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.

14 comments for “Moral Hazards of “Integrity”

  1. Personal integrity is also often cited by some as a reason not to participate in Church meetings or community or even to leave the Church outright because they disagree with some policy or doctrine or narrative taught by or heard at Church. I can respect their choices and their feelings without necessarily understanding. I wonder if it’s a form of scrupolosity. I know others with the same disagreements who don’t seem to need to curtail participation (beyond being sensitive to others in classroom discussions) or membership. I wonder sometimes what makes the difference.

  2. I like your comments, and I think it is important to remember that we’re not perfect, that we’re fallible beings, and that we are capable of making foolish promises, which can bind us in needless painful situations. When I was at BYU, Karl Maeser’s “chalk circle” quote was often emphasized (and probably still is) in relation to the Honor Code:

    “I have been asked what I mean by ‘word of honor.’ I will tell you. Place me behind prison walls–walls of stone ever so high, ever so thick, reaching ever so far into the ground–there is a possibility that in some way or another I may escape; but stand me on the floor and draw a chalk line around me and have me give my word of honor never to cross it. Can I get out of the circle? No. Never! I’d die first!”

    That sounds good in principle, and his manner of speech is forceful and inspiring, but is it wise? Taken literally, that would be a foolish promise, and it would be foolish to abide by it. Approximately 40 million people died during World War I. Why? Because people held to promises where the consequences of keeping them were far worse than breaking them. Those people held to virtuous principles of honor and integrity and believed that the right thing to do was to uphold the alliances they had entered into, and normally, that would be the right course. But because of this, 40 million people died and countless others endured great suffering, all because two high-ranking officials of Austria-Hungary were assassinated in Sarajevo. Surely that was a grievous wrong (at least from some perspectives), but did it require the suffering of the entire world to atone for it?

    A line from a children’s cartoon has stuck with me for over 30 years and is applicable here. In 1987, while the anti-drug crusade was going on, an episode of the space western Bravestarr focused on two kids, one of whom was ingesting a drug-like substance and made the other promise not to tell anyone about it. The other kid was worried about what he should do, when a conversation with the Shaman character gave him some perspective: “A promise is important, yes. But a life is more so. And, which would you rather lose forever, a promise or a friend?” (And when he finally decided to get help, he was too late; his friend had died of an overdose).

    Therefore, I think it is best to be very careful about when and to whom we make our promises. Commitments are a different story; a change in perspective or maturity might lead us to alter those in exceptional circumstances without taking on the binding nature of a promise. (And some people may consider a commitment and a promise to be the same thing). Commitments can also be good training to help prepare a person, particularly children, to make and keep certain covenants that are crucial to our salvation (see Joy D. Jones, “A Sin-Resistant Generation, April 2017 General Conference But for most other situations, it’s probably best to follow the counsel of the Savior in the Sermon on the Mount, to avoid the traps of “Moral Discernment” and “Scrupulosity” talked about here:

    33 ¶ Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:

    34 But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne:

    35 Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.

    36 Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.

    37 But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. (Matthew 5:33-37; 3 Nephi 12:33-37).

  3. Wondering: I think there’s something to that hypothesis! One of the primary contexts in which you find “purity” rhetoric is in complicity in wrongdoing; if people think that they’ve been implicated in an institution’s perceived wrongdoing, and they wish to remain pure, they feel they must disaffiliate. This isn’t necessarily bad, but we can talk about where we should draw those lines.

    Ryan Reeder: I can’t say I expected a *Bravestarr* reference on this blog — there aren’t many folks I’ve found who are also familiar with that show — but yes! That’s a great example of how “integrity” talk can be morally misleading.

    And Maeser’s chalk circle is a great LDS example of the principle of integrity being presented extremely and without qualification; it’s also an instance of the pattern of LDS moral rhetoric directed first toward young people (who have had less time for moral discernment) but not nuanced or explored for adults (see also: For the Strength of Youth). If we don’t sincerely discuss conflicts we’ll face in our endeavors to be Christlike, we prepare ourselves for moral paralysis and fracture.

  4. Does your Father in Heaven act with moral integrity 98% of the time? Or 100%

    Now you know how to be.

  5. Well, Dsure, if Father in Heaven did all the things blamed on God or the Spirit by the scriptures, then it wasn’t 100%!

    But seriously, I think you missed the point. The issue seems to be knowing what constitutes acting with moral integrity in any particular circumstance when in fact you are not omniscient or must choose among options without knowing what all the consequences may be for you or others. Absolute and simple rules articulated and adopted before facing such options with such knowledge as you may have gained after their formulation don’t always provide appropriate guidance.

    Good luck with your approach. Does it border on smugness?

  6. I don’t think Clay Christensen’s suggestion, “make resolutions and stick to them, 100% of the time” implies that our resolutions can’t change. I interpret it as, live by your principles 100% of the time. Out principles can change as we learn and understand and change ourselves, but at any one time we should live by them 100%. Maybe you think my reading too charitable.

  7. Dsure,

    That’s the goal, isn’t it? Remember, though, Adam made a commitment to keep all of God’s commandments. Then he was faced with a situation where he could either remain in the Garden of Eden and not partake of the fruit or remain with Eve and partake of the fruit, enabling him to multiply and replenish the earth. He could not do both. He had to choose which commandment to break. His choice resulted in his fall and the bringing forth of the human family.

    God is omniscient. We are not. We are capable of getting ourselves painted in a corner where we’re darned if we do and darned if we don’t (to mix clichés). God is perfect and will always keep his covenants. Because we are not perfect, and cannot be on our own, he sent us a Savior, Jesus Christ, to right the wrongs we cannot right. He fixes broken things we cannot fix. He heals the wounds we cannot heal.

    So we can keep striving, keep trying, and someday become perfected in Christ and enabled to always act with 100% moral integrity. That day is not this day. This day we do our best and rely on Christ, repenting when we make mistakes, so that one day, that day may come.

  8. I am reminded of D&C 56:4-6:

    4 Wherefore I, the Lord, command and revoke, as it seemeth me good; and all this to be answered upon the heads of the rebellious, saith the Lord.

    5 Wherefore, I revoke the commandment which was given unto my servants Thomas B. Marsh and Ezra Thayre, and give a new commandment unto my servant Thomas, that he shall take up his journey speedily to the land of Missouri, and my servant Selah J. Griffin shall also go with him.

    6 For behold, I revoke the commandment which was given unto my servants Selah J. Griffin and Newel Knight, in consequence of the stiffneckedness of my people which are in Thompson, and their rebellions.

    And yet, we read the following in v. 11:

    11 And though the heaven and the earth pass away, these words shall not pass away, but shall be fulfilled.

  9. I don’t think integrity, as it is frequently used, means what the speaker or writer thinks it means. Yes, it might mean honesty or faithfulness and several other virtues we can come up with, but what integrity really means is a wholeness or completeness in every aspect of our life. Thus, a man, for example, who is honest and kind and loving to his family but ruthless as a pirate in his business dealings could be described fairly as not having integrity. Someone with integrity does not — perhaps cannot — compartmentalize his life and say, oh, this is home, this is business, this is something else.

  10. aaron: In the post, I’m using the term as Christensen uses it, and in the common usage of the term (one definition presents it as “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness”). While your proposal might be a helpful way of recontextualizing integrity in future conversations, it doesn’t quite apply here.

  11. Stephen L Carter, a professor of law at Yale and not a member of the church, wrote a book in 1997 called “Integrity.” In it he describes integrity as a process that involves three steps:

    1. Learn what is right or correct, or true.
    2. Do the right/correct/true thing.
    3. Publicly explain to others why you are doing that thing.

    His definition of integrity allows one to re-assess their integrity as they learn new things.

  12. This is an incredibly important discussion. I keep hoping for a discussion on morality at conference.

    On this site there are great hypothetical discussions. I want to say, give me an example of what you mean.

    I have also said that the majority of members voting for Trump indicates to me a moral vacume.

    On of the things we don’t seem to do is prioitise/weigh /value moral judgement.

    My wife and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversity in March. We were married in London temple and were both innocent. We were married 6 weeks after returning from my mission (church teaching). We occasionally wonder how we managed to be compatable, with such a limited selection process.
    A number of our grandchildren go on holidays with their partners, and I assume are not virgins.
    I understand marital abuse is high in Utah, particularly with the virus/lockdown.
    Because we make such a big deal of pre marital sex in the church; there is limited opportunity to find out whether you are getting yourself into an abusive relationship. Is it more immoral for a consenting young couple to go on holiday to learn about each other and whether they can live together, or to blindly enter an eternal marriage with an abuser?

    Bigger picture. In the richest country one eighth of the people live in poverty. GDP/capita is $63,.000 in 2018

    Poverty by Ethnicity

    According to 2018 US Census Data, the highest poverty rate by race is found among Native Americans (25.4%), with Blacks (20.8%) having the second highest poverty rate, and Hispanics (of any race) having the third highest poverty rate (17.6%). Whites had a poverty rate of 10.1%, while Asians had a poverty rate at 10.1%.

    The Economics of Poverty

    Poverty thresholds are determined by the US government, and vary according to the size of a family, and the ages of its members. In 2018, the poverty threshold—also known as the poverty line—for an individual was $12,784. For two people, the weighted average threshold was $16,247.

    Poverty Thresholds

    Three people


    Four people


    Is it moral to live in the richest country in the world, but also one of the highest levels of inequality in the world, and vote for a government that increases that inequality?
    What if you vote for them because you believe they will make abortion illegal? Especially if making abortion illegal is not the way to reduce the number of abortions but funding birth control, and sex education is? What if abortions reduce more under democrats than republicans.

    Then there is whether a member does not believe in climate science but fasts to prevent the consequences. Is there a moral question there?

    We now have the liberate states movement. Can a member join that, (it might suit their politics) aftrr fasting to end the consequences of the covid 19? Is this a moral question?

    For thosebwho think questioning is the same as hating. That might have moral questions too?

  13. Good observations in the OP. I remember several years back when I moved from a place where the church was small and struggling, to a place where the church was large and very-well organized. I could clearly see how some aspects of church culture fed into the anxiety and, even to some degree, scrupulosity that OP describes. A typical church-attending member in my city would have goals set for them at General Conference, goals set by the Stake President, other goals set by the Bishop, still other goals set by an EQ or RS presidency, in addition to challenges and invitations from countless other well-meaning ward members in talks and lessons. Each of these goals would be good things (read the BoM by the end of the year, complete a 4 generation family history chart, take a family name to the temple, spend more time in prayer, get your Eagle scout, go on ministering visits,call your mom more often, bulk up your food storage, etc) but taken altogether they become overwhelming. Not to mention other tasks that come from one’s calling. I’ve had to learn to interpret such invitations as thoughtful suggestions, not divine imperatives.
    I love the changes that we’ve seen implemented over the last few years and I feel that the Church is in a much better place than it was even just a few years ago. Culturally, I believe we are healthier, better able to focus on what matters most. At least that’s the case here in my little corner of the vineyard.

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