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‘We Cannot Know What Is Right Unless We Think About It First’ : NONFICTION : INTEGRITY, <i> By Stephen L. Carter (Basic Books: $24; 277 pp.)</i>

<i> Chris Goodrich took two classes with Stephen Carter while a journalistic fellow at Yale Law </i> in 1986-'87

It’s fitting, and not a little ironic, that a book urging renewed attention and respect for the idea of integrity should be published in the midst of a presidential campaign. The lack of integrity in modern American life is constantly in evidence these days: in politicians making promises they don’t truly expect to keep, in media coverage responding as much to momentum and style as to political platforms, in attack ads misrepresenting opponents’ positions, in citizens voting their pocketbooks rather than their consciences--or simply staying home. Stephen Carter, author of “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby” and “The Culture of Disbelief,” has set himself a major task.

Carter’s definition of integrity can be readily summed up: It’s the practice of distinguishing right from wrong, then embarking forthrightly upon the course thus revealed, even if it exacts a personal price. There’s a lot of wiggle room in this definition, obviously--what standards are used to determine the “right”? What if forthrightness is counterproductive, or one’s personal cost is life itself? But its key element is the baseline undertaking to calculate the moral legitimacy of an act or belief. As Carter writes, with admirable plainness, “We cannot know what is right unless we think about it first.”

That statement occurs on page 27, and the remainder of the book is essentially an illustration of the process. Carter attempts to justify his understanding of integrity by setting out its underpinnings and benefits, pondering its weaknesses and complications. To some extent the discussion is fixed, to be sure, for Carter, a professor at Yale’s Law School, is constitutionally incapable of addressing a problem to which he doesn’t have a solution waiting in the wings. On the other hand, he isn’t playing games, for Carter knows full well that anyone daring to write about integrity must actively demonstrate it.

And that, ultimately, is what makes “Integrity” (the first of a projected trilogy on what he calls “pre-political” virtues) a refreshing book--Carter’s leading by example rather than preaching (with a number of exceptions). He recognizes that integrity is a personal virtue, that it must be forged in individual crucibles; that it is an amalgam of many things; and that neither strong opinion, nor perfect reason, can alone create it.

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Carter demonstrates one aspect of integrity when he writes, toward the end of the book, that he always replies “no” when asked whether he considers himself a liberal or a conservative. That nonresponsive response (supra-responsive, really) does not merely reflect a distrust of labels, nor mixed allegiances (of, say, political liberalism and fiscal conservatism), nor even an assertive individualism. What Carter hopes to elicit with that rejoinder, I think, is hesitation--a moment in which listeners can’t help but appreciate that the apparently straightforward question is loaded with a raft of presuppositions, even prejudices. (Challenging a question’s premise is, of course, a debating tactic familiar to law students everywhere.) Political leanings, socioeconomic background, religion, race and so on may help explain someone’s views, but far more important is whether those views are persuasive and complete and meritorious and whether that someone is thoroughly conscious that principled thoughts are of a piece with principled conduct.

Carter admits that he doesn’t consistently live up to the virtue he espouses. He focuses on the “unintegral” actions of others--of lawyers who speak out of both sides of their mouths, of organized sports that encourage cheating if it leads to victory, of journalists who hold themselves to lower standards than their subjects--but readily acknowledges his own. The point, naturally, is that integrity is an aspirational goal, one achieved less by faith and reason (as you might initially think, Carter being a Christian and an academic) than by striving and self-consciousness. You can see why Carter refers to integrity as “pre-political": If a majority of people dedicated themselves to living lives of integrity, the political and social culture couldn’t help but follow.

Is “Integrity” convincing? Yes and no. The latter first: Carter’s discussions--particularly the one on marriage--can be involuted and tangential, and his descriptions of “unintegral” behavior are often simplistic. Carter provides no help at all, for example, and misleads some readers when he urges journalists to “think about the good and the fair and the true way to say [something], and then say it that way. Make the story fit the facts instead of the other way around.” The internal conflicts of journalism are neither so shallow nor so obvious that they can be addressed with such pat advice.

Now the former: Yes, “Integrity” is convincing, even compelling, because Carter’s tone is so evidently sincere and almost completely free of cant. Unlike most other promoters of virtue, Carter doesn’t display an air of moral superiority, doesn’t designate one political side “good” and the other “bad"; he appreciates that those who make easy judgments are failing to walk the walk of integrity even as they talk the talk. The reader of “Integrity” is likely to have many cavils, but there’s no question that in writing the book, Carter has walked the talk.

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