Politics & Policy

Empty Integrity

Self-Made Principles in Popular Culture: Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and Dexter
From the November 17, 2014, issue of National Review

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “integrity” in part as “soundness of moral principle; the character of uncorrupted virtue, esp. in relation to truth and fair dealing; uprightness, honesty, sincerity.” This is basically what most of us have in mind when asked to define “integrity.” A man of “great integrity” is a man who is honest, forthright, and incorruptible. In the secular faith that is Americanism, George “I Cannot Tell a Lie” Washington is about as good an exemplar of the idea as one can conjure.

Then again, that’s what we’re supposed to say. It’s a bit like when pollsters ask people, “What is your biggest concern?” No one says, “The Chargers beat the spread this weekend” or “I think I got the clap from that waitress.” But surely that sort of thing is closer to the truth for most people. I live in Washington, and while lots of people say their biggest concern is “the deficit,” I have yet to meet anyone who has lost sleep over it. Regardless, certain answers are expected of us, and so people say things like “entitlement spending” or “the plight of the uninsured.” We say that because it’s the sort of thing we want to believe about ourselves. We want to believe that we’re good people.

That’s one of the interesting things about integrity, according to the moral philosophers (at least the good ones). Integrity in the moral sense isn’t defined simply by doing the right thing, but by wanting to do the right thing. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt laid out a hierarchy of desires. Every animal has the thought, “I want to have sex.” Many animals — mostly the better ones — might have something like the thought (or, if you want to be pedantic, the desire): “I want to reproduce.” Only humans think: “I want to marry a nice Jewish girl who’d make a good mother.” Badgers don’t think to themselves, “I must crush all of my enemies so I can rule supreme as the emperor of the North Woods and have my choice of the finest badger sows to copulate with.” It is the desire to have moral or immoral desires and the decision to act upon them that defines humanity at its best. Integrity is the measure — or at least one important measure — of how successful we are at acting on our desire to have the right desires.

David Thunder (the Irish philosopher, not the American porn star, I think) identifies five types of integrity, but I won’t burden you with the full list; it’s not going to be on the test. Suffice it to say, the five kinds of integrity are really a spectrum. At one end, there are “purely formal accounts of integrity.” According to Thunder, “purely formal accounts essentially demand internal consistency within the form or structure of an agent’s desires, actions, beliefs, and evaluations.” Thunder continues (I wish he were more strident so I could write “Thunder thunders”) that under purely formal integrity, a person “may be committed to evil causes or principles, and they may adopt principles of expediency or even exempt themselves from moral rules when the rules stand in the way of their desires.” At the other end of the spectrum are “fully substantive accounts.” In this version, a person with integrity is someone “who desires to do what is morally good in all of his decisions.”

There was a time when this desire to do good in all things was considered the only kind of integrity. After God himself, the exemplars of integrity are the angels, who are God’s intermediaries to the physical world (at least according to Maimonides and the producers of the old CBS series Touched by an Angel). Angels are better than mortals. They’re always certain about what is right because, by definition, they’re doing God’s will. (As no one says, “If it’s from the Almighty, it’s alrighty.”)

Meanwhile, humans are like Hong Kong knockoffs of angels, in that we have a divine spark in us, but sometimes it goes dim when Cinemax “After Dark” is on. As Psalm 8 says, “For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor.” Free will means that we can fall short of doing the right thing. As James Madison put it, “If men were angels, we wouldn’t need the IRS criminal-enforcement division.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

Still below angels, but above normal men, are heroes. Traditionally these are people who do the right thing at great personal sacrifice. The Greek heres means protector or defender. Sometimes protectors must do bad things for the greater good. Knights, at least as a mythic ideal, strove to be as close to angels as humans could be. In the later Middle Ages, the angelic ideal of chivalry was democratized as the bourgeois sought to raise their children according to gentlemanly rules of honor, too. Even as the chivalric code evolved, the idea of heroism remained largely intact. Heroes make sacrifices for the greater good. Tom Doniphon, the man who (spoiler alert!) actually shot Liberty Valance, cut some corners, but he did so for a higher good. The incorruptible Dirty Harry was dirty in a legalistic sense but closer to the angels in his desire for divine justice. (Angels in the Hebrew Bible never read the wicked their Miranda rights and weren’t exactly reluctant to open a can of whoop-ass when necessary.)

But something in the culture has changed. Through virtually the entire history of Western civilization, heroes had the right-end-of-the-spectrum version of integrity. They did good out of a desire to do good — and that good was directed by some external ideal. Sure, it wasn’t always, strictly speaking, a Biblical definition of good. You can’t blame Odysseus or Achilles for not following a book that hadn’t been published yet. But however “good” was defined, it existed in some sort of Platonic realm outside of the protagonist’s own id. (Or ego? Or superego? Or super-duper id? I can never keep that stuff straight.) The hero clung to a definition of “good” that was outside himself, and therefore something he had to reach for.

#page#Not anymore. Now everyone reaches inward for his own vision of integrity. Or, as Omar Little says in The Wire, “A man got to have a code.” In case you didn’t know, Omar was perhaps the most popular character on the critically acclaimed HBO series about inner-city Baltimore. A murderer who stuck to robbing and murdering drug dealers, Omar was what passed for a man of integrity in the show. Ditto for Walter White, the main character in AMC’s wonderful series Breaking Bad. White was a chemistry teacher–turned–drug kingpin and mass murderer. The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, explained that the idea for the show was to turn “Mr. Chips into Scarface.” Gilligan succeeded, but not before he seduced and corrupted the viewing audience, too: By the time the story ended, fans no longer minded that Walter White had become a homicidal drug dealer. They rooted for him anyway.

While the audience could forgive White’s murdering and drug peddling, they couldn’t abide the fact that his (fictional) wife wasn’t more supportive of his (fictional) career choice. Facebook pages, blog posts, chat rooms, and other algae plumes of the digital ocean expressed outrage and hatred for White’s wife, who insisted, as best she could, that issues of right and wrong trumped her husband’s vanity. It got to the point where the actress (Anna Gunn) who portrayed the poor, beleaguered Mrs. White wrote an op-ed for the New York Times complaining about the tsunami of hate aimed at her character, which had spilled onto her in real life as well. In liberal pop culture, this was the equivalent of yelling “I’m telling!” and running to the principal’s office.

Gunn blamed the whole thing on sexism. Her complaint may have some marginal merit, but it’s also really, really, really boring. The more interesting explanation (i.e., my explanation) is that “purely formal” integrity is just about the only kind of integrity our popular culture celebrates anymore (a few war movies notwithstanding). Superman — who always does the right thing — is blah. Batman, a vigilante who plays by his own rules, is sexy.

Speaking of Superman, Jerry Siegel, co-creator of the character, first used the term “Superman” to describe the villain in his 1933 short story “The Reign of the Superman.” The character was based on Nietzsche’s übermensch (or at least the popular interpretation of him) — the man who breaks from the herd to create his own set of values independent of an allegedly dead God. To Nietzsche, reason and traditional morality were for squares. Siegel and his partner, Joe Shuster, quickly abandoned the evil, übermenschy Superman idea and instead turned the character into a classic hero — a protector who personified the highest form of substantive integrity. They repackaged the make-your-own-rules übermensch a few issues later as the villain Lex Luthor.

And that might be where they went wrong — because Nietzsche has clearly won the popular culture.

I realize that talking about Nietzsche and the popular culture — or really Nietzsche and anything — is like reading Proust during the time-outs at a Packers game; it assaults the nostrils with the scent of the poseur. So, as Joe Biden’s intelligence briefers like to say, let me simplify the point (albeit without the use of the VPOTUS hand puppets). When I talk of the triumph of Nietzsche, all I mean is that do-it-yourself morality, informed by personal passion rather than old-fogey morality, is the new norm.

One of my favorite guilty TV pleasures is the series Banshee. The show’s premise isn’t particularly important for the purposes of our discussion, but suffice it to say that my inner twelve-year-old boy finds all of the nudity and violence totally integral to the plot. In one episode there’s an Eastern Orthodox priest — who is also a Ukrainian mob boss, naturally — who explains that ultimately every man is beholden to a code he creates for himself. (This was shortly before he took out a machine gun and sprayed bullets at his own niece, in his own church.) Now, contrary to popular misconception, I am not an expert on the theology of Byzantine Christianity and its flowering in Ukraine. But I’m pretty sure this is not an accurate treatment of Church dogma.

I bring up the Ukrainian priest/capo not so much because it’s a good example of what I am getting at — in this case, at least the character was a villain — but rather to note that once you become aware of the movement to define integrity as a commitment to self-made principles (no matter how evil), you see it everywhere you look in popular culture.

In the fourth-season premiere of Game of Thrones, Sandor Clegane (a.k.a. The Hound) explains to young Arya Stark, “I’m not a thief.” The lass replies, “You’re fine with murdering little boys, but thieving is beneath you?” Clegane — a wanton murderer, mind you — replies, “A man’s got to have a code.” (A code he breaks a few episodes later.)

Then there’s the series Dexter, in which an avowed psychopath/serial killer adheres to an ethical code that he actually labels “The Code.” It’s his personal rulebook, which says that it’s okay to murder — with psychosexual delight, even — so long as the people you are murdering are also murderers. That might sound like a modern adaptation of old-school morality, except it doesn’t take long for Dexter to cut himself some slack and start killing innocent-but-inconvenient people as well.

Remember the heroes of The Sopranos? They were all murderers and thieves who justified and rationalized their crimes on the fly. In one episode, Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri and Christopher Moltisanti killed an angry waiter they had stiffed on the tip. Afterward they learned an important lesson: not to let work interfere with their friendship. Who is Mad Men’s Don Draper? He’s a narcissist raised in a brothel who treats his personal vanity as if it were the chivalric code. Then of course there is Frank Underwood, the protagonist of Netflix’s remake of House of Cards. Underwood has no code to speak of, save that everything and anything is justified if it increases his political power. It’s hard to exaggerate either the popularity of the show inside the Beltway or how little Washingtonians care that the show’s hero is irredeemably evil.

#page#Admittedly, many of these examples come from high-middlebrow fare and pay cable. But teenagers and kids are getting the same messages; they just need to have the idea pounded into them a bit more directly. Take the wholesome-sounding movie The Girl Next Door, which plays on basic-cable channels with a constancy normally reserved for documentaries about Kim Jong-un on North Korean TV. Matthew Kidman, the nerdy protagonist, is a teenage boy who falls in love with a porn star who has moved in next door. All his life poor Matthew’s been a do-gooder who does what is expected of him. He’s a substantive-integrity kind of guy. In a speech contest for a college scholarship, he’s expected to talk about “moral fiber.” But that was before he fell in love with his neighbor, who has — through a series of fortunate events — helped him discover his talent as a porn mogul. With his eyes now opened, he gives his speech:

Moral fiber. So what is moral fiber? I mean, it’s funny. I used to think it was always telling the truth, doing good deeds . . . you know, basically being a f***ing Boy Scout. [The audience gasps.] But lately I’ve been seeing it differently. Now I think that moral fiber is about finding that one thing you really care about.

That one special thing that means more to you than anything else in the world. [That one special thing in this case being the super-hot porn star/neighbor.]

And when you find her, you fight for her. You risk it all. You put her in front of everything . . . your future, your life . . . all of it. And maybe the stuff you do to help her isn’t so clean. You know what? It doesn’t matter. Because, in your heart, you know that the juice is worth the squeeze.

Capra-esque, no? (You’ll be delighted to know that, in the end, young porn mogul Matthew gets into Georgetown. Which isn’t much of a stretch, actually.)

The truth is, it’s hard to find a children’s cartoon or movie that doesn’t tell kids that they need to look inside themselves for moral guidance. Indeed, there’s a riot of Rousseauian claptrap out there that says children are born with rightly ordered consciences. And why not? As Mr. Rogers told us, “You are the most important person in the whole wide world and you hardly even know you.” Hillary Clinton is even worse. In her book It Takes a Village, she claims that some of the best theologians she’s ever met have been five-year-olds (which might be true when compared with a certain homicidal Ukrainian priest).

Such saccharine codswallop overturns millennia of moral teaching. It takes the idea that we must apply reason to nature and our consciences in order to discover what is moral and replaces it with the idea that if it feels right, just do it, baby. Which, by the by, is exactly how Lex Luthor sees the world. Übermenschy passion is now everyone’s lodestar. As Reese Witherspoon says in Legally Blonde, “On our very first day at Harvard, a very wise professor quoted Aristotle: ‘The law is reason free from passion.’ Well, no offense to Aristotle, but in my three years at Harvard I have come to find that passion is a key ingredient to the study and practice of law — and of life.” Well, that solves that. Nietzsche-Witherspoon 1, Aristotle 0.

According to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the death of God and the coming of the übermensch was going to require the new kind of inner-directed hero to become his own god. As a result, anything society did to inconvenience the heroic individual was morally suspect, a backdoor attempt by The Man to impose conformity. This is pretty much exactly what Robin Williams teaches in Dead Poets Society. But that ethos has traveled a long way from Mork. When Barack Obama was asked by a minister to define “sin,” he confidently answered that “sin” just means being “out of alignment with my values.” Taken literally, this would mean that Hannibal Lecter is being sinful when he abstains from human flesh in favor of a Waldorf salad. As you can see, when you take the modern definition of integrity all the way to the horizon, suddenly “integrity” can be understood only as a firm commitment to one’s own principles — because one’s own principles are the only legitimate principles. Heck, if you are a god, then doing what you want is God’s will.

How’s this new morality going to work out for us all? I’m reminded of the time when an entrepreneur announced he was going to release a new line of beer laced with Viagra. Some wag immediately quipped, “What could possibly go wrong?” Which is pretty much where we are today. It’s impossible to predict what Integrity 2.0 will yield — because no society in the history of Western civilization has so energetically and deliberately torn down its classical ideal and replaced it with do-it-yourself morality. But a betting man would probably wager that this won’t end well.

I suspect that before long we’ll be pining for the good old days, when, no matter how often people failed to uphold the standards of integrity, those standards actually meant something.

– Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This article is adapted from the chapter he contributed to The Seven Deadly Virtues, just published by Templeton Press. It appears in the November 17, 2014, issue of National Review.

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