Honesty, integrity and enthusiasm are keys to accurately discerning good character and cultivating reliable people, including ourselves. The problem comes not only in identifying those traits but also in identifying their opposite so we will know — the people to avoid and people to cultivate, ourselves included. Everyone always does what they believe, at the moment, is the right thing to do, so asking someone to be good, and to always do the right thing, won’t yield any improvement in human behavior. It is asking them to be good in their own eyes, and doing the right thing with their perspective, but that won’t change anything because that is exactly what they are already doing. Unfortunately, what some people are already doing and think to be good behavior produces negative results and is considered to be bad behavior by other people.
There are an infinite number of ways to consider what the right thing to do in a given situation might be, and who can know what the ultimately right thing to do really is? I have been thinking along the lines of maximizing the totality of human happiness, as measured from the distant future, as a standard. But that is too abstract a goal for most people, including myself, and would be difficult to define or cultivate specific bon mots and doable behaviors. A goal must have clear paths for everyone to follow to reach it.
Adam Smith, writing about economic behavior thought that each person was the best judge of value given their particular circumstances, and that the combined effect of all humanities actions would produce the ultimate economic good. If every action by every person were held accountable, then it would seem that Smith would be right, but as every child knows lying, cheating, stealing and violence are all too common in this real world. Thus, another way must be found, and public laws were created and enforced in an effort to make basic human interactions accountable. Unfortunately, by that standard it becomes the clever lier, cheater and thief who learns to evade those laws who prospers most and the people who cultivate the arts of honesty, integrity and enthusiasm will often be the losers, at least in the economic world.
Beyond the economic interactions of people the natural world seems to operate with some kinds of feedback mechanisms which frequently lead those with the dishonest tendencies ever deeper into difficulties. The derilict people found in society are usually the victims of their own cultivated non-adaptive habits, which leads to their manifest self degeneration. But, not always. It seems that major politicians have learned how to exploit their anti-social qualities to maximize their own private benefits and that of their supporters. They apply the tools Machiavelli described, as the practices of real world politicians, while at the same time they seem to avoid the penalties for doing so. Good politicians are absolutely loyal to their people, up to a point and are able to give everyone the impression of absolute integrity, which may often be true, up to a point. Several recent American presidential level politicians have appeared to be paragons of virtue, only to be exposed, by our vigilant media sleuths, as far less than perfect, John Edwards, Thomas Eagleton, Gary Hart, etc. come to mind, for example; but chances are that every major politician has character traits, that permit them to ascend in popularity and obtain office, which if these traits were seen in total clarity would lead to their downfall.
We need to cultivate habits which are simple enough that we can routinely do them automatically, and yet abstract enough that they can be applied frequently to our daily lives. Probably the various Golden Rules can be arranged in an ascending order, from ease of application by everyone to a maximizing of the long term benefits to humanity. The Happiness Scale gives a good and similar starting point because it too is aimed at maximizing total human happiness as its highest level.
Integrity means habitually doing the right thing for humanities wellbeing.