concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2009


Asymmetrical integration (and the unity of the virtues)

Asymmetrical integration is a concept that explains the ways that objectivity may be found in one respect but not another in the same person and over the same time period. For example, a person may be more emotionally integrated than intellectually, or have more integration of meaning than integration of belief. These disparities and inconsistencies in the degree of objectivity we achieve need not imply that there is no unity of the virtues, or that there are many incompatible ways of being objective. A disunity of the virtues is only created by conceptualising virtues as qualitatively different in the first place, but if our virtues are instead seen as quantities of energy that can be focused and directed in ways that gradually address more conditions, incremental progress can be made, whether or not there is a final state of complete unity at the end of the process.

So, an asymmetry of integration should not be seen as undermining the possibility of integration - instead it is just a lack of integration that takes a particular form. If I am more developed in terms of intellect (integration of belief) than emotion (integration of desire), for example, this is just one way in which my overall integration is limited. Though lop-sided progress can be made, it is likely to become increasingly difficult as other associated types of integration are not tackled, because this means that some key psychological conditions will not have been tackled. 

The possibility of asymmetrical integration should mean that we can celebrate, say, scientists, as moral heroes, as much as saints brimming with love. The integration of rigorous scientists may typically be lopsided, but it is none the less moral development for all that. Similarly the integration of desire found in the lives of great Christian saints can be celebrated, even though the narrowness of many of the beliefs of these saints prevents much progress in the integration of belief. Great artists, similarly, are often integrated in terms of meaning, but may lack integration of desire or belief, and lead chaotic and incoherent lives. Again, this does not mean that they have not achieved a degree of integration that can be celebrated, even though it also remains incomplete in many ways.  

For more information on the unity of the virtues, see 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' 6.b.vii.

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