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Key issues


The Module provides a conceptual overview of the concepts of integrity and ethics. Integrity is a term that is used in many different contexts, for example by referring to information, art or music. From a philosophical perspective discussions about integrity usually involve an ethical or moral dimension, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Ordinary discourse about integrity involves two fundamental intuitions: first, that integrity is primarily a formal relation one has to oneself, or between parts or aspects of one's self; and second, that integrity is connected in an important way to acting morally, in other words, there are some substantive or normative constraints on what it is to act with integrity. (Cox, 2017)

Integrity is defined as "strict adherence to moral values and principles" by the Chambers 21 st-Century Dictionary (Chambers, 1999). The following discussion of integrity mentions the origin of the word and different applications:

The concept of integrity has been derived from the Latin "integritas" (wholeness). It is defined as consistency between beliefs, decisions and actions, and continued adherence to values and principles. When someone is described as a person of integrity, the suggestion is that such a person is not corruptible as a result of the "wholeness" and "connectedness" of the values and principles that such a person subscribes to. Integrity is often used in conjunction with ethics, suggesting that the values and principles that are adhered to should be ethical values. Some of the values that are often mentioned in this regard are honesty, openness, accountability and trustworthiness. Organizational integrity refers to the ability of individual organizations to develop and implement an integrity management framework, and for employees to act in accordance with the values of the organization. (Matten, Pohl and Tolhurst, 2007 p. 278)

Different types of integrity have been identified; the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy includes the following:

  • Self-integration refers to the ability of individuals to integrate various aspects of their own personality into a harmonious whole.
  • The identity view of integrity refers to the way in which individuals make commitments about the things with which they deeply identify (in other words: acting in a way that reflects their sense of who they are).
  • The self-constitution view of integrity refers to actions that can be endorsed by oneself at the time of acting as well as by a future self.
  • Integrity as "standing for something" brings a social dimension into the definition: by making judgement calls one must also have respect for the judgements of others.
  • Integrity as moral purpose - this approach describes integrity in terms of a commitment or a clear intent to live a moral life. It makes provision for others to disagree with the views of an individual while acknowledging at the same time that she or he is a person of integrity. (Cox, 2017)

Turning to the concept of ethics, Norman (1998, p. 1) has defined ethics as "the attempt to arrive at an understanding of the nature of human values, of how we ought to live, and of what constitutes right conduct." The dictionary definition of ethics is "the study or the science of morals" (Chambers, 1999). Morality is defined as "a sense of right and wrong", and being moral as "belonging or relating to the principles of good and evil, or right and wrong" (Chambers, 1999).

While this Module focuses mostly on Western philosophical thought, it is important to acknowledge the critical contribution of non-Western philosophy. For example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states the following about Chinese ethical thought:

The tradition of Chinese ethical thought is centrally concerned with questions about how one ought to live: what goes into a worthwhile life, how to weigh duties toward family versus duties toward strangers, whether human nature is predisposed to be morally good or bad, how one ought to relate to the non-human world, the extent to which one ought to become involved in reforming the larger social and political structures of one's society, and how one ought to conduct oneself when in a position of influence or power. The personal, social, and political are often intertwined in Chinese approaches to the subject. Anyone who wants to draw from the range of important traditions of thought on this subject needs to look seriously at the Chinese tradition. (Wong, 2017)

One of the most important figures in this tradition is Confucius. He lived approximately between 551 and 479 BC and was a philosopher and founder of the Ru School of Chinese thought. His teachings were preserved in the Lunyu or Analects. His approach is summarized as follows by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Confucius believes that people live their lives within parameters firmly established by Heaven-which, often, for him means both a purposeful Supreme Being as well as 'nature' and its fixed cycles and patterns-he argues that men are responsible for their actions and especially for their treatment of others. We can do little or nothing to alter our fated span of existence but we determine what we accomplish and what we are remembered for. (Riegel, 2017)

When we deal with difficult decisions we often feel that there is no clear answer that is right, but we sense intuitively that the decision is about the distinction between right and wrong. Discussions about integrity and ethics address the fundamental distinction between right and wrong. This type of decision is much more difficult than deciding whether we prefer one type of food to another, or whether the answer to a mathematical equation is right or wrong.

Some people argue that we do not really have a choice whether we are ethical or not - this is sometimes called "common morality". According to Blackburn (2002, p. 4): "Human beings are ethical animals. I do not mean that we naturally behave particularly well, nor that we are endlessly telling each other what to do. But we grade and evaluate, and compare and admire, and claim and justify. We do not just 'prefer' this or that, in isolation. We prefer that our preferences are shared; we turn them into demands on each other". Sissela Bok (1978, p. 23) has argued that even liars share with those they deceive the desire not to be deceived. Agreement with this statement indicates inherent support for the concept of integrity.

Within the context of an introductory module it would be useful to look at a few interesting and challenging examples. Robinson and Garratt (1997, p. 4) ask the following questions:

  • Are there any differences between moral laws and society's laws? (This question will be addressed in more detail in Module 12.)
  • What are human beings really like: selfish and greedy or generous and kind?
  • Are some people "better" at morality than others?
  • Why should I be a good person?

These questions will inevitably generate vigorous debate, and they also address some of the fundamental philosophical and theoretical questions addressed in this Module.

The moment we - as human beings - express a desire about the way something should be, we use ethical language. By suggesting that something should be different, we are doing the grading, evaluating and comparison that Blackburn refers to. We suggest that something could be better, and by implication we support the idea that some things are better, more desirable or more acceptable than others.

The graph below explains the role of theory - it helps us to understand the world, but theory by itself cannot change the world; we need action. Action - and hopefully ethical action - will be informed by theory. Any theory that addresses the way things should be or ought to be - as mentioned above - can be classified as an ethical theory.

This Module will address three of the major Western ethical theories: utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics. As was mentioned above, the critical contribution of non-Western philosophy is acknowledged but not addressed in detail in this Module. Other modules of the present series that discuss non-Western approaches to ethics include Module 2 (Ethics and Universal Values), Module 4 (Ethical Leadership), and Module 5 (Ethics, Diversity and Pluralism). It is noted that the approach known as ethics of care, while not discussed in this Module, is defined and addressed in Module 9 (Gender Dimensions of Ethics) of the present module series.


The basic premise of utilitarianism is that an action is moral if it maximizes the overall social 'utility' (or happiness). Two of the most important philosophers in this tradition are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism, a form of consequentialism, requires an individual to calculate the right response to an ethical question by weighing up the positive and the negative consequences of an action. Whatever produces the most happiness will be the most ethical solution. It is important to note that the consequences should be measured in terms of overall impact, not only in terms of the decision maker. All consequentialist theories hold that morality depends on the consequence of actions. Utilitarianism, as a specific case of consequentialism, holds that the rightness of an action depends on whether it maximizes a particular consequence, that is, the overall social utility.

The shipwreck example (see exercise 2) provides an easy way to demonstrate this approach. Imagine that you are involved in a shipwreck situation - a ship has run into trouble in the middle of the ocean and has started to sink. Eleven people have jumped into a life-boat that has been designed for ten people only, and the life-boat is also starting to sink. What should the passengers do? According to the utilitarian approach, the answer is easy: ten lives saved will produce the most happiness, and therefore - according to utilitarianism - killing one person is the ethical thing to do.


The basic premise of deontology, in contrast to consequentialist theories like utilitarianism, is that an action is moral if it conforms to certain principles or duties (irrespective of the consequences). Deontology is derived from the Greek word deon, which means duty. The one name that stands out from all others in terms of this approach is that of Immanuel Kant. The following extract from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a good summary of Kant's position:

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued that the supreme principle of morality is a standard of rationality that he dubbed the "Categorical Imperative" (CI). Kant characterized the CI as an objective, rationally necessary and unconditional principle that we must always follow despite any natural desires or inclinations we may have to the contrary. All specific moral requirements, according to Kant, are justified by this principle, which means that all immoral actions are irrational because they violate the CI. (Johnson, 2018)

In layperson's terms, the Categorical Imperative can be compared and contrasted with what is often described as the Golden Rule, one that can be found in many different cultural and religious traditions: do unto others as you would want them do unto you. It is immediately evident that this type of argument will provide solutions to ethical problems that are different from a utilitarian approach. In the shipwreck example it is no longer possible to justify killing someone, because the rule that can be deduced as universal is: do not kill. Therefore, no matter what the consequences are, the morally correct answer would be not to kill anybody on the life-boat.

Virtue ethics

The basic premise of virtue ethics is that morality depends on perfecting one's character. Different from utilitarianism (consequences) or deontology (duty), the emphasis is on the virtues of the individual. Based on the ancient contribution of Aristotle (384 to 322 BC), virtue ethics provides a more holistic approach to ethics. Stewart highlights the following characteristics of virtue ethics:

  • It is concerned with the person or agent behind the actions, rather than the actions themselves.
  • It considers aspects like emotions, attitudes, habits and lifestyle as morally relevant - the way you are, rather than simply what you do, can be classified as good or bad.
  • It argues that life is too complex for rules to be able to guide our actions or lives.
  • It is holistic - it examines the purpose of life rather than individual moments.
  • It promotes the virtues as being beneficial to the owner: "Being virtuous is good because it's good for you" (Stewart, 2009 p. 56).

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a virtue is "an excellent trait of character. It is a disposition, well entrenched in its possessor - something that, as we say, goes all the way down, unlike a habit such as being a tea-drinker - to notice, expect, value, feel, desire, choose, act, and react in certain characteristic ways" (Hursthouse, 2016). Another term that is important in virtue ethics is practical wisdom, the ability to do the right thing no matter what the circumstance. Virtue ethics is very attractive because it provides a holistic approach, but it has been criticized because of a lack of practical guidance. As Stewart explains, "When I ask what I should do, virtue ethics tell me I should be virtuous. This is no help unless I know what the virtues are and which one to apply in my situation. How can I get help with this? I'm told that a virtuous person would be able to advise me … But what if I don't know any virtuous people?" (2009, p. 69).

In summary, all the major ethical theories have strengths and shortcomings. There is no confirmed "best theory" and individuals will have preferences and make their own choices. All theories can be considered together to provide assistance to make a specific choice. Often instinctive choices are made without reference to an ethical theory, although this could perhaps be best explained by virtue ethics. One risk is to make a predetermined choice about a preferred action, and then to find an ethical theory to justify a decision. Such an approach lacks consistency, and hence also lacks integrity.

The lecturer can use the last two slides of the PowerPoint presentation provided with this Module to present these theories in class. The exercises below can be used to guide the students through the steps required to identify ethical problems and to apply ethical theories. Some of the concepts that will be explored include justice, happiness, duty, rights, and the social contract. The distinction between substantive ethics (what kinds of actions could be considered as good and right?) and meta-ethics (what does it mean to say something is good or right?) could be introduced for more advanced students. Finally, different applications of integrity and ethics will be addressed, which will serve as an early introduction to other modules that form part of the E4J Integrity and Ethics Module Series.


Bok, Sissela (1978). Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. Hassocks: The Harverster Press Limited.

Cox, Damian and others (2017). Integrity. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.

Chambers 21 st Century Dictionary (1999). Edinburgh, Chambers.

Hursthouse, Rosalind and Glen Pettigrove (2016). Virtue ethics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.

Johnson, Robert and Adam Cureton (2018). Kant's moral philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.

Riegel, Jeffrey (2013). Confucius. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.

Robinson, Dave and Chris Garratt (1997). Ethics for Beginners. Cambridge: Icon Books.

Stewart, Noel (2009). Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Visser, Wayne and others, eds. (2007). The A to Z of Corporate Social Responsibility. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Wong, David (2017). Chinese ethics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.


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