Integrity & Meaning – a Humanist View

I was invited to give a talk at the London Inter Faith Centre on a humanist view of  “Integrity & Meaning”, as a lead-in to a discussion. The event was part of a series on “Identity & Meaning” organised by (Rev) Laurence Hillel exploring the interface between humanist/secular and religious philosophical views on themes which are seen as important for both perspectives. With a mix of Christians, Buddhists, Quakers and non-religious present, including two psychotherapists, we had a rich and thoughtful conversation.

I should stress that this is a personal view as a humanist, not “the humanist view”. See if you agree.



Let’s start with “meaning”. This is something humanists are often asked about, along the lines “Without God, how can your life have meaning?” Tim Crane, a liberally-minded atheist philosopher, in his book “The Meaning of Belief” is helpful in sorting that out.

He starts by defining “religion”, which he says is “a systematic and practical attempt by human beings to find meaning in the world, and their place in it, in terms of their relationship to something transcendent”. So that’s got four components: it’s systematic, practical, finds meaning, and relates to the transcendent. I think that’s pretty good – maybe something for discussion later.

It’s hardly news that for many people, religion is a search for life’s meaning. But it doesn’t follow that every search for meaning is religious. He distinguishes two sorts of meaning: meaning of life and meaning in life:

“Some people find meaning in their relationships with loved ones, their children, and their families. Others find it in their experience of art, music, and beautiful things; others in developing their life plans or in their ethical, moral or political lives. But this does not touch the question of the meaning of our lives a whole….these things are attempts to find meaning in life; religion, as I see it, attempts to find the meaning of life as a whole….the investment of everything with ultimate meaning”.

He adds that: “Looking for the meaning of life is not the same as looking for an understanding of the world, of how things as a whole hang together.” He quotes the American philosopher Thomas Nagel: “It is important to distinguish [the religious] question from the pure desire for understanding of the universe and one’s place in it” where “the religious question”, according to Nagel, is, “How can one bring into one’s individual life a full recognition of one’s relation to the universe as a whole?”  Tim Crane thinks “the religious answer to this question, stated most broadly and abstractly, is that one should live one’s entire life in an awareness of the transcendent…..The believer is convinced that God is present in everything, and the divine presence makes sense of their life by suffusing it with meaning“.

He then contrasts that with two atheist views: “The pessimist’s response is to accept that the world is in and of itself thoroughly dis-enchanted [by which he means no transcendent component] but also to assert that we should try to make the best of it. The pessimist concedes that the religious believer is in a certain sense right: if God does not exist, or if there is no un-seen order, the world is at bottom meaningless. For there is no ultimate purpose in what Philip Larkin called “all the uncaring, intricate, rented world,” so any meaning there is must be some-thing we have to create for ourselves. But this meaning will never amount to “re-enchantment”…. we can only find meaning in life, not the meaning of life.” He thinks there’s also an atheist optimist’s response, which is to say that in reality there is no enchantment – atheists aren’t denying something that is really there – so the benefits of the belief that it is there are human creations and an atheist is just as capable of rich human creations as anyone else. But, rightly in my view, he thinks the optimist doesn’t take the religious impulse seriously.

I’m one of Tim Crane’s pessimists. I don’t see any discernible meaning or purpose of ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’. It just is. And I accept that a belief that “something else” brings meaning to it all offers comfort in the face of what might be seen as a bleak reality, just as faith in an afterlife or reincarnation can make it easier to cope with death. But just because it would be nice if something were true doesn’t make it true.

However, I do think there is meaning in my life. That’s provided by a whole range of things including my relationships with others and the things that I do, including talking with you now.

So, to go back to Tim Crane’s definitions, meaning of life is broadly “objective” in the sense that it’s about something that is considered to be predominantly outside of us – Life, the Universe and Everything – while meaning in life is about our subjective emotions, experiences and reactions as we encounter other things and other people, including sharing in collective emotions and reactions.



But there is another very important component in that subjective meaning, and that is narrative. Humans seem to have a powerful need to be able to explain events in terms of reasons and causes. We need stories. And we all carry in our heads our own, private personal story in terms of what we’ve done and how we’ve developed and changed throughout our lives. Apart from the odd family snapshot, or written record, that story is based almost entirely on our memory, including all the bits and pieces of what others have told us, what we’ve seen on TV or read in novels. The more we find out about memory, the more it becomes clear that we’re standing on sand. Even memories of recent, direct experiences are fallible. Human memory isn’t like computer memory, where the information sits in a fixed place to be taken out and looked at. Brains don’t work that way. Memories aren’t fixed things sitting in files waiting to be accessed. Every time we recall a memory it can be changed.

Actually it goes further than that. The conscious “I” that retains this narrative isn’t, we know, a ghost in the machine. The more research that is done on consciousness, the more it is clear that Descartes was wrong about mind-body duality. It looks like consciousness and subjective experience are emergent properties of a bundle of physical, electrochemical, processes, though no-one knows quite how or why.

There are various reasons why we might change or adapt our memories. One is peer pressure. There have been many experiments showing not only that people will say they remember something they know to be false in order to fit in with others, but in some cases that their actual memories change so that they genuinely think the false memory is true. Anyone reading the reports about the claimed miracles of Our Lady of Fatima in 1917 for example, can see that. Thousands of people were sure they saw the sun dance around or plunge towards the Earth. Those memories were false.

Another reason for us unconsciously to wield the memory editor’s pen is narrative: we want what happened to fit with the story. If it doesn’t, then we change it, or adjust it, or forget it. In order to have meaning in our lives, we need to have a narrative.



Now, what about integrity. The Oxford Dictionary gives two meanings. Firstly, “The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles”, and secondly “The state of being whole and undivided” derived from the Latin “integer” meaning whole or complete. In the sense that we’re taking about it here, it means a combination of the two, as Wikipedia puts it: “Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, or moral uprightness. It is generally a personal choice to hold oneself to consistent moral and ethical standards.” So it’s about being consistent, and being good.

As an aside, I also learned that “ethical integrity” in a philosophical sense is purely about consistency. It seems you can regard other people as playthings and exhibit psychopathic behaviour towards them, but you’re regarded as having ethical integrity if you do it consistently.

Anyhow, back to the dual meaning that I hope we can agree on: being both consistent and being good.

Only someone suffering a bad case of self-loathing will maintain a personal narrative in which they are the villain. While we may admit flaws and errors, most of us like to think of ourselves as good. More than that, as social animals, most of us are strongly influenced by what other people think about us – or at least what we think they think – especially people whose views we value highly.  And we know that in most societies, integrity is highly valued, while hypocrisy – the opposite of consistency – is condemned.

So there’s a clear link here between having meaning in our lives, and personal integrity. Both require a narrative. If we are to have integrity, ethical components of that narrative – how we behave – have to be consistent and based on good values. Consistency doesn’t mean we can’t change or develop over time of course. One of the values can be a willingness to learn from others, from our mistakes, and from new evidence. That fits in the narrative.

The personal narrative which carries the meaning in our lives needs to exhibit a moral consistency if we are to have personal integrity, and not be hypocrites.



But I’ve glossed over the other key element of personal integrity: we need not only to be consistent in how we behave and what we say but we need to be honest and exhibit what the dictionary calls “strong moral principles”.

But how do we know what is moral, what is right or wrong? As a humanist, and an atheist, I can’t appeal to scripture. In fact, I’d go further than that. I think all religions are human creations, and the moral rules found in their scriptures were not sent down by a deity but made up and developed by humans – almost always men. They therefore reflect both general features of our shared humanity, and the particular features of the situation in which they were decided and the people who created them.

The split between those moral precepts attributable to our shared humanity and those reflecting the particularities of time, place, personality, gender and so on is sometimes obvious.

For example: a key value associated with integrity is honesty. That’s a shared human value that appears in most ethical codes. The Ten Commandments say: “Thou shalt not bear false witness”, the Fourth Precept in Buddhism is “I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech” and there are other rules about not stealing or cheating.

On the other hand, earlier in the Ten Commandments there’s a prohibition of idol worship. It’s followed by a threat:  “for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”  That seems to reflect the needs of a leader trying to unify a group of people around a specific religious view which, at the time, was in competition with other views. He rightly saw that unifying principle as a prerequisite for the credibility of the other rules. But he used a threat to punish future generations for their parent’s, grandparent’s, great-grandparent’s and great-great-grandparent’s decision to disobey the idol-worship prohibition. I think most people today would say that’s immoral, and akin to collective punishment. It’s clearly a rule reflecting the particular situation its originator found himself in.

Similarly, we all know the contortions the Abrahamic faiths are going through to reconcile modern views on homosexuality with its condemnation in the texts. Over half of British Catholics under the age of 50 think that gay marriage is right. The previous Pope called it a threat to world peace. The current Pope said of homosexuality “Who am I to judge?”. Meanwhile the formal doctrine is unchanged.

As a humanist, I don’t think honesty, fairness or any other moral value exists “out there”. We created them as a result of both our physical evolution and the evolution of human societies and rational thinking. And we are continuing to develop.


But if morality develops from our shared humanity, how does that happen?

It’s a feature of humans that we are born largely incapable and have long childhoods, requiring lengthy periods of care and nurture. We are social animals, and that’s impossible without a shared view that murder and stealing are wrong and that you can get more done by cooperating. Similarly, it’s easy to see why a society in which dishonesty, stealing and cheating are accepted as norms of behaviour is likely to be less successful that one where they are not.

But there’s an important underpinning component here, and that is empathy. Humans, and may be some other animals, have an important natural ability to empathise. We can put ourselves in the shoes of others. But the link between empathy and morality it’s quite as simple as it might appear. There’s an interesting, if rather repetitive, book called “Against Empathy – The Case for Rational Compassion”, by Paul Bloom, a Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. He points out that there are in fact two sorts of empathy: emotional empathy, where you literally feel what the other person is feeling , and cognitive empathy, where you have an understanding and appreciation of the way they are feeling. He points out that emotional empathy alone – which is what he’s arguing against – can be dangerous. For a start, it can be debilitating. If I have a serious car crash, I don’t want the doctor in A&E to be overcome by sharing my pain, I want her to think straight and use her skill to save me. Worse than that, we tend to feel purely emotional empathy more readily for people like us than for people who are different. So morality based purely on that would lead us to favour our family or tribe over other people. It’s only when we also use our cognitive empathy, and apply rational thought to extend empathy to principles applicable outside our circle, that we can see that harming those who are different is as bad as harming those who are like us.

In practice, when we talk about empathy, we tend not to make the emotional/cognitive distinction Paul Bloom is concerned about. But he’s right. Without an ability to see people who are different as fellow human beings worthy of empathic understanding, and without the rational extension of natural empathic responses to universal principles of compassion, there would be no universally-applicable morality.

This is the basis for the Golden Rule – treat others as you would wish to be treated. From a humanist viewpoint, it’s a product of our shared humanity, so it’s no coincidence that it has arisen independently, and in slightly different forms, all over the world and in all sorts of different religious and philosophical traditions dating back at least to pre-2000BC Hinduism.

In the Abrahamic traditions, it appears first in Leviticus in the form “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.” That’s been dated back to around 1440BC. Or as Jesus is quoted it in Matthew: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” or more simply in Luke: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” At around the same time, the scholar Rabbi Hillel is supposed to have responded to a challenge to explain the complexities of Jewish Law while standing one leg by saying – while standing on one leg – “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” In Islam, while the Golden Rule doesn’t appear explicitly in the Qur’an, it does in several Hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet, such as “Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you, and reject for others what you would reject for yourselves.”

It’s been repeated as a maxim by philosophers ever since. But we’re still learning what it means in practice. If you take the Ten Commandments, apart from the ones establishing the primacy of the Hebrew God, all the others can be derived from the Golden Rule. But so can a lot of other rules for living a good life which are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible or the Qur’an. Slavery is the obvious example. There’s no rule in the Bible or the Qur’an saying “Thou shalt not subjugate and own other people and keep them as slaves.” Like gay marriage, it’s an example of how we have continued to evolve and develop our understanding, in these cases by applying rational thought to realise that the “others” to which the Golden Rule applies not just to our own clan or those of the same race, gender or sexual orientation.

The humanist approach to morality is based on the premise that suffering is generally bad, and flourishing and well-being are generally good, so we should consider the intention and likely consequences of our actions on that basis. So humanists fully support the Golden Rule, but also say that we must continue to think, challenge and develop our understanding.  At the highest level, for example, I think it’s only relatively recently that significant numbers of people are seriously considering how far it can be extended to other animals. And at the level of the specific, rules are useful, but every situation is different so there’s no excuse for failing to think through what is right and wrong. Stealing is generally wrong. Stealing bread to keep a starving child alive probably isn’t.

So, from my perspective, morality comes from us. It’s a human creation.



Now, let’s go back to integrity. When the dictionary refers to the “honesty and strong moral principles” that accompany consistency in the definition, I think it means a particular type or subset of the broad range of morality we’ve been considering. We’re not talking about not being a murderer, or whether or not we’re gay, or whether we would sanction collective punishment. These are somehow out of scope. The moral difference between someone who has integrity and someone who doesn’t seems to me to be related above all to honesty and trust. They are both to do with how we interact with others, and have a direct line from the Golden Rule – they are how we want others to deal with us.

Of course, knowing what that these are morally right doesn’t mean we necessarily actually behave morally. We are often faced with the choice of whether to do the right thing or the thing that suits us. It takes effort, both psychological, and sometimes physical, to override the temptation to take the easiest course of action. That’s what is meant by “strong” moral principles. Not everyone who has a consistent moral view displays integrity. It can be hard work.


It should be obvious by now that I don’t see integrity, and its components of moral behaviour and consistency, as being at all dependent upon any particular belief. Having a reputation for behaving consistently in an honest and trustworthy way seems a pretty reliable recipe for someone to be respected in even the most unsophisticated human society. My guess, and it can only be a guess, is that it was as valued in prehistoric times as it is now. It’s human.

Acting with integrity helps make the world a better place, it earns the approval and liking of others, and – like behaving kindly – it makes us feel good about ourselves.

Moreover, genuinely exhibiting integrity makes a powerful positive contribution to the narrative which we build and maintain to give our life its meaning.

What’s not to like?


Author: HumanistJ

I'm a humanist - someone who thinks you can live a good life without believing in anything supernatural. I'm active in Humanism in the UK, both through Humanists UK and as chair of South West London Humanists. This blog is purely my personal view.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s