As social beings, human behavior is largely influenced by the expectations and norms of the society in which we live. Throughout history there have been many rises and declines in the importance of traditional values in Western societies. There was the Roman age and the birth of Democracy, the Middle ages with strict religious fanaticism, the Renaissance and courtly love, the puritanical Victorian era, the swinging of the 1920s, a brief backslide into the modesty of the mid 1900s and now the freedom that has been found since the birth of rock and roll, the civil rights and feminist movements, and the sexual revolution. The last 40 years have been decades dedicated to setting right the errors and injustices of the history of modern civilization, but in the fast paced strides we have taken to lift the restrictions of old-fashioned values, have we gone too far?
In the United States today morality has become unfashionable, and the idea that no person or group of people is qualified to establish morality for the nation has led us become a nation without widely accepted principles and ideals. Where we once valued, and found, patriotism and integrity within our people and our politicians we are now a nation of pragmatic cynics lacking any cohesive national identity, and with this loss of societal values we have gained not only the wonderful personal freedoms we deserved and desired, but also a national identity crisis. We do not know who we are, as a people, or what we really believe in.
The interesting thing about this moral crisis within our nation is that most people can agree upon the basic foundations of character and morality. We all respect courage, compassion, civility, respect, generosity and honesty, but in our fear of offending others many are afraid to vocalize these basic beliefs.
This lack of values communication has led many people to lose a basic understanding of the meaning of some of the core values of humanity, perhaps the most important of these forgotten values is integrity. According to Stephen L. Carte in his essay Integrity, one reason to focus on integrity as perhaps the first among the virtues that make for good character is that it is in some sense prior to everything else: The rest of what we think matters very little if we lack the essential integrity, the courage of convictions, the willingness to act and speak in behalf of what we know to be right. Many young people today do not understand the whole meaning of integrity, most believe it means being honest, and it does, but they have missed at least half of its meaning.
In order to have integrity a person must first decide what they believe to be right or wrong, then they must take action based upon what they have deemed to be right, even if it costs them dearly, and they must also have the courage to voice their beliefs. If for example a student finds that a peer is in possession of a copy of an upcoming test, in order for the student to have integrity, if they conclude that cheating is wrong, they must not only avoid cheating even if means they will fail the test, but they must also at least advise the other student that cheating is not acceptable behavior.
The lack of integrity can be most easily seen within the realm of politics. Where once politicians were expected to maintain a firm stance, and have strong convictions, today politicians seem to be only responsible for following the ever-changing ideas of the public. In the past a person was respected for having the courage to stand up for what they believed, even when it was unpopular, but in today's political climate a politician who fails to publicly follow the moments trend is unlikely to be re-elected. This expectation that any person should believe what everyone else believes not only makes having integrity a hardship for a politician, but it in fact makes it impossible for a successful politician to possess this quality in public life.
The fact is that no one who thinks for themselves will agree with every popular opinion. We all have ideas and closely held beliefs that set us apart, and make us unique. To demand that a politician change their mind at the whim of the public is to ask for a dishonest leader. A leader with integrity would be brave enough to stand up for the unpopular view, a wise leader would state emphatically that it was their own opinion on the issue, but respect themselves enough to be who they are. Perhaps this politician has never existed, but there have been great leaders in the past who were great because of, not in spite of, their strong personal integrity. Martin Luther King Jr. braved death to stand up for his beliefs, as did Gandhi, Malcolm X, Joan of Arc, Patrick Henry and many others.
As we accept the unreliability and lack of character of our leadership we are endorsing the behavior we allow. It has always been acknowledged that silence is a tacit agreement, and by not rallying against immorality we are telling our children that morality is not important. So many people today complain about the lack of respect and values among the young, but how can we ask our children to be honest when their leaders are not
As a nation that holds religious and philosophical freedom as a very important foundation for our government, it is correct that we would not hold our laws to the scrutiny of any non-secular ethic, but we can possess certain values and beliefs collectively. We agree that murder, theft, rape and assault are immoral and illegal. We also agree that our government has certain responsibilities it must fulfill in our behalf. Why is it that we can expect our politicians to maintain a livable economy, set high standards for food and medicine, make sure our doctors and other professionals are qualified, and provide our children with education, but we cant demand that they themselves prove to have high personal and ethical standards
Society is in many ways a dynamic much like a family. Just as parents mold children through their styles of parenting, a government molds its people by its style of leadership. When a government is too controlling or unjust the population becomes overly docile or rebellious, and if the leadership is too weak and indecisive the people lose confidence in the ability of the government to effectively lead them so they find themselves searching for some anchor to lend them a sense of safety. It is only when the leadership of a nation finds a balance between control and permissiveness that the public perceives stability and begins to trust, but without trustworthy leaders our nation can never be certain of the reliability of the government as a whole.
Our country may be the most powerful nation in the world, but internally we have become weak because while almost everyone agrees in the principles of our constitution, we have little faith in men and women we elect to lead us.
When we stand by and support the actions and indecisiveness of elected officials who betray our trust and waver upon important issues, we compromise not only our future, but also our own integrity. We are responsible for who we put in office, and until we collectively decide that some values are necessary among ourselves, and our government, we will never be able to overcome the cynicism and distrust that our current political and social systems have created.