A Life of Integrity and Meaning
with Kathleen Brooks, Ph.D. and Gary E. Kessler, Ph.D.
Interviewed by Jason Merchey
Excerpted from Chapter One of Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom
Kathleen Brooks, Ph.D. is here to speak with me about living a life of integrity and meaning. Later, we will be joined by Gary Kessler, Ph.D. I imagine that you, like I, will be graced by such wisdom as Kathleen’s words here on intimacy and courage: “It is an act of profound bravery to be vulnerable, tender, and genuine.”
Hello Dr. Kathleen Brooks, of the late, great show: Ethics: from Bedroom to Boardroom! Let’s talk about the sphere of ethics: in the living room, the bedroom, the boardroom, the marketplace, media, politics, etc. I feel like you can’t be a bad person in some arena – say, work – and then come home and, all of a sudden, you’re an upstanding individual because you are nice with your family. The Nazis did this, after all.
KB: I agree, I totally agree. If you’re not a great person in the living room, you’re probably not in the bedroom or at work. As I say in my book, Radical Integrity: 21 Ways to Create a Meaningful Life, if we want fulfilling relationships, they must be founded on trust and respect. We can’t expect others to trust or respect us when we don’t tell the truth and when we don’t do what we say we’re going to do.
Well, let’s get into this idea of living a life of integrity and meaning. You’re a psychologist and psychotherapist; you’ve got degrees all over the place – in music, education, and psychology. As you mentioned, you wrote a book entitled Radical Integrity, and as I mentioned, you did many radio shows on ethics. It’s fun to be speaking with a psychologist about these issues because I studied psychology and, sometimes, integrity and meaning are not as present in psychotherapy as perhaps they ought to be.
KB: Yes, and I think that it’s a serious gap when people who are doing personal work on traumatic issues don’t deal with the fact that because of whatever caused them to go into therapy, they may be way out of integrity and their values may need some serious examination.
Okay. Please define the phrase, “out of integrity.”
KB: For me, integrity is kind of an interesting subject. I think it’s twofold: one part of integrity involves being willing to tell the truth; to be willing to do what you say you’re going to do; I think of the old Indian adage, “walking your talk” and not judging people if you haven’t “walked in their moccasins.”
That’s one part, for me. The other part is: dealing with life in an integrated way. For example, that gets back to: “I’m going to say this, but I’m going to do something else.” Or, “I feel this way, but I’m going to pretend I don’t and say something else.” So, I think integrity is about being in alignment and integration— not only physically and emotionally, but also mentally and spiritually. In my book, I go into all those aspects.
So, integrity and creating a meaningful life; I have you to thank for today’s topic. Combining integrity with meaning, with fulfillment, and with “a good life” is intriguing to me. It sounds very “ancient Greek!” I think that to consider those values separately is mentally “bending over backward.” They just seem to fit together.
I have heard of a triad of classical values: truth, justice, and beauty. It has been said, Can you imagine a person who tells the truth but does not seek justice? Whether a person can actually find meaning in life and be an immoral person is a question. Alledgedly, wisdom cannot be used for evil, and I don’t know if meaning can be gained doing bad things – or even from selfish things. I would imagine that existentialists such as Camus or Orwell or Kierkegaard would have to agree.
KB: I played around with the word meaningful, and I thought of some other alternatives, but I totally acknowledge that we all create meaning; the brain can’t not do that, right? But, for me, the word meaningful means that your life is full of meanings that are fulfilling for you. Genuine peace, contentment, happiness, passion – all the “goodies” of life. Yeah, your life can be meaningful but, the meaning that some people give to life is that it’s a drag (laughs). You hear that sometimes – people who are depressed: “My life is a drag.”
Yes, they center themselves around that idea. You say in your book, “Peaceful people are ethical people.”
KB: Yes, I say, if you’re not ethical – and by that, I mean you’re out of integrity – you’re not going to be at peace, I don’t care what you say. You can’t fool yourself, and ultimately, the person you’ve got to make happy is the person you look at in the mirror.
So, “a good life” is necessarily ethical?
So, is it fair to say that you can’t be living “a life of value” if you’re cheating people, acting self-absorbed, being dishonorable, lacking generativity, and so on. You would be a hedonist in the extreme, or narcissistic, if you only lived for yourself and left people in your wake.
KB: Yeah, doing harm. I suppose you could say that doing harm to others is a kind of value, but you want to look at the results you’re getting, and if the results don’t create outcomes that make your life fulfilling for you… Not to say there isn’t genuine evil out there; people who live their life primarily dedicated to revenge don’t have an internal experience of satisfaction. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but I’m saying that, ultimately, we can’t fool ourselves, and if we go about destroying others it’s just a matter of time, for we are the one being destroyed.
Mmm-hmm. You have said: “Listen to the inner voice that may speak softly deep in your breast, calling you to what is right and best for you. Encourage children to find their inner voice and listen to it. Follow your own inner voice; it will never lead you astray.” It’s hard to find your own authentic path to self-fulfillment. But, do you think that everybody has a “moral compass,” if you will? Or do you think that some people are missing one – or that it’s broken?
KB: I think that’s why people get into therapy— because their moral compass is broken. They’re totally confused about who they are, what gives their life value and meaning; they’re lost. Perhaps they grew up in an environment where there was no moral compass; where there were mixed messages, even (where mother said do this and father said do that). I had that happen in my marriage and with my children; that was probably the main cause of the divorce: we were so polarized in our value system that eventually, I could see the children being torn apart and caught in the middle of us.
How about in psychotherapy, would you call attention to a person’s sense of morality? How would that look?
KB: Well, again, morality for me is about the Buddhist admonition to above all, do no harm. I just think a lot of people are in denial about the harm they are doing to themselves and others. As you and I both know, when you don’t get your basic needs met as a very young child – what they call “the narcissistic needs” – you end up as an 18-, 20-, 30-, 40-year-old narcissist. Right? You get obsessed; you can’t move through the developmental stages to become aware of how you affect other people. It just doesn’t happen— or it’s very, very limited. So, it’s a real problem for people who don’t get those needs met.
I can definitely picture a therapist saying to somebody, “Wow, you’re hurting yourself when you do that.” But, would you also say something like, “You hurt [significant other] when you did that”?
KB: Yeah. I believe that we are born with an innate knowing that we are not separate from other people, and as you and I both know, the process of becoming a human being is to individuate, right? To separate from mommy and daddy. And yet, in my opinion, that separation needs to be in a framework or context of, “It doesn’t mean I am unsupported, alone, and unloved.” Rather, “I have my own sense of self; my own values; my own ways of dealing with the world that are right for me but aren’t necessarily the same as what others might do.”
This is what a healthy person needs to be able to do. What I see is that, in many families, this is forbidden! I mean, it’s a terrible betrayal of the family – to do something different than what mommy and daddy approve of. Many of the people I see haven’t separated in a healthy way; they either aren’t bonded at all or they don’t have a sense of connection to the family or they’re lost and enmeshed and they don’t even have their own ideas. This doesn’t work when you’re 30. Well, it works, perhaps, but it doesn’t get you a meaningful life!
Yes, I think it’s apropos of what you say in your book here: “When humans lack the sense of connection to the whole that must be present to motivate ethical behavior, they tend to let their own selfish, short-sighted interests blind them to the effects that they have on the world around them.”
So, there’s a middle range between the polarities of being yourself and being selfish?
KB: I think there is, yes. This is, to me, one of the trickiest parts of being a human being, and we don’t do it well; we tend to polarize; we’re either completely enmeshed in people without a real sense of self, or we’re like: “Screw you, world!” and completely narcissistic and egotistical. Neither is desirable.
So, the family is critical. Schools. Religious institutions. Healthy and functional communities. A federal government that protects, facilitates, and serves us.
KB: When ethics are present by virtue of the character, conduct, and intentions of our family, our community, and our world, ethical behavior becomes our natural response to life.
Let’s now bring on the erudite and interesting Professor Emeritus Gary Kessler, who taught philosophy and religious studies at California State University, Bakerfield (he is the former Chairperson of his department), as well as the author of many publications, probably most relevant of which is his editing the very interesting college textbook, Voices of Wisdom: A Multicultural Philosophy Reader. The topics he is quite capable of elucidating include integrity and meaning, from the philosophical perspective.
Greetings Dr. Kessler
GK: Hello Jason, how are you?
Doing well. May I call you Gary?
GK: Sure, of course.
Thank you for joining Dr. Kathleen Brooks and me today. So, a life of integrity and meaning – what does that mean to you in a broad sense?
GK: I think of integrity as being true to your values – being authentic and “living them,” if you will. I think meaning follows from being clear about your values, and is a byproduct of a valuable life. I think to pursue meaning in life independent of values is a mistake; there is no such thing as meaning in the abstract, divorced from values.
Yes. Now, some values might be able to be called amoral – they’re not about morality per se – they are just concepts, goals, and phenomena that attract you and which you imbue with special significance. Is that true, or do you think there is always a moral element underlying each individual value?
GK: Well, that’s a difficult question. I guess some values are morally indifferent (amoral if you prefer), but the very notion of value contains within it a distinction between “what the facts of the case are” and “ideals, or values,” and is a distinction that philosophers like to make (descriptive vs. normative). So, values have to do with what ought to be, but not necessarily what are, and thus in a very broad and abstract sense I believe that all values have a kind of moral base insofar as they touch on what ought to be.
Is there a particular theory or philosopher (or grouping of theories or philosophers) that you use to think about the idea of integrity and/or meaning?
GK: I have always found, though he is rather dated (over 2,000 years old), Aristotle’s thoughts about ethics as a good starting point (at least). For Aristotle, his general philosophy is what we call, technically: teleological – meaning he believes that everything which exists has an aim/goal/end or purpose. Thus, he begins his ethical thinking by asking, “What is the goal or purpose of human life?” and answers that question with the Greek term eudaimonia – usually translated as “happiness.” However, I prefer to think of it as “human flourishing.” I think human flourishing is a broader concept and encompasses more, and happiness, of course, has a feeling connotation – with which Aristotle was not particularly concerned. For him, to realize eudaimonia is to realize one’s essential nature. I think that is a good place to begin to start thinking about the role of ethics and values in human life: What is its purpose? I’m not sure I buy Aristotle’s notion that there is an essential nature of some sort, nor do I necessarily believe that there is one goal or purpose, but I think his approach is a key to thinking in an ethical direction.
Do you think that this has practical relevance to one who is alive in the 21st century? What could they keep in mind that is Aristotelian?
GK: Well, he’s most famous for (and has been criticized for) attempting to work out what has sometimes been referred to as the golden mean. For him, excellence is a virtue, and it can be moral, or physical, or psychological, or health, or whatever. Focusing on moral excellence, he believed that the golden mean is a mean (average, or middle) between two extremes – an excess on one end, and a “defect” on the other. The common example is the virtue, courage: which is between being foolhardy or rash, and cowardice. He discusses practical reason as that skill or ability we develop in life that helps us find the mean between extremes – which are not the same for everybody. For example, the right amount for you to eat and the right amount for me to eat may be quite different depending on weight, condition, activity, etc. The mean is always relative to particular situations.
So, he would maintain that courage is the ideal between foolhardiness and cowardice, and so, a person would use their reason to continually determine what courageous behavior would look like in unique situations?
GK: That’s right, yes.
You said it was criticized – why doesn’t it hold water perfectly?
GK: Well, even though it seems to be practical, it is still kind of abstract. For example, if you take an activity like giving or taking money: the excess is giving too much, and the paucity is miserliness, with the mean being what Aristotle calls liberality. Well, what exactly is liberality? Again, it’s fairly relative.
Ok. What does a life of integrity look like? How do you know when you see it, or when you are doing it?
GK: As I said, it’s being true to your values, so, in a sense, I think only you can judge whether or not you’re authentic and true to your values. So, on one level, the assessment of whether or not I have integrity is a very subjective one. Obviously, people can also make some assessment of another’s integrity, but they usually do that based on consistency— which is, of course, a pretty good rule to follow. For example, if you treat people unfairly or show bias or prejudice toward people or ideas of one sort or another, yet claim that fairness (or justice) is one of your values and that you’re always true to it, that’s a clear mark of inconsistency. In that case, you might not have as much integrity as you’d like to claim.
Mm-hmm. Did you look at integrity or meaning in your book, Voices of Wisdom? Were you able to find folks who’d spoken about those ideas in the past?
GK: Yes, there is some of that in there, and I do have a long excerpt from the first two books of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which deals with the issues we’ve just been discussing: What is the good for human life? What is excellence? How do you achieve moral virtue?
Understood. Can you talk about objectivity and subjectivity when it comes to morality? How confident can one be that a given action is truly moral?
GK: Aristotle’s definition of the human good is “an activity of the soul in accordance with reason”, so objectivity comes in when you add that little phrase: in accordance with reason. Now, there is great controversy as to what is rational and what is reasonable. But, if you’ve made a decision to do X or Y, and someone challenges you and you can’t defend your actions (you can’t give what at least seems to be good reasons for what you’ve done), then I think you have to ask yourself if it is really reasonable (using the criterion of reasonableness as a measure of objectivity). So, subjectively you’ve got this sense, “Am I being authentic, am I being true to myself?” and objectively, you can ask yourself: “Can I really defend this action or idea? Are there good reasons, apart from how I feel about it, that make this the right or rational thing to do?”
So, that is to say that a person’s feelings are not always a valid indicator of the morality of an action?
GK: No, I don’t think so. Philosophers have tended to jump to two extremes here: some will say, “Do your own thing if it feels right to you;” on the other hand there’s: “No, you have to have a rational reason, to be able to lay out sound arguments and cite evidence for behavior or beliefs.” Human beings are rational animals, as Aristotle said, but they are also emotional animals. I suppose if there is a problem with Aristotle, it is that he emphasized rationality more than feeling. Both are there, so there has to be a balance between them, a marriage.
How should we live?
GK: [There are] difficulties associated with finding an answer to Socrates’s question, How should we live? …I came to realize that there is no single or final answer. Different stages of one’s life call for different answers; the answers of youth are not the answers of middle age, which, in turn, are not appropriate for old age. The key, at least for me, was the realization that the answers were far less important than the questions.
Is it possible to find meaning separate from the idea of God? I ask in part because you’ve studied both philosophy (for example, existentialism) and religion. Can you describe what meaning is in relation to religion?
GK: Well, one of the attractive features of religion for a lot of people (and that would include religions that have the concept of “God,” though not all do) is the fact that it seems to give meaning and purpose to human life. Some have said: “If there is no God, then life is just meaningless; it’s a black pit.” These people will cling to their religious faith even despite some very strong evidence to the contrary.
For example, take a tragedy such as a tsunami or earthquake: it is an example of suffering and evil on a huge scale. For some, that would be sufficient reason to claim that there can’t really be a God; how can there be a God who allows suffering and terrible events to occur to innocent people? But other people would find faith as a resource for coping and meaning. So, how you view tragedy is connected to the sense in which your religious beliefs provide you with meaning and purpose.
Mm-hmm. That’s interesting and “heady stuff,” as my co-guest Kathleen Brooks once said about something I was talking about in regard to ethics. I would like to ask Kathleen a challenging question. She said to me when she interviewed me on her show, “You make it sound so easy, Jason!” So, Kathleen, when you say this in your book: “It takes an enormous amount of integrity, maturity, and personal responsibility to be an ethical person,” I want to say to you, it seems so difficult, Kathleen (laughing). Is it difficult or intuitive and simple to live the kind of life you advocate in your book, and to your clients?
KB: (laughs) Yes, I’m glad you brought that up, because that is exactly what I always tell people: you have no idea how hard you work at being unhappy, unfulfilled, unethical, and miserable. It is actually the path of least resistance to do the right thing, to be honest, to follow your own heart, to follow your own values, and to take responsibility, because the results you get are always much better. It really is less draining on your system.
Hmm. So, maybe someone who wants to do a nice thing for somebody even though it might be a minor sacrifice or difficult, or to tell the truth even though it feels like it is hard or impossible, you think that it’s easier or more beneficial in the long run? Anne Morrow Lindbergh believed: “The most exhausting thing in the world is being insincere.”
KB: I can tell you absolutely it’s easier. In the long run, the truth is always the most healing, empowering thing. A lot of my work is giving people tools to tell the truth in a non-blaming, nonjudgmental, compassionate way. This involves owning: “This is my truth; this is how it looks to me; this is how I feel about it. I’m not saying it is the truth – in the entire universe – I’m just saying this is my truth. We have to start somewhere, and I’m willing to listen to your truth; let’s have a dialogue.”
Ethics has for years been the province of a few intellectuals, relegated to catching dust in back corners of libraries. I took an ethics class in undergraduate school and it was the most boring class I ever took. It seemed so heady, so irrelevant. However, the events of the past few years are forcing us to realize that ethics is not only relevant, but is one of the most essential ingredients in creating a meaningful, fulfilling life.
Gary, is it easy or difficult to live a life that is marked by integrity, fulfillment, meaning and morality?
GK: Interestingly enough, the word ethics comes from the Greek word, ethos, which means “character.” Aristotle makes a point in his book that being moral or doing the right thing has to become a habit. Therefore, he spends quite some time on childhood education and creating good habits in children from an early age because, he points out, once you’re older and have lived some 25, 30, 50 years, it’s very difficult to change bad habits.
So, if you are in a situation that calls for you to sacrifice something for the good of other people, you would find it very difficult to do if you developed the habit of selfishness. On the other hand, if you’ve developed a character which, though you have self-integrity you nevertheless recognize that there are situations in which self-sacrifice is an important virtue, then it’s probably easier for you.
KB: I would agree. Excellent point, Gary. In fact, this is what I would say often gets people into therapy: they have learned an awful lot of “bad habits” in childhood which they finally must face are not serving them in adulthood.
GK: Yes. Though ultimately, I don’t think we just develop positive character and good habits in childhood, but yes, that’s where we get our start and that’s what orients us in the proper way. If we take the time to carefully discover how we came to hold a belief, we often discover that it was not the result of following the logic of an argument or the result of a careful consideration of the evidence.
Indeed, character is more than memorizing rules and performing rote acts; it is, according to Aristotle, about creating positive habits and developing almost a “muscle memory” for doing the right thing in the real world. Practice makes perfect, as it were. This is the process of character creation, more than having stellar virtue from birth, or reading enough about it to know it. As Aristotle wrote: “It makes no small difference…whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather ALL the difference.”
However, moral philosopher Michael J. Sandel says this: “Habit, however essential, can’t be the whole of moral virtue. New situations always arise, and we need to know which habit is appropriate under the circumstances. Moral virtue therefore requires judgment, a kind of knowledge Aristotle called ‘practical wisdom.’ Unlike scientific knowledge, which concerns ‘things that are necessary and universal,’ practical wisdom is about how to act. …Aristotle defines practical wisdom as ‘a reasoned and true capacity to act with regard to the human good.’”
Well, to end, let me ask: What can each of us do to feel better and live better?
GK: Live a life of integrity and meaning. You said it all in your theme. Be true to values and I think meaning will follow. It is, I think, what we can call “the valuable life” in the sense that you’re true to your values. But not just a valuable life for you, but for other people…
…I think, and maybe we agree or disagree here, Kathleen, but sometimes when we talk about “my truth” and “your truth” and so-on and so-forth, it can become very individually-oriented, and I think there has to be a social element to the good life, to the meaningful life. Many people have been amazed that Aristotle spends a good portion of his book on ethics talking about friendship. He tries to distinguish different kinds and levels of friendship, and saw it as essential to the good life. Friendship is, of course, a social relationship.
KB: Exactly. And that’s basically what my book is about: setting forth a group of 21 behaviors, starting with taking responsibility for yourself and ending with making peace with paradox. I suggest that there are certain behaviors that have “passed the test of time” and for which we have some pretty good research and a lot of painful lessons about the fact that when you don’t do these things, your life can get pretty messy.
Mm-hmm. A meaningful life/a life of integrity/a life of value is not just about pleasing yourself in some sort of hedonistic or self-centered way or an “overly-individualistic and austere libertarian” way; it has much to do with one’s group(s), neighborhood, culture, society, and as human beings. Kathleen, you write in your book, “We have a beautiful planet that is capable of providing abundantly for all of us, but we persist in believing in scarcity; we treat the planet and our fellow humans with profound disrespect.” Tell us more.
KB: I think all we have to do is look at what’s going on today; I was listening to Al Gore talk to a summit meeting on the global situation last week on C-SPAN, and it’s pretty scary. We are not treating each other or “Mother Earth” with a lot of respect and integrity. I think ethics is definitely called for in today’s world – it’s just lacking in governments all over the planet, and I don’t care whether it’s the Iranian government, or ours. We’ve got problems with ethics everywhere! It’s obvious to me. What do you say, Gary?
GK: I agree. Not much else needs to be said. I’m particularly concerned with environmental issues and how we treat the other living beings we share this planet with.
KB: Yes, the animals!
GK: We get concerned with human suffering, rightly of course, but seem to be less concerned when it comes to animal suffering. It’s something we have to become more sensitized to, I think.
KB: Yes, another thing I mention in the book is that a lot of people worry about the planet, but I think Mother Earth is going to eventually win; she’s going to spit us out like watermelon seeds if we don’t get our act together.
Let me ask: Is it true that there are a nice consistency and elegant fit between living a life of integrity/one that is ethical, and also saving ourselves from planet-wide extinction (or at least, massive adjustments to life, say, following a nuclear war)? I do know the stakes are high; as Brian Swimme put it: “The decisions of humans are going to determine the way this planet looks and functions for hundreds of millions of years in the future.”
KB: I know that if my personal life is in shambles and I’m not attending to my family and relationships, the chances are I haven’t got a heckuva lot of energy to make a bit of difference in any of the causes of world problems.
Right. You say in your book: “Our ultimate task is to be aware of what grabs our interest, sustains our passionate involvement, and fulfills our heart and soul….” You’re saying it’s primary to look within and find contentment, happiness, integrity and meaning. Should we also look around us and ask how we fit in to our groups, communities, nation, and planet? To really integrate the personal with the social? To see how we can be of service and contribute?
KB: How [do] we create truly mature adults who are capable of and willing to act in ethical ways to end their suffering and do their part to restore peace and harmony on this planet?
Gary, is it self-sacrifice, or self-fulfillment, or both? You wrote this for the book I edited, Living a Life of Value: “The plight of so many of our neighbors on this planet reminds us that living a life of value is not, nor can it ever be, an individual [i.e., solipsistic] matter. We are rapidly destroying the natural wonder and splendor of the world. We live in a world of war, terrorism, violence, and appalling suffering. Lives of value must acknowledge and deal with these social problems.”
GK: Part of being ethical is being willing to sacrifice some of your own interests and pleasures for the sake of others, and if one is unwilling to do that there is not much hope for Mother Earth or any animals – human or not – that inhabit it. We ought to nurture and husband resources and our environment, yet we’re trying to gobble up as much as we can as quickly as we can for our own immediate gratification. I sometimes despair of what the future is going to hold.
Well, we have to end on that note due to time constraints, but it is a truthful one, one based on integrity and vision. I thank you for joining me, Dr. Brooks and Dr. Kessler. It was a worthy and compelling show, I think. I appreciate the theme we developed in the end of the interview – finding the integrity and meaning within ourselves to care about more than ourselves – in the largest sense. Protecting the planet from continued pollution, warming, destruction, and rampant species extinction must, of course, be our top priority. There is no sense in lobbying for a tax rate of 20% instead of 30% if you don’t have a habitable and sustainable planet on which to live, no wisdom in developing a new weapon that will turn out to be irrelevant because we will never use it – either because we have died off, or evolved beyond petty war-like behaviors. I’m Jason Merchey and I thank you for joining me on Values and Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom. Take care to both by guests and the listeners.
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