The issue of the virtues’ unity

Integrity traces back to the idea of “wholeness, perfect condition,” and the word likely emerged in the mid-15th century in the English language (, also potentially meaning “to be whole” or “to be complete.” In Business Ethics, integrity can easily be confused with the long-standing idea of the connection of virtues, which can be expressed as follows: “whoever has a moral virtue has them all,” a statement criticized by Solomon (1992). In this case, being integral can mean the simultaneous use of all virtues in various situations, such as in organizations. However, there are two problems that we will explore.

The first issue is to ascertain the truth of the statement “whoever has a moral virtue has them all,” and the second is how to address the problem of the connection of virtues. In other words, how is it possible to establish a connection between all virtues, creating a network of virtues oriented in a way to form a coherent character?

To tackle the first question, it is necessary to make an initial distinction. Referred to as the “strong doctrine” of the connection of moral virtues, it had proponents throughout the history of philosophy (Zingano, 2009). However, Aristotle himself defended a more moderate thesis, namely, “the connection of the proper virtues that the agent possesses through prudence (phronesis), without maintaining that whoever has one virtue has them all” (Zingano, 2009, p. 395). To understand it, we need to distinguish what Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, defined as ‘natural virtue’ and ‘proper virtue.’

The first is the disposition acquired by repeating acts to which we are naturally inclined. For example, when we are naturally inclined to bravery, not backing down in the face of any danger, we acquire over time – through repetitions of acts in a certain direction – corresponding dispositions of courage. Therefore, it is a “natural way of being of our virtues,” which includes both the inclinations with which we are born and those acquired by assuming duties and corrections. More precisely, we are not born with such dispositions given by nature but with the natural aptitude to receive them (Zingano, 2009, EN II 1 1103a23-26). When we have only natural virtues, there is no coordination guiding them; they are disconnected, and it is possible, for example, for someone to be courageous but intemperate, generous but inconsistent.

Natural virtue becomes a proper virtue (or virtue proper) “when someone not only does what they ought to do [having a reason] but also does it for good reasons” (Zingano, 2009, p. 402). This “apprehension of reasons” is precisely phronesis, which, as the intellectual virtue of practical reason, operates the apprehension of reasons within moral virtues, thereby perfecting them. Thus, phronesis is the “intellectual virtue that perfects moral virtue, making it transition from natural virtue to proper virtue” (Zingano, 2009, p. 404. See also EN VI 13 1144b15-17 and Ethica Eudemia III 7 1234a29-30).

But what are “good reasons”? Or, in other words, what “should be done according to right reason?” The good reasons for the prudent person are the conditions considered for decisions and actions that are good in relation to the agent’s entire life, not just at a specific moment, also considering their various activities, as well as the political and social environment (Zingano, 2009).

Therefore, in Aristotelian ethics, there are two distinct ways of being morally virtuous, and phronesis assumes a central role in this distinction. Proper moral virtues have in common phronesis as the intellectual virtue operating within these virtues, perfecting them and making them complete. This is relevant to the question of the connections of moral virtues.

As seen earlier, natural virtues are disconnected from each other, while proper virtues share phronesis as a common element, meaning it is the connecting factor among virtues. However, not necessarily all virtues are present (“strong doctrine”), but only those possessed by the agent, mediated by phronesis. In other words, for Aristotle, phronesis presupposes the prior possession of one or more moral virtues – even a good number of virtues – but not necessarily all of them. This can be referred to as “moderate connection of virtues” (Zingano, 2009).

Turning to Solomon’s (1992) critique of what he terms the “illusion” of unity (connection) of virtues, we can adopt the earlier distinction to address the problem he describes, which will be helpful in understanding integrity. In brief, he states that “…except in a perfect organization or society, there is no guaranteed unity of virtues, nor is there an easy distinction between virtue or morality and the duties of the position one occupies” (Solomon, 2006, p. 272). Simply observing the conflicts of duties and clashes of loyalties provided by organizational complexity and the various roles an individual needs to play within it, it is undeniable that virtues are not united (Solomon, 2006, p. 273).

This is indeed a significant ethical problem, so much so that the “conflict of duties” has been addressed by Aristotle in his work Magna Moralia (II 3), where he wonders if virtues can conflict with each other. Zingano (2009, p. 408) interprets this part of the work as follows: “regarding natural virtues, a conflict of duties can occur; however, as soon as there is a deliberate choice, that is, an apprehension of reasons [phronesis], natural virtue becomes perfect, and there can no longer be a conflict of duties, as the reason that perfects each virtue is the same that is in all.” In other words, the clash of duties occurs only when there are natural moral virtues (that is, the absence of phronesis), whereas there is no such clash among the proper virtues of the individual due to their unity or connection through phronesis.

In this case, Solomon might be attributing the problem of the unity of virtues by focusing on natural virtues. Indeed, natural virtues are disconnected, and conflicts of duties often occur. However, when such virtues are perfected by phronesis, turning them into proper virtues, there is unity among these virtues, and the clash ceases to exist.

The impact on integrity is immense, and Solomon himself addresses it. When he considers integrity as “essentially moral courage,” he further asserts that integrity is “the will and disposition to do what one knows must be done” (Solomon, 2006, p. 274). It is crucial that the rules and orders in organizations are compatible with our virtues. The author – without explicitly mentioning it – is referring to phronesis. What “must be done” is covered by natural moral virtues, but “knowing what must be done” and in a contextual manner – that is, the compatibility of the organizational context with our virtues – pertains to the “apprehension of good reasons,” i.e., phronesis. And it is phronesis that plays a central role in the unity of virtues and the perception of wholeness often associated with integrity.


Solomon, R. C. Ética e excelência. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2006.

Zingano. M. Estudos de ética antiga [Studies of ancient ethics]. São Paulo: Paulus, 2009.

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