Study Guide


by Stephen L. Carter

Integrity Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Stephen Carter is rapidly emerging as one of this country’s premier public intellectuals. Applied in the past to such luminaries as Walter Lippmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Eric Hoffer, “public intellectual” is an unofficial title earned by one possessing both specialized knowledge and an unmistakable sagacity about the affairs of the republic. A teacher of constitutional law at Yale Law School since 1983, Carter has clearly demonstrated his capacity for technical legal argumentation in law journals. The Confirmation Mess (1994) and The Dissent of the Governed(1996) speak to readers with a background in legal theory, ethics, and political philosophy. InReflections of an Affirmative Action Baby (1991) and The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (1993), however, Carter manifested a remarkable broadness of reach, depth of concern, and popular appeal. Indeed, the latter work received the enthusiastic endorsement of President Bill Clinton, who recommended that it be widely discussed. In The Culture of Disbelief, Carter argues that in recent decades, such powerful institutions as the courts, universities, media, and government have trivialized religion, making it a matter of private taste.

Integrity will advance Carter’s reputation as an author who is able to instruct the nation’s conscience and make its dialogue more profound. Significantly, the book is meant to be the first in a three part series. Designed for a general audience, the works will all explore “pre-political” virtues: “elements of good character that cross the political spectrum and, indeed, without which other political views and values are useless.” The next book to appear will be on the subject of civility.

In turning his attention to integrity, Carter obviously responds to a distinct Zeitgeist. The Clinton presidency has seemed to many plagued by periodic revelations which suggest that moral principles have too often lost out to political expediency. The Iran-Contra scandal was a disquieting feature of the Bush and Reagan years. Indictments of high officials, sudden resignations, the calling of special prosecutors, “tell-all” best- sellers, sensational confirmation hearings, the addition of the suffix “gate” to a variety of “cases”—all have become far too familiar features of the political landscape. As if in reaction, professional ethics has sought to clarify and refurbish the ideal of integrity. Thus, scholar Nancy Schauber argues that integrity concerns the underlying or “passive” commitments that help constitute moral selfhood. Stan van Hooft defines integrity as a psychological property of the inner self, one which “makes certain actions impossible to the caring person.” Jeffrey Blustein, Gabriele Taylor, Bernard Williams, and Lynne McFall have produced substantial writings on this topic, the latter two having the most influence on Carter.

In the short “Explanations” section of Integrity, Carter lucidly sets forth his view that integrity is a moral virtue, “perhaps the first among the virtues that make for good character.” In the much longer “Applications” portion (120 pages), Carter tries to show how this account allows one to describe how a person of integrity thinks and acts in a variety of contexts. Interestingly various, these contexts or problem areas include: letters of recommendation, grade inflation, exaggeration and distortion in advertisement, lying by journalists in order to acquire a story, zealotry in a lawyer’s defense of her client, making marriage vows, living with integrity in a nearly failed marriage, the Pete Rose gambling case, the emphasis on winning in sports, and civil disobedience. The book contains a brief concluding section entitled “Ruminations.” Here, Carter inquires into the question of whether integrity can be legislated, what principles might be followed in giving American politics a more “integral” shape, and what the greatest evils are which a nation with integrity must avoid.

An extraordinarily gifted writer, Carter creates a conversational and personal authorial presence. In a profile published in U.S. News and World Report, Paul Parshall called Carter “Yale’s Doctor of Dialogue,” emphasizing the exploratory, dialectical back-and-forth of his classrooms. Not surprisingly then, Integrity clearly displays the starting points for Carter’s analytic work: He is a Christian, an admirer of the Constitution and fundamental American institutions to a degree that many consider him a neoconservative, and an adherent of the classical tradition in ethics, especially as represented by Aristotle and Aquinas. That Carter is an African American is evident mostly by some of the examples treated: the Clarence Thomas hearings, the O. J. Simpson trial, and the negative impact of grade inflation and hyperbole in letters of recommendation on black...

(The entire section is 2030 words.)