Integrity in public life

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I am reading a book at the moment called ‘Researching with integrity‘ by Bruce Macfarlane.  The book starts out by critiquing usual rule-based codes of ethics in research which have been derived from bioethics.  It goes on to suggest that a focus on moral virtues can be helpful to a range of academic disciplines.  Crucially, virtues need to be lived out (in spite of the complexities, dilemmas and tensions that arise) on an every day basis.  They are not just words to be repeated as a mantra or a checklist to adhere to.

Integrity in research then is a set of virtues and Macfarlane spends the book unpacking what virtues (and associated vices) are important to integrity in research.  It paints the image of navigating a balancing act – avoiding the vices associated with extremes whilst remaining true to the virtues.

There is a table (on page 42) which lists six virtues each of which comes to the fore at a different ‘phase of research’.  I’ve adapted the table slightly to include below:

Virtue Associated Vice (when in deficit) Associated Vice (when in excess)
Courage Cowardice Recklessness
Respectfulness Manipulativeness Partiality
Resoluteness Laziness Inflexibility
Sincerity Concealment Exaggeration
Humility Boastfulness Timidity
Reflexivity Dogmatism Indecisiveness

Needless to say I am finding the book useful as a ‘novice’ researcher, struggling with the structure and expectations of research ethics committee.  But the book also led me to wonder whether the idea of virtues (and its associated vices) could be applied to other professional practices.


In my field of practice, the nearest thing we have to an ethical framework is the Nolan Principles of public life, developed by Lord Nolan in 1995.

The interesting thing about this list is they are called Principles but some of them could be thought of as virtues.  Reading the list in the context of Macfarlane’s discussions prompts the following (random) thoughts:

Integrity itself is in the list – whereas Macfarlane sees the virtues as a way of unpacking Integrity itself. The explanation on the website includes the line …

They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.

… which leads to the key procedure associated with the Nolan principles – the register of interests and declarations of interests.

Honesty seems to be a bit similiar to Macfarlane’s ‘sincerity’ with possible associated vices of concealment and exaggeration.

Objectivity is a funny one – the expanded text on the website says

Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.

The associated vice are stated – partiality (discussed by Macfarlane in the context of Respectfulness), unfairness, discrimination, bias, based on bad evidence.  Which means objectivity is defined in the negative – in terms of what it is not, rather than in terms of what it is (in a positive sense).  But writing this at a time when I am experiencing government decisions which I see as unfair, discriminatory etc, it shows how contested a virtue of ‘objectivity’ can be – you can’t be objective about objectivity!

Selflessness – inspires thoughts about when being ‘over’ selfless is actually harmful.  I know of many public servants who are working, and expecting their colleagues to work, ever longer hours to act passionately in the public interest.  At what point is that some sort of collective ‘vice’, one that creates a ‘sick’ public workforce incapable of good productivity let alone innovation and creativity.  Sometimess being selfish (perceived as a vice) could ultimately be in the public interest.  Especially given the evidence associating poor work environments with later depressive symptoms, cardiovascular problems etc – that place demands on the publically funded NHS!

So that’s the end of my little thought experiment!

The thing is that people who ‘walk the walk’ of integrity – and its associated virtues – do gain respect, we know who they are when we see them even though they don’t use the ‘talk’.  I am writing on the day when Corbyn has been elected as labour leader – it seems to me that the virtues he has exhibited – courage, respectfulness, humility etc – are a good part of what has made him so appealing.  Let’s hope his prominent role in public life helps others’ (including me) to uphold these important virtues.

(PS I can’t help thinking that there should be some way of linking this focus on Integrity with that of Authenticity, that I have blogged about before.  I just can’t articulate it!)


Macfarlane, B. (2009), Researching with integrity: the ethics of academic enquiry, Routledge, Abingdon

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