Individual Personal Integrity for Social Cohesion

In trying to write about personal integrity, I risk revealing my fragility. Let it be!

After listening to Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, on YouTube, making remarkably touching concluding remarks to one of his lectures, I have been moved by his idea that “the answer to the problems of humanity is the integrity of the individual.”

His recommendation for reaching personal integrity is that everyone should start sorting themselves out by recognising that they are far more powerful than they think they are. By becoming the best they can be, individuals can also help this manifest in the world.

Individuals are the lowest unit in a community of people who carry their values which are partly determined by the social context in which they live.

The individual makes up a community the same way an atom makes up a molecule. An atom retains certain characteristics it presents to the interaction while some of its behaviour depends on what characteristics prevail at a higher scale.

This analogy holds in the case of an individual in any social network involving at least two parties: each serves as a node to and from which signals of behaviour flow.

In fact, the nature of the interaction between the individual and the community goes both ways. To the extent that individuals make up communities, communities also create or, at least, shape individuals.

The point is not to invoke a chicken-egg problem of how these dual effects began in the distant past. It is, however, not difficult to notice that not only does the whole encapsulate the parts, but the parts also inherit new traits from and adapt to the whole.

The roles that the individual plays are twofold. First of all, the community does not exist without the individuals. The dominant characteristics, i.e. those characteristics which are upheld by most of the individuals in the community, typify the community. Therefore, whether an individual holds a trait congruent to or incompatible with this dominant behaviour determines the kind of force it applies on the communal dynamics as well as that which is applied to the individual.

Second, the community may promote new emergent rules, which impose sanctions against the individual if and when a conflict of interest arises. Another layer of the individual’s role is evident here. The ultimate outcome is predicated not on the sanctions of the former per se but on own reactions to the overall context.

I believe that the lion’s share of the social dynamics could be ascribed to the individuals who constitute the community. Specifically, it matters to heir inherent values and traits as well as their reactions and responses to others’ characteristics and to the emergent rules.

Nevertheless, this should not be misread as an attempt to underestimate the role of the social context in determining what the individual response will be. The intent is rather to emphasise the fact that the individual remains the fundamental building block of the community.

This way of reasoning may point to the ultimate source of most problems. Give me a social evil, be it war or homicide, and I will give you a relatively tiny germ conceived in a certain wicked mind. Lack of personal integrity is indisputably the root cause of many of the problems of humanity.

As such, personal integrity makes the difference between chaos and order. Any interaction between two or more individuals who lack personal integrity results in the chaos of some sort. The converse is that an interaction between people with personal integrity results in a superior outcome which empowers each party, and everyone wins.

An endless wonder as to why some fellow Ethiopians spit poisonous ethnic based ill-motivated hate speech on social media landed me in the depth of ethical considerations where personal integrity is a core notion.

It is true that there are many considerate Ethiopian writers on social media whose messages are rich food for thought to many others, including or mainly to me. However, not only are the people whose messages are sociopathic significant in number, their messages are too dangerous to neglect.

It is tempting that one either turns a deaf ear or overreacts to what these people write or say. The same temptation to overreact to problems like corruption, power abuse, narcissism, sadism and crime may not help to uncover their root causes.

What is common to these social evils is that they are perpetrated and committed by individuals who lack personal integrity. Only if each individual could step back, pause and rethink for a few minutes, if not seconds, about the consequences of their words and actions would there be less and less of these problems.

Take traffic accidents, which claim the lives of thousands of people year by year in our country. Each bad fate occurs mainly due to minor errors which would be avoided if the drivers had a little more grain of integrity. They over speed, drive while drunk, treat customers like commodities and take too many people on board. How could there not be accidents then?

Personal integrity is a pill that everyone should take to cure almost all kinds of socio-pathology. However, it may prove to be too difficult to cultivate in societies where the majority are poor and illiterate, and those in the upper parts of the socioeconomic hierarchy may already have lost their integrity due partly to lack of a well-established and credible justice system and due partly to poor ethical education and practice, not to mention their own willful blindness.

One solution would be for each individual to use any chaotic situation, which they may find themselves in, as a cue to rethinking their own behaviour, for instance in reacting to that very chaotic situation. They may remind themselves to act a little more responsibly, more humbly and more towards the grand common good. This may require some sacrifice on the part of the individual and nobody may actually be noticing, but that is the essence of personal integrity.

Every time one finds himself next to an aggressive driver, one should not haste to become even more aggressive. If and when a boss learns that an employee is a liability to their organisation, he may benefit from being calm and rectifying the root cause of the problem instead of getting mad at the employee and infecting the rest of the staff with their bad mood.

Politicians who feel threatened by a political atmosphere where citizens actively criticise the obvious failures of the system will only drive the people in their constituencies crazier by trying to suppress their voices. If they master some integrity, it is not impossible to revert such situations or even redirect and harness the energy thus expressed to meet a productive end.

Schools, universities, religious institutions, families, traditions and other institutions could be of great help in instilling personal integrity.

Admittedly, facilitating the development of ethics, composure, and tranquility among their members is subsumed in their essence for existence. But recent trends of divergence between individual interest and communal values are sufficiently worrying signs that social cohesion may be at stake unless a conscious, concerted effort is expended to facilitate the same exercise by the very stakeholder, the individual.


By Aman T. Hailu
Aman T. Hailu ( is an economist by profession and a thinker with a strong conviction that great ideas matter.

Published on Jul 15,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 898]



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