Integrity is a concern for consistency. Yet Emerson famously wrote in Self-Reliance, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Emerson is thinking of consistency and conformity. He is advocating for a kind of self-expression or self-creation where one’s individuality is defined in contrast to the group. As a thinker. Emerson is both formative and expressive of American culture. We see his philosophy of individualism coming to a head in our own time in what I will call radical individualism. For some, this is thought to be the correct expression of democracy and liberty. But we will see how it quickly falls in on itself.
Radical individualism not only denies that things have natures but even that there is a persistent self that has a (human) nature. It starts with the experience of the individual, which the radical individualist claims to be the highest authority. But experience is always changing. If experience is our highest authority, then nothing is permanent and lasting. Furthermore, one’s experience lacks meaning until it is interpreted. And people with similar experiences often give differing and at times even conflicting interpretations.
We encounter this radical individual in the redefining of the self. It is found in the existentialist’s claim that existence precedes essence. We exist and then determine what we are from there. This is not the same as kindergarteners being told they can be anything when they grow up—that is a claim about vocation. The radical individualism we encounter says this applies to our natures as well.
How does radical individualism relate to integrity? The derivation of integrity comes from the word integer, or whole. To lack integrity—to lack consistency—is to be divided against oneself in what we say and do. Lack of integrity is not the same as diversity. There are many diverse aspects to our nature, yet they are united into a whole. And not only can we lack integrity as individuals, but we can also lack integrity as a society and as a nation.
The radical individual does not escape the need for integrity. Lack of integrity inevitably results in the loss of meaning. We cannot avoid the need for meaning and, by implication, the need for integrity. In the pursuit of self-expression, the radical individual, as a thinking and acting being, is bound to integrity, which truly frees him to act consistently with who he is. The radical individual places the will above reason. If the radical individual cannot prove what he claims to know, then we have no moral obligation to listen. Resisting rational scrutiny in the form of critical examination of assumptions—the final state of radical individualism—denies reason altogether.
In the Republic, Plato said that we can know what it is to be a just person by first considering the just State. So far, I have been taking the opposite approach. We have considered the just individual—the person who has integrity. But what is a just State? What does it mean for the State to have integrity and not be divided against itself? The State can be divided against itself when it has opposing goals. These are grounded in opposing beliefs about what is good and real. A democracy is not different from other forms of government in this sense. If it is divided against itself, it cannot stand. America’s founding documents provide us with the attempt at unity. But if these have not gotten to the lasting foundation (about that which is good and real), then we can expect divisions to arise.
Consider how this applies to our current debate about elections. One of the distinguishing marks of a republic is its elections. Undermining these elections is one way to undermine our republic. An election can be undermined, whether or not the voters are aware of it or believe it. Simply having voters doubt the integrity of an election could be as useful a tactic to an opponent as having a crooked election.
Election integrity requires consistency in who is voting and in how those votes are documented. Votes cast must be able to be objectively verified. Persons from both parties can observe the evidence of the vote and who cast the vote to document accuracy. When this evidence is hidden or not permitted to be publicly verified, the integrity of the process is lost.
As an example, consider common arguments used against an objective audit of votes and opposing senators objecting to the certification of the Electoral vote. These senators are rejecting the state electors because they believe the vote did not have integrity and has been compromised. One such argument is that anyone from any side of the political spectrum will use this argument when they lose. But this is a slippery slope argument. The solution is to have objective verification to ensure voting integrity. Then, there is the criticism of protestors assembling in D.C. on the day Electoral votes are certified. But that is the right to assemble, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. However, the right to assemble does not imply a right to unruly or violent behavior.
Next, some argue that Congress is so partisan it cannot solve the problem of a partisan election. But this is just to grant there is a problem and to say we need a different solution. That the Congress is partisan only means that persons from each side should be able to be present when the votes are verified. This is the process that has been blocked in swing states. Ultimately, it is the state legislatures that are responsible for these laws and not the state executive branch. Hence, this argument makes a case for affirming the role of state legislatures.
Finally, what about rejecting the need for an election commission because it is based on the political ambition of some? Now, it could both be true that it is based on political ambition and that we need to have an election commission. The claim about ambition is a needless ad hominem. It ends by claiming that the courts have already rejected the evidence, but the reality is that the courts have not heard the cases or seen the evidence. Notable cases like the one from Texas were dismissed for lack of standing without even considering evidence. It is true that more Americans voted in this election than any before. All the more, then, is there a need for election integrity. Having objective standards should not be controversial and would protect that integrity.
Let us return to Emerson. He warned of a foolish consistency and linked it to politicians, philosophers, and theologians. None of these should have a foolish consistency, but all of them should have knowledge, which is the outcome of integrity. In each of their realms they should know what is good and how to achieve it. If they know this, then they should be able to show it. Integrity begins there. If at this basic, foundational level we do not have integrity, then what happens to all that is built upon that foundation?