The dictionary says that integrity is

the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles that you refuse to change

Still difficult to imagine what it means.

For example, in a movie there was a guy, very successful, and he had an ugly wife. And other people, when they saw his wife, said that he had integrity. What does it mean in this situation?

My guess is that he married this woman when he was not successful; and when his situation improved, he didn't jettison her in order to find someone who was a looker. That says that he has integrity: he married her promising to stay with her until 'death do us part' and he did it. It refers to the line "that you refuse to change" from the definition above.


4 Answers 4


Etymology might help:

Integrity c.1400, "innocence, blamelessness; chastity, purity," from Old French integrité or directly from Latin integritatem (nominative integritas) "soundness, wholeness, blamelessness," from integer "whole" (see integer). Sense of "wholeness, perfect condition" is mid-15c.

integer (n.) "a whole number" (opposed to fraction), 1570s, from Latin integer (adj.) "whole, complete," figuratively, "untainted, upright," literally "untouched," from in- "not" (see in- (1)) + root of tangere "to touch" (see tangent (adj.)). The word was used earlier in English as an adjective meaning "whole, entire" (c.1500).

integral (adj.) late 15c., "of or pertaining to a whole," from Middle French intégral (14c.), from Medieval Latin integralis "forming a whole," from Latin integer "whole" (see integer). Related: Integrally. As a noun, 1610s, from the adjective

The central concept appears related to originalism e.g. the idea of golden age past where everything and everyone was perfect. Integer, integral and integrity all mean complete, fixed and unchanging.

As a practical matter of modern language, someone with "integrity" is someone whose behavior is governed by decisions made long ago that are unaffected by current circumstances. E.g. deciding when one is 20 that accepting bribes is wrong and then, over the course of the next decades, always turning down bribes no matter how large because of that decision made decades ago. That decision becomes "integral" to the persons behavior.

You can see the same sense in the phrase "structural integrity" as applied to inanimate objects. It's means a structure that, because of its internal construction, will not break or collapse in response to changing environmental conditions. Conversely, something without "structural integrity" will only remain standing or functioning in a very limited set of envirionmental conditions e.g. a house of cards.

We like integrity in humans because it makes their behavior predictable. Once we understand the individual's decision-making basis, usually a moral code, then we can predict their behavior in any future events because they will always behave the same way in the same circumstances because the decision has in effect already been made long ago.

We like predictablity so much that sometimes we even use the phrase "perverse integrity" to mean someone who consistenly follows a moral code we disagree withit, e.g. a traditional Mafia member who goes to prison for decades rather than betray the code of Omerta.


I think it refers to the strong moral principles :)

Actually, the that you refuse to change part is arguably redundant. The major point of (moral) principles, especially strong ones, is that they are not changed on a whim.

Unless you are Groucho Marx, who said

Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.

The main idea about someone who has integrity is that you can trust him to stand by the principles that he has and that he shows. Even when you do not agree with those principles, you can at least appreciate the fact that such a person is dependable: you can trust him not to change his mind on such matters just because something happened.

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    Exactly. "An honest politician is one who stays bought." Commented May 13, 2014 at 10:51

Most dictionaries define "integrity" as quoted in your question. However, I feel that in the context you mention, and in my experience more often than not, "integrity" is used to describe a trustworthy person, someone that will not betray others.

The subtlety here is whether the possesion of strong morals is required for a person to be integral. I would argue that it is possible for a person to behave consistently with integrity simply as a result of the education received.

Humans are animals of habit, and we tend to behave as taught without giving much thought to the reasons or morals involved in our actions.

TL;DR Although most dictionaries define "integrity" in terms of "morals", I argue that "integrity" is more often used as a synomyn of "trustworthiness".

In the comments, BobRodes gives a clever example of integrity without morals:

"For example, suppose some terrorists capture someone and say that they will behead him publicly unless so-and-so is released from prison. So-and-so is released from prison and they let the captured person go. This might be immoral, but it shows integrity."

  • 1
    I argue the same. For example, suppose some terrorists capture someone and say that they will behead him publicly unless so-and-so is released from prison. So-and-so is released from prison and they let the captured person go. This might be immoral, but it shows integrity.
    – BobRodes
    Commented May 13, 2014 at 15:15

Well, I don't want to wander from a discussion of language to a discussion of ethics and morals, but the "refuse to change" part doesn't seem like it should be in there. I wouldn't think that refusing to change is what integrity is about. Maybe "refusing to change just because he could get personal benefit."

Like suppose someone said, "I believe that drinking alcohol in any quantity is morally wrong", and he personally refused to drink alcohol or to serve alcohol to others. Then, scenario A, one day his boss says, "Hey, let's drop by a bar, have a few drinks, and discuss who should be the new vice president", and he goes without objection and drinks because he hopes that by going along with what the boss wants to do he may get the promotion. I think we'd say that he showed a lack of integrity -- he was willing to go against his stated moral beliefs for money. But, scenario B, a friend says to him, "I don't think there's anything wrong with drinking in moderation", and they discuss the matter, they discuss the philosophical reasons, health reasons, religious reasons, whatever, and at the end this person says, "You've convinced me, it's just drunkenness that is bad, not moderate drinking." I wouldn't say that he showed a lack of integrity. Just the opposite, he had enough intellectual honesty to admit that he was wrong when the evidence was presented.

The example given about the ugly wife seems incomplete to me. Well, I don't know what movie you're referring to or if I've seen it. If a man left his wife because now that he's rich he can get someone younger and prettier, yes, I'd say that rather shows a lack of integrity. But if he sticks with his ugly wife because he's too busy with his job to care, or because she's a good cook and that's what's most important to him at this stage in his life, or because he knows that if he leaves her the courts will give her a generous divorce settlement, etc, etc, it might have nothing to do with integrity.

  • The movie is one of the episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, where there was an inventor who created a car with a periscope so that you could see the traffic.
    – mosceo
    Commented May 14, 2014 at 6:25

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