Trust, Integrity, and Skill

Both my visit to the dentist last week and a long distance high-speed drive today on one of the busiest super highways in Ontario reminded me of how necessary it is to trust the integrity and skill of other people in our lives… not only those we know in a professional capacity, but everywhere, always.

We trust that the driver changing lanes ahead of us at 130 km/hr will both control his vehicle (skills), and follow the rules (integrity). We trust that our doctors, teachers, lawyers and financiers are both honest and competent. We trust that our supply of water from the tap and food from the supermarket are safe to consume, and that prescription or OTC drugs are both safe and effective when used as directed. I could go on and on. We can not live without trust in this combination of integrity and skill.

That is why disasters like the Costa Concordia shipwreck are so shocking! The captain allegedly had adequate skill but lacked integrity… he risked both his ship and its passengers to show off. Was the driver of the limousine in which Princess Diana died too drunk to be behind the wheel? If so, dereliction of duty (lack of integrity) trumped skill. This would also apply to the financial scandals that rocked Wall Street, and the sex scandals that have destroyed confidence in clergy, coaches, even leaders in the Scouting movement!  The former commanding officer at Trenton, the largest and busiest airbase in Canada, is now behind bars for a series of lurid sex crimes and murders.

Sometimes, despite our need to trust in order to navigate our incredibly complicated lives, circumstances and world events force us to re-examine this dependence.  Then we must ask ourselves, what is the appropriate response to this challenge?

As a child I assumed that the “grown-ups” knew what they were doing, that they could be trusted to keep the world around me, if not completely safe, then at least relatively secure. It didn’t take many years of childish disillusion, or of becoming one of those grown-ups, for me to challenge that security.

This duality really hit home for me as I watched, over and over again, that famous image of the Challenger smoke plume as the rocket spiralled out of control. How could the smartest scientists, engineers, and technicians in the history of the world have committed an oversight or error of this magnitude?

The necessary combination of skill and integrity  appears to be especially crucial in the US political/religious debate.

If a candidate sincerely believes in the tenets of his religious faith, his integrity forces him to respond accordingly. But among the skills required for political success are the ability to assess the whole situation, to listen and compromise, to understand the law and the constitutional rights of all citizens, to face a dilemma and make a choice between equally difficult outcomes. Can you vote against your conscience in the interest of political success? Can you vote with your conscience when political and popular pressure reaches a certain level of intensity?

I feel sorry for all the people involved in sorting this out. There are no easy answers  for anyone. Passions are aroused and even the most skillful politicians and policy makers are being forced to weigh their skills against their integrity in a situation that demands both, but under  circumstances which can fully satisfy neither.

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