Global Integrity: An Invitation to Religious Leaders

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I am writing and posting this blog shortly after President Obama's inauguration. It is intended to introduce a concept that has been growing inside me for several years and that aches to be launched for others to help shape. For now, I shall call this meme global integrity:

Global integrity is right relationship at and with all nested levels, from the personal to the planetary, spatially and temporally.

I believe that promotion of this concept could play a crucial role in moving through the crises now facing our nation (and the world).  It establishes an easy-to-understand frame for discerning helpful actions when problems would otherwise seem too big or complex. Global integrity, as I define it here, has a distinctly religious cast. Hence my invitation to religious leaders to join me in discerning what role religion can play in helping our new president and a newly hopeful citizenry in transitioning through this crisis.

Surely I am not alone is sensing that a brilliant, dedicated, and charismatic president absolutely depends on our help. It is only a matter of time before Mr. Obama explicitly calls upon religious leaders to undertake the task of restoring the moral and ethical fiber of individuals and institutions in our nation -- but this time with respect to failings that led to the financial/economic crisis we are now in and the ecological crisis that looms. 

Integrity is not just about politicians' private parts or the private lives of citizens; it's about our survival as a species. If religious leaders were to make this shift in focus, we would most surely discover that differences in beliefs and many of the seemingly irresolvable contentions of the past few decades fade into the background. Instead, religious leaders of vastly different faiths and political leanings will find substantial common ground. The common ground, I suggest, is integrity. If religious institutions do not step into the task of vigorously working for more integrous relations and systems at all levels within society, then who will?


Thanks to the sciences, we empirically know that reality is best understood as nested levels -- like nesting dolls or concentric circles -- in both space and time. Spatially, subatomic particles reside within atoms, within molecules, within cells, within creatures, within ecosystems and societies -- and all jostling around this one planet -- cycling here, recycling there, and ultimately powered (mostly) by the Sun. Temporally, that same nested sequence tracks the order of evolutionary emergence as it actually took place over the course of 13.7 billion years. That is, this physical sequence correctly reflects the development of these things over time, thereby identifying ancestral origins and relationships. Subatomic particles originated before molecules; molecules had to emerge before there could be cells, and so on, all the way up to human civilizations and our global ecosystem that includes them all.

We need a new concept of integrity that embraces all of this larger reality we are becoming increasingly aware of.  Because of its nested, multi-level focus, global integrity offers a powerful framework for addressing problems by attending to both the forest and the trees at the same time. At its core is this understanding:

When right relationship breaks down at any level in a system, it cannot be restored sustainably without also shoring up the integrity of lower and higher levels -- especially one level down and one level up from the focal problem.

This "one up / one down" directive was set forth in a rather technical paper published in 1984 by a group of ecologists and foresters (see the full citation for Allen, T.F.H. et al on this reference list). This paper has become a classic in general systems theory and has also informed the complexity sciences. Part of its beauty is that it lays out a middle way for using this nested (also known as hierarchical or holonic) understanding of reality. To be sure, nestedness means that changes we intentionally or inadvertently make within one level may trigger changes within quite a few levels up and/or down. If policymakers or opinion leaders get too wrapped up in assessing all the systemic changes that might result from a proposed action within any one level, decision gridlock will ensue and this helps nobody. That's where one-up / one-down comes in handy. At minimum, 3 levels of the system are always brought into play when assessing and then dealing with any problem.


A recent Op-Ed by New York Times columnist David Brooks is a fine example of this multi-level approach to understanding problems and then attempting to solve them.  In "An Economy of Faith and Trust" (01/15/09), Brooks writes (my highlights),

Once, classical economics dominated policy thinking. The classical models presumed a certain sort of orderly human makeup. Inside each person, reason rides the passions the way a rider sits atop a horse. Sometimes people do stupid things, but generally the rider makes deliberative decisions, and the market rewards rational behavior.

Markets tend toward efficiency. People respond in pretty straightforward ways to incentives. The invisible hand forms a spontaneous, dynamic order. Economic behavior can be accurately predicted through elegant models.

This view explains a lot, but not the current financial crisis - how so many people could be so stupid, incompetent and self-destructive all at once. The crisis has delivered a blow to classical economics and has taken a body of psychological work that was at the edge of public policy thought and brought it front and center.

In this new body of thought, you get a very different picture of human nature. Reason is not like a rider atop a horse. Instead, each person's mind contains a panoply of instincts, strategies, intuitions, emotions, memories and habits, which vie for supremacy. An irregular, idiosyncratic and largely unconscious process determines which of these internal players gets to control behavior at any instant. Context - which stimulus triggers which response -- matters a lot.

"In this new body of thought, you get a very different picture of human nature," writes David Brooks. At its core is the new understanding that even our brains are nested in both space and time. We are not of one mind; each of us has four minds emerging from one brain and these (no surprise) represent the sequence of their evolutionary emergence. The rational, thinking, endlessly talking-to-itself neocortex is not, in truth, in charge. We think it is in charge because that is the part of our brain of which we are most conscious. Of course, we all know that emotions play a role in our own most important and deliberated decisions, as well as our spontaneous outburts. But we consciously reflect on those emotions, consider all the facts, weigh all the options -- don't we? Guess again.

This "very different picture of human nature" is effecting great shifts in theory and practice at the level of understanding individual motivation and behavior: psychology. Those shifts, in turn, will increasingly work their way into the field of sociology -- how groups of individuals behave.  Both fields will vitally contribute to an overhaul of the field of economics, now in disarray.

Recall that in October of 2008 "former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan denied the nation's economic crisis was his fault on Thursday but conceded the meltdown had revealed a flaw in a lifetime of economic thinking and left him in a ‘state of shocked disbelief.'"

We can't entirely blame a fault in classical economics and faith in an unbridled free market for the financial crisis facing us now. After all, until science had anything credible to say about why "rational choice" is naïve, how could it have been otherwise? (As I will explain below, "rational" too often simply means "rationalizing" -- something we are very good at, indeed.) The benefits of free-market economies emerge from the collective activities of its components, the activities of components emerge from human choices, and human choices emerge from human nature as it plays out in different contexts. A lapse in integrity, in "right relations," at any of those subsidiary levels will bleed upward into the economy as a whole. And the design of the economic system, itself, has everything to do with which aspects of our full-spectrum humanness predominate in our economic interactions.

My own tradition, Christianity, has evolved central doctrines and helpful practices around the acknowledged fact that we are imperfect (read "fallen") creatures. A scientific understanding of our moral imperfections has us understand that we are driven by powerful inherited urges interacting with our "environment" -- the evolved and constructed social systems and conditions we live within. This naturalizing of our troublesome drives may also be helpful in moving us out of denial when those troubles escalate into persistent problems, addictions, and major social crises. After all, each challenging urge deserves to be appreciated and valued in this sense: it must have a somewhat noble history in that it insured our ancestors' survival and reproduction. And each social system we've had -- both "good" and "bad" -- has played a major role in moving us on to something better. We can be grateful for both these blessings.


The imperfections of human nature are not only evident in the ponzi-scheme charlatans, bank CEOs and CFOs, unscrupulous mortgage lenders, and the institutional and governmental structures that make integrous personal action unfit in the world of finance. The imperfections of human nature are also evident in any of us who ever "played" the stock market or who sold our modest home in order to move into an investment -- that is, a house and landscaping far beyond our needs and our means but intended to be sold short-term for a profit. Thus the housing bubble and bust is evidence of a ponzi-scheme too: Many of us fell for that one; we believed -- and our social systems supported us in believing that we lived in a world without limits -- or that at least we ourselves would get out before the house came crashing down on the next buyer or the one after that.

One way to look at this is that our nation suffers today because our nested systems of governance failed to protect us from the consequences of our own less-than-integrous ways of investing personal money and from our own ignorance and self-deception. But if all we ask of our social systems is that they protect us from the consequences of our non-integrous actions -- as the current bank bailouts do -- then those systems make it harder for us to learn from our mistakes and support the emergence of even greater crises in the future. Rather, we need not only for people and institutions to exercise greater integrity, but we need social systems that themselves have integrity -- that protect and further the well-being of the larger social and ecological communities we are all part of by making it easy and rewarding for individuals and corporations to be integrous in everything they do.

A crisis in integrity at all levels -- from system design to regulator to board of directors to accounting to mortgage broker to individual investor/home-buyer -- all this brought us to where we are. We face a tremendous opportunity for moral reconstruction within a much expanded sense of integrity that is fit for our 21st century realities and challenges.


President Obama, in his inaugural address, indicated that science and technology would be called upon to be major players in his plans for national recovery and transformation. Indeed, as I hope the president will soon come to appreciate, science and technology are giving us a whole new field of possibilities for understanding human nature -- both individual and collective -- as it really is, not as we might merely wish or presume. These possibilities were unavailable to previous legislators, regulators, economists, and others involved in shaping the relationship between governance, markets, and individuals. It truly can be a whole new world.

For example, a particular technological advance of the 1990s, functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI, made it possible, for the first time, for scientists to actually track what is going on in a human brain that is not dead or sedated. The fMRI pictures of our brains in action have forcefully demonstrated the need for psychologists and sociologists to subsume their understanding of human nature and social behavior within the evolutionary worldview. The human brain did not originate out of nowhere, and it surely was not intelligently designed. The human brain is itself a nested system. Scientists  speak of a "Reptilian Brain," a "Paleomammalian Brain," and a "Neomammalian Brain" -- all taking up residence within (and effectively constituting) our brain. None of us is of one mind, whether we are aware of it or not. Rather, each of us is a menagerie of minds.

Worse, the most powerful drives within our brains are also the oldest (the most deeply nested) and the least subject to conscious control or sublimation. The desire to copulate, to eat, and to be safe, along with the territorial aggressiveness that supports all three drives, were just about all that our reptilian forebears needed to attend to. (Think of the sum total of what your average iguana cares about.) Those drives are still with us, of course, and they lurk in the part of our brain known as the brain stem (our Inner Iguana, or Lizard Legacy). You might consider the brain stem and its drives as the basic life force within us. Those drives are still absolutely essential, but also deeply problematic in societies with guns, crowding, unemployment, junk foods in fabulous supply, psychotropic substances no longer linked to rites of passage or other religious occasions, and visual and audio sexual stimulants just about everywhere (especially on the internet). Worse, because we experience the urges that these drives evoke, rather than know the urges, we will unconsciously act on impulse unless the newest part of our brain is called into action: the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex (at our forehead) is the executive seat of our brain. Here our higher purpose (which I like to call our Higher Porpoise) resides. If our impulses are to be checked or overruled in order to honor a commitment previously made (e.g., to eat healthfully, exercise daily, study, take out the trash, fix the leak, drive safely, remain faithful, handle our money conscientiously, limit our time with the television or the computer, get our taxes done, stay away from alcohol), then it is our prefrontal cortex that will be doing it for us. The bad news is that this part of our brain won't properly develop and keep fit without sufficient exercise, continuing exercise. And it is the last part of our mental equipment to mature -- not until the age of 22 to 25. Young people will thus always be impulsive; that is their nature. The good news is that 20 year olds -- although they may be running up credit card debt and though they may be dangerous drivers -- are generally not buying homes, lending money, investing in the stock market, running companies, or doing creative accounting with somebody else's money. We can ignore them for the moment; they will not likely bring down the system using the exotic financial instruments so beloved by alpha males older than their early 20s.


What we can't ignore is that your and my and Mr. Obama's brain (and that of his predecessor) have evolved to be masters of self-deception. Social psychologist and noted author Jonathan Haight is a leader on this topic and on other aspects of how our evolutionary history informs psychology and sociology. Briefly, let's say we have committed to something important (perhaps honesty), but a deeper part of our brain -- the evolved brain region concerned with status (more on that in a moment) -- urges us to dissemble. What do "we" do?

Consider that our rational neocortex evolved on top of the older, status-conscious part of our brain: our Paleomammalian Brain.  Paleomammalian -- the brain of rabbits and wolves and chimpanzees -- is the seat of our emotions and of our drives to care for kin, enter into bonded relationships, and be socially successful and admired. On these crucial matters, our Paleomammalian Brain (which I like to call our Furry Li'l Mammal) may be just, if not more, insistent than our Inner Iguana.

The fact is, our rational, thinking capacities evolved in order to serve the more ancestral parts of our brain (although they're now needed for other purposes; more on that soon). So unfortunately, those older drives are still very much in control.  Here's how the system works: When our external situation or inner condition triggers an urge, the rational brain steps in to assist. That assistance might be nothing more than figuring out where the nearest bathroom is. But if our prefrontal cortex has some issue with acting on that urge -- perhaps "we" have made a commitment to abstain from a particular activity-then things get interesting.  Our rational brain (which I like to call our Monkey Mind) swings into action big time.

If the prefrontal cortex has beefed up at the "gym," the rational mind might have ready access to a solution to honor this part of the brain without triggering a hissy fit in the Furry Li'l Mammal or displeasure in the iguana down below. Maybe the prefrontal cortex has already collaborated with Monkey Mind to ensure that there is absolutely no junk food or alcohol in the house. Maybe the prefrontal cortex directed Monkey Mind to program into the cell phone the number of a support-group member.  Maybe the prefrontal cortex made sure that the body worked out this morning or did some yoga, and so the unwelcome urge is not quite so insistent.

The default pattern, however -- what we get if we haven't taken the effort to do otherwise -- is for those powerful lower drives to win out. In such cases, our rational mind will get busy devising a way for the deep drives to be met, while inventing a rationale that convinces the prefrontal cortex that its commitments have been honored, too. In a way, Monkey Mind's own self-interest is to stay out of trouble, to keep the peace. To do that, it becomes a master of invention -- and deception. For example, Monkey Mind might offer up these possibilities for action: Go ahead and purchase the ice cream, but make it the low-fat variety. . .  Pour just half a shot. . . Whoops! I forgot to check my engagement calendar this morning. . .


An inborn capacity to deceive oneself is crucial to understand, but so are many other insights derived from the new evolutionary approaches to understanding our brains and our behaviors. Notably, another very useful insight is that our Paleomammalian brain is powerfully driven to achieve and be concerned with issues of status.

A drive to achieve and hold onto high (or at least somewhat higher) status is in us because, at crucial junctures in the past when times were very tough, the only humans, hominids, primates, and social mammals to survive and reproduce were those who had managed to achieve high enough status to secure safety and sustenance for themselves and their offspring.  High status also conferred benefits with respect to the quality (and sometimes number) of mates. These high-status achievers are our ancestors, and we inherited their instinctual quest for status -- if not all their gifts and talents for achieving it.

Notice how the mammalian quest for status is, itself, partly an in order to. High status fulfills on ancient drives within the Reptilian Brain, not just the deep mammalian concern for one's offspring and the continued well-being of one's mate.

That the need for status is innate is both good and bad news. In America, high achievers driven by the quest for recognition and admiration, if not always by the prosperity that high status may (or may not) afford, tend to be the movers and shakers responsible for new businesses, new inventions, new uses of existing technologies, new discoveries in science, new ideas in politics, new artistic offerings, new intellectual insights and syntheses, and so much more.

A downside, of course, is that the quest for status can be diverted into the quest for the trappings of status -- things that make us appear to be more successful than we really are. Unquestionably, this shadow side of the drive for status played a role in the insane rate at which home values escalated in the decade prior to the crash. It has played a role, as well, in the scourge of excessive levels of credit card debt.  Spiritually, it contributes to our sense of dissatisfaction with our material circumstances; it diminishes our ability to experience gratitude for what we do have.

Good news is that status is not measured in absolutes by the Furry Li'l Mammal within us. Status is sensed as a relative condition. How does our material wealth and station in life compare to that of our co-workers, our neighbors, our siblings, our acquaintances in church? Where do we stand in the eyes of others?  What this means is that a very bad economic downturn is felt as less bad so long as enough of your co-workers, neighbors, siblings, church acquaintances -- indeed, fellow citizens -- plunge down with you. An economic downturn, properly addressed, can actually bring us more together to improve our communities, our country, our world, with the new status being reserved for those who best help us do that.


There is a remarkable opportunity here for religion to ally with both science and social movements to reframe and expand integrity for our new era and bring it to the forefront of our public discourse. President Obama will need to call upon religious institutions for assistance in ramping up global integrity as it manifests at the level of individual citizens, institutions, and the structure and functioning of entire social systems. As well, he will need our help in shifting cultural norms so that greater value is placed on integrity and that people understand the larger context within which we need to practice it. Are the kind of enlightened integrous actions and new systems we're talking about held up for others to see and admire?  Will the day come when one would no more cheat on taxes or support a law that rewards narrow self-interest than cheat on one's spouse?

Perhaps the greatest living evolutionist is Edward O. Wilson. Among other achievements, he founded the field of sociobiology, the behavior of social animals including humans. In 1999 Wilson was named "Humanist of the Year." Many forms of humanism shy away from traditional religous language and concepts, yet Wilson has no interest in doing away with religion. Rather, he has written of religion's "centrality to human culture."

Nevertheless, Wilson and his collaborators (e.g. David Sloan Wilson) also know that religion is not actually or only about belief. Religions that have stood the test time may have used belief toward their success, but belief is just one possible element that contributes to the basic functionality of any religion. Philosopher of religion Loyal Rue states these functions succinctly in his 2006 book, Religion is Not About God. To persist, religions must contribute in supportive ways to three core functions: (1) personal wholeness [personal integrity], (2) social coherence [social integrity], and (3) ecological integrity.

Notice that the core functions of religion span three nested levels: the personal, the social group, and the ecological systems in which all individuals and societies are embedded. Great! Religious leaders can bring religion full square back into the public and governmental sphere by shaping public opinion and cultural norms in ways far more important to our economic wellbeing and national stability than opposition to or support for gay marriage and abortion. Religious leaders will still be dealing with matters of morality and ethics, but this time, matters that all of us need help with and encouragement toward -- social liberals as well as social conservatives, theological liberals as well as the theologically conservative.


During this crisis in our institutions and our nation, I invite religious leaders to set aside our differences in belief.  At least temporarily, let us focus entirely on integrity. Let us develop our understanding of and encourage global integrity -- integrity at all nested levels. Those who are willing to share with their congregants the latest discoveries that are reshaping the fields of psychology, sociology, and cultural evolution will have access to a wealth of new and powerful tools and other practices to assist their members in growing into more integrous, satisfying lives. But even those who decline the evolutionary worldview can contribute by emphasizing the core values of integrity that are universally recognized: honesty, humility, service, trust, and concern for all the nested levels of our existence.