Integrity is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake your consciousness, just as honesty is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake existence—that man is an indivisible entity, an integrated unit of two attributes: of matter and consciousness, and that he may permit no breach between body and mind, between action and thought, between his life and his convictions—that, like a judge impervious to public opinion, he may not sacrifice his convictions to the wishes of others, be it the whole of mankind shouting pleas or threats against him—that courage and confidence are practical necessities, that courage is the practical form of being true to existence, of being true to truth, and confidence is the practical form of being true to one's own consciousness.
In other words, individuals should have the courage of their convictions. Doesn’t matter what other people think; doesn’t matter how much pressure there may be to conform; the individual’s judgment is paramount. “There can be no compromise on basic principles,” Rand insisted. “There can be no compromise on moral issues. There can be no compromise on matters of knowledge, of truth, of rational conviction.” Rand’s insistence on this point might carry some weight if knowledge and truth were free of controversy. Where controversy exists, however, Randian integrity quickly turns vicious.
Compromise is a necessary ingredient to any free, democratic society. In an open society, disagreement on moral and social issues is inescapable. Human nature is not homogenous. Individuals fall into several congenital types, such as liberal or conservative. Factions inevitably arise. “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man,” James Madison warned us in Federalist 10; “and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for preeminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”
Given these factious dispositions of the social order, how does any society manage to cohere well enough make collective decisions? Well, there are several methods that can be used to reach a kind of functional unity. But an open society can resort to only one: namely, democracy. As I put it in my essay “The Democratic Farce”:
The rise of an elective, “democratic” method of settling political conflicts came about largely because of the bloody wars and revolutions that characterized the pre-democratic era in European history. Through a process of trial and error, societies discovered that representative institutions provide a better way of resolving political differences than internecine strife. The representative system allowed nations to make collective political decisions that most societal factions could live with. Compromise is essential to the democratic process. Each person in society accepts an outcome he regards as sub-optimal to avoid the bloodshed that would inevitably result if the political process were determined solely by force.
Democracy, then, is a political method that evolved to avoid sanguinary conflict arising from the fact that human beings can never agree about politics. In lieu of settling these inevitable differences through violence, society plays a game called democracy. We have elections, legislative bodies, presidents or prime ministers, and judges. In the helter-skelter of the political process, an outcome is reached that most of us can live with, even if none of us particularly care for it.
When Rand declares “There can be no compromise on matters of knowledge, of truth, of rational conviction,” she is ignoring the stark reality of the alternative. If you want to be part of the social order, you may not have any choice. In the real world, Howard Roark would’ve been sent to prison for dynamiting the housing project. Compromise is a necessary component of a democratic society. Integrity, then, as a virtue, must be reserved for truly momentous issues: i.e., issues involving the most fundamental liberties, the honor of one’s women, and the most crucial aspects of one’s personal honor. In other words, one only has integrity over that which one would willingly die for. If it’s not worth dying for, it may not be worth having integrity about. Hence, in a democratic society, we find ourselves compromising on a host of issues, including the amount of government intervention in the economy, tax rates, abortion (pro or con), judicial review, etc. etc. No real person achieves the integrity of Howard Roark because Roark takes integrity way too far. If everyone had that much integrity, we would all find ourselves behind barricades shooting at each other.
Perhaps the least appetizing aspect of integrity is its tendency to glorify martyrdom, particularly over essentially trivial aesthetic or ideological differences. H. L. Mencken was baffled by this sort of self-immolation over mere ideas. “I can't understand the martyr,” he confessed. “Far from going to the stake for a Great Truth, I wouldn't even miss a meal for it.”