you’ve got a conscience when an inner voice bothers you when you cut corners on matters of integrity.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education and the founder and president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. This blog is an excerpt from the Institute for Humane Studies Policy Career Guide.
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