Moral Hazards of “Integrity”

The late Clayton Christensen spends a chapter of his book How Will You Measure Your Life? on how to make sure you live with integrity, in accordance with your principles. His suggestion: make resolutions and stick to them, 100% of the time. If you stick with them only 98%, before you notice you’ll have abandoned them altogether.

A bit to my surprise, I found myself reacting strongly against this proposition. It took me some thought to articulate what I think Christensen’s approach to moral integrity leaves unexamined, and I think it comes down to a couple things that aren’t often discussed in LDS circles:

  1. The need for ongoing moral discernment
  2. The dangers of scrupulosity


Moral Discernment

Teaching that you should define your moral principles once and for all assumes that, at the moment you do so, you already have a mature moral compass that will not need to be significantly tuned or realigned as you learn about yourself, your neighbors, and the world in which we live. 

If someone does have a clear and morally informed idea of what they should be doing, constant adherence to her previously-defined principles is beneficial. However, if she has any need for growth, such determined adherence can lead to a prolonged moral adolescence — analyzing and addressing moral questions with a child’s logic — and even immoral behavior. 

Think, for instance, of people who take as a principle that any sexual experience before marriage is a moral failure; adhering to that principle obligates them to treat all victims of sexual violence, including themselves, as moral failures. This person is acting with “integrity,” but to a toxic end.

What’s worse, revising one’s principles to account for circumstances or personal growth can, for some people, look like the sort of questionable surrender their resolution was intended to prevent!

For an example, early in my mission I made rules for myself in order to avoid distraction and negativity. While some — like avoiding sarcasm — were helpful, others I discovered, far too late, had been destructive and self-effacing. For instance, to avoid being “trunky” — homesick and wistful for things left behind — at one point I resolved not to think of family and college friends save on P-Days, despite those thoughts not being a source of distraction or discouragement for me. It took me months to realize that my resolution was a morally misguided misfire — thinking of home could be good, depending on the feelings it engendered. Deliberately avoiding thinking about friends and family was to try to erase my entire previous life and personality in pursuit of “effectiveness.” Despite this revelation, I still had a hard time shaking guilt if my mind wandered homeward. I felt like I was letting my iron resolve rust away.

I fear that we Latter-day Saints sometimes act as if our moral sense can be fully formed, our conscience fully trained, in childhood and adolescence, requiring only tweaks thereafter to align us more closely with the morals we already understand and hold. In such a culture, I fear that Latter-day Saint adults who encounter situations that require moral discernment might either recur to their childhood morality, (un)consciously adopt another moral foundation, or enter into a full-blown faith crisis, feeling that they can no longer trust the seemingly insufficient decision-making tools the Gospel gave them. (The desire to do only right, fueled by scrupulosity, explained below, can further convince them that any change is a concession to imperfection and ungodliness.) 

I feel it would be beneficial to have more discussion about how Latter-day Saints can faithfully engage in moral discernment and respect the conclusions others reach after likewise doing so.

As an example, we can look to the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, who determined that their spiritual well-being depended on never taking up arms, even against violent enemies; the Nephites, despite fighting a tough war to defend them, urged them not to break their covenant. Both parties engaged in moral discernment and served each other in affirmation of their differences in living out God’s will.



For some people, moral principles loom so large that they feel they cannot act at all without violating some principle — a phenomenon called scrupulosity. Wikipedia defines it as “pathological guilt about moral or religious issues. It is personally distressing, objectively dysfunctional, and often accompanied by significant impairment in social functioning.”

Scrupulosity is a terrible pit to fall into. I know, having spent most of my mission there, and a lot of time before and after. 

As an illustration, I once noticed that a person was discomfited when I asked them a question. I didn’t intend to make anyone uncomfortable! Drawing from the Golden Rule — “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — I decided that the most Christlike course of action would be to only ask questions to which I myself had an answer already. I made it a general rule, applicable even to questions about the techniques of missionary work and suggestions for daily plans. It took me months of applying this well-meaning principle to notice that already having an answer in mind made it seem that I was uninterested in anything my interlocutor, often a new missionary I was training, would have to offer!

I didn’t get a scrupulous attitude from nowhere, though. I thoroughly imbibed it through talks and lessons that demonstrated the need to keep principles in even the most minuscule of circumstances: Heber J. Grant being made to go over a long ledger again to discover where a penny’s discrepancy had crept in; workers condemned for stealing from their workplace for using an office paperclip or pen for personal purposes; a missionary whose impediment to being an Ammon was his tendency to daydream about his golf technique. Sometimes it served me well: I didn’t go back on an SAT to fill in a page of questions I accidentally missed. But sometimes, I got stuck in feedback loops of rule-keeping, rule-making, hard work, and despair when obedience wasn’t accompanied by the metrics of success promised to and drilled into us (on the mission: lessons, investigators at church, baptisms; in life: missionary success, church positions, marriage and family). 

It was a revelation when my someone told me that sometimes one might have to put a fictitious line in a ledger to account for a minor accounting difference, as there were better ways to spend one’s time than reviewing months of personal expenses to track down a missing $7.38, and doing so occasionally and in small amounts doesn’t make one an Enron. And when my workplace’s policies specifically made reference to employees’ ability to occasionally use work materials and tools for personal matters — within reason. And when I realized that the distractions I intended to forgo on the mission weren’t things I needed to avoid after the mission.

Some of my hardest work, then, has been in defining principles that allow me to fulfill my core moral obligations without becoming paralyzed, obsessive, or wound-up into self-recrimination. 

For instance, when I learned about factory farming and its mistreatment of animals, I made the decision to cut meat out of my diet. However, I soon realized that other moral concerns impacted my food consumption: allowing others to demonstrate hospitality; experiencing other cultures; eating food worth eating; and not letting food go to waste. If I just shunned all animal flesh, I would often find myself in violation of other principles — and feel awful about it. Therefore, I formulated a general principle that has survived several years without revision or all-consuming scrupulous anxiety: I avoid eating meat unless someone has served it to me; it would otherwise go to waste; it is part of a special cuisine; or it is at a restaurant with terrible or no vegetarian options. Given that I eat out very infrequently, this principle cuts the meat I purchase down to almost nothing.

Principles like this, with intentional, built-in exceptions informed by other moral values, are more complicated to devise, explain, and articulate. They take creativity, focus, and moral labor. But they help me stay truer to a wider range of my values while allowing me some peace of mind — a much better situation than having inconsistent or few principles, or having rigid, simply-stated ones and living in keen, undying awareness of every supposed violation.


I understand that these issues don’t apply to everyone equally; indeed, some people would be improved by a deeper awareness of their moral inadequacies, or by making fewer exceptions for themselves. For those people, the things that drop me into scrupulosity help them achieve and grow. But Zion is for everyone, even the scrupulous; let’s help everyone live according to the Gospel and feel God’s love.

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