I Believe in Intellectual Integrity
Living a good and happy life depends upon a number of moral virtues. While I affirm the same basic ones that all moral people affirm — love, honesty, faithfulness, etc. — there is one virtue in particular that is especially meaningful to me. That virtue is intellectual integrity.
I entered the Graduate Program in Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University in the fall of 1990. It was my great fortune to have a professor inform us, the first day of my first seminar, that he expected intellectual integrity to characterize every part of our interaction in the seminar. That meant, first, make every effort to understand accurately your colleague’s position. Second, acknowledge when your colleague has a valid point, especially if your point is shown to be invalid. And finally, go the extra mile when possible: understand another’s position so thoroughly that you could reformulate it and express it more adequately than they had originally done themselves.
These simple points have become my credo for conducting intellectual dialog. The first two are fairly obvious: to even have a dialog with someone you must understand what they say; for the dialog to be productive you must acknowledge when they make a valid point, especially when your dialog partner shows your own point to be invalid. But the third point is not so obvious. Why reformulate someone else’s position so that it is more adequately expressed than before? Because intellectual integrity knows that dialog achieves its greatest advance only when it assesses the strongest argument for a position, not a weaker argument. For intellectual integrity, it’s not about winning arguments, debates, or elections; it’s not about advancing some agenda by scoring points in the court of public opinion. It is about having the integrity to put what you think is true, or want to believe, to every possible test of reason and dialog.
I’m reminded every day of how many people have no use for intellectual integrity. For example, I feed my insatiable desire for political news by keeping tabs on events and reading thoughtful essays and articles. But I exercise discretion about what I take in. The majority of political shows, news interviews, and talk radio poison my spirit. The worst of them sin grievously each and every hour against my cherished virtue of intellectual integrity. They are the epitome of a one-sided discussion; the norm is a refusal to genuinely understand an opponent’s position and engage in honest discussion. Rarely will you see someone acknowledge that their point has been shown to be invalid, much less see someone consider the strongest version of an opponent’s argument.
On the other hand, even the best news shows struggle to enforce the ground rules of dialog that intellectual integrity takes for granted. Evasive answers, and answers that deftly change the subject, are commonly deployed rhetorical devices. But their use comes at the expense of intellectual integrity. I harbor a dream that news interviewers and debate moderators would politely, but firmly, reject such answers, call them what the are, and then insist that a proper answer be delivered. What a refreshing dynamic that would inject into political discussions and debates.
Yes, I know there is little chance of that happening. Nevertheless, even though my belief takes a beating day in and day out, I still cherish and maintain it. Why? Because in the marketplace of ideas, intellectual integrity is the only currency of value. Understanding each other, being willing to put our mistaken ideas aside and embrace the valid ones we learn from others is a matter of integrity and maturity. And surely such a way of life is a key ingredient for a healthy community and democracy.
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