Friday, June 06, 2008

The Pledge Project: Should There Be a Pledge?

Note: The Pledge Project is featured on the most recent edition of Dogma Free America. Please check it out and let me know what you think.

If you enter into a public discussion on 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance, you will often encounter somebody who will argue that there should be no Pledge at all. 'Loyalty oaths,' they argue, are the instruments of totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany, and free people should not be bound by such oaths. It goes against the very idea of freedom.

I want to take a good close look at the ethics of 'loyalty oaths'.

Let me begin by quickly clearing away some of the larger brush.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a loyalty oath. This is because there is nothing intrinsically wrong with anything. Intrinsic value does not exist. The only type of value that exists are relationships between states of affairs and desires. Moral wrongness is found in relationships between states of affairs and good desires (and the absence of bad desires). Good desires are those that people generally have reason to promote. Bad desires are desires that people generally have reason to inhibit.

Long-time readers will recognize these as the basic claims of desire utilitarianism, which I have argued for throughout this blog. A search through this blog for the term 'desire utilitarianism' or a look at the book mentioned on the right will lead you to postings that discuss the theory in more detail. Readers interested in an alternative presentation of desire utilitarianism (or 'desire consequentalism' as he calls it) are encouraged to check out No Double Standards

Anyway, a state of affairs in which people utter a loyalty oath such as a Pledge of Allegiance is bad only to the degree that a person with good desires would be averse to such a state of affairs.

One of the reasons a person with good desires might be averse to loyalty oaths is because they were used by totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany. However, the mere fact that a tool was used by evil people does not give us reason to reject the tool. Hitler also used airplanes and tanks, money, roads, cameras, and a great many other tools to further his ends. His use of a tool for evil purposes does not argue against our use of similar tools for good purposes.

A related argument that somebody can use is that there have been evil pledges. That is to say, the pledge itself was a promise to promote something evil, as when subjects in a dictatorship are told that they must pledge allegiance to the dictator. However, we can say the same thing about laws in general. Where there are laws, there is a risk of evil people promoting laws that do more to secure injustice than justice. We see this in totalitarian regimes all the time, and even in our own country where special-interest groups push for unjust laws that favor their faction over others. However, the existence of an unjust law is no argument against the legitimacy of just laws. The existence of pledges used for immoral purposes does not argue against the possibility of a pledge being put to good use.

I spoke above about the existence of desires and aversions that people generally have reason to promote. What if a Pledge of Allegiance were an effective way to promote good desires? That is to say, what if a pledge of allegiance to ‘liberty and justice for all’ were to actually to promote the desire for liberty and justice for all? Whereas liberty and justice (or an aversion to tyranny and injustice) are desires that people have reason to promote, this argues that we have reason to use such a ‘loyalty oath’ and no reason to refrain from using it.

In other words, a pledge, when the pledge is to something good (worthy of promoting) is something that a good person would favor (for its power to promote that which is good), rather than something to which a good person would be adverse.

What about the claim that loyalty oaths (a Pledge of Allegiance) is contrary to freedom?

We have to recognize that freedom is not an absolute. Freedom does not include a right to engage in murder, rape, or theft. Freedom does not extend to the ‘freedom’ to promote tyranny and injustice. The type of freedom that we have reason to argue is something good is the type of freedom that still does not rule out our taking steps to outlaw or to otherwise discourage people from murder, rape, theft, tyranny, and injustice. If a pledge of allegiance to 'liberty and justice for all' helps to discourage tyranny and injustice, then inhibits freedom in the same way that laws against murder, rape, and theft inhibit freedom.

This raises another possible objection – that pledges of allegiance do not work. We have had people pledge allegiance to 'liberty and justice for all' for over a century now, yet we still have unjust restrictions on liberty. (Furthermore, an argument can be made that those who argue most emphatically for the virtue of the Pledge of Allegiance seem to be pushing most strongly for unjust restrictions on liberty.)

This is an empirical question, and one that I must confess I am ill prepared to answer.

However, I will point out that we use oaths throughout our society in order to try to focus people’s attention on certain duties and obligations. Elected officials take an oath of office – effectively, a loyalty oath (an oath to be loyal to the Constitution of the United States, in the case of federal officials). Witnesses take an oath before stepping on a stand. Many married couples (myself included) take an oath as the central part of the marriage ceremony.

All of these oaths aim to fix into the mind a commitment to particular ends, and an aversion to that which would violate those commitments. I think it would be difficult to argue that those oaths have no effect – that they do not actually promote the ends that they seek to promote.

In fact, if loyalty oaths had no effect, then tyrants and dictators would have no reason to use them. They, at least, expect these oaths to better secure their position. It is just as likely (or just as unlikely) that those oaths can also be used to secure certain values such as ‘liberty and justice for all’.

If we are left uncertain as to the effect of such oaths, we would still be left with reason to believe that a loyalty oath to 'liberty and justice for all' will have some or no positive effect. It will not have negative effect. So, we still have reason to use such an oath (in terms of its possible positive effect), and no reason not to other than the possibility that it is a waste of time.

All of this depends, of course, on whether the Pledge is being used to promote something worthy of being promoted (e.g., liberty and justice for all), or to promote something that should not be promoted (e.g., obedience to a tyrant).

A relevant problem is that people will inevitably disagree over what is worth promoting. There is always a risk that one faction will put its ideas into a Pledge as a way of shutting down the opposition, stifling debate on issues that very much need to be debated. One way to avoid this type of problem is to simply not have a Pledge, It is not possible to make rhetorical use of a Pledge if there is no Pledge to use.

We see this very problem with the Pledge of Allegiance. The words ‘under God’ were inserted into the Pledge by demagogues attempting to close debate on issues that are very much need to be debated. Worse, they attempted to close debate on issues where the government has a prohibition on taking sides – on matters of religion. This gives us unambiguous evidence that demagogues will seek to use a Pledge to manipulate the public, from which we can argue that it is better that no Pledge exists at all.

Here, too, we must weigh this against the fact that all institutions are open to abuse. The institutions of morality and law themselves are constantly being abused by demagogues seeking to manipulate the public. Yet, these institutions provide so much of an advantage when used correctly that the possibility of abuse does not argue for abolition. These moral and legal institutions include the practice of making pledges. Where we need to devote our energies is in fighting these corruptions, not in eliminating the institutions that are being corrupted. In would be difficult to argue that we should rid ourselves of the institutions of morality and law simply because some people abuse these institutions.

There is no argument against the moral permissibility of a good Pledge. There is no argument against the possibility of a good Pledge. The argument that evil powers have used Pledges is no more of an argument against a good Pledge then the fact that evil powers have manipulated the law is an argument against just law. Our focus should be on promoting justice over injustice, both in pledges and in laws, rather than throwing away tools that the unjust might be willing to exploit.

9 comments:

bpabbott said...

Some typos :-(

I've used the markers (-) to indicate what might be removed and (+) to indicate what I've inferred belongs.

"Anyway, a state of affairs in which people utter a loyalty oath such as a Pledge of Allegiance is bad only to the degree that a person (-)would(-) (+)with(+) good desires would be averse to such a state of affairs."

"However, I will point out that we use oaths throughout our society in order to try to (-)fi(-) (+)focus(+) people’s attention on certain duties and obligations. Elected officials take an oath of office – effectively, a loyalty oath (an oath to be loyal to the Constitution of the United States, in the case of federal officials)."

"Here, too, we must weigh this against the fact that all institutions are open to abuse. The institutions of morality and law themselves are constantly being abused by demagogues (-)by people(-) seeking to manipulate the public."

bpabbott said...

Regarding arguments against pledges, what value might the practice of a pledge bring? What can be done to prevent its manipulation toward negative value. Does the hypothetical benefit of a pledge out weight its risks?

I'm not advocating one conclusion over the other. However, I am personally skeptical of the compelling value of any practice when those advocating it must apply authority in order to coerce participation. Is not each nation's position on liberty and justice respecting the individual self-evident to each individual.

Regarding the question: "What if a Pledge of Allegiance were an effective way to promote good desires?"

I think there would be great value in such promotion. However, does our pledge do that? What values are being promoted? If the good desires are an appreciation of liberty and justice for all, is a requirement of rote recital of such a pledge not antithetical to these valued principles?

Regarding the statement: "If a pledge of allegiance to 'liberty and justice for all' helps to discourage tyranny and injustice, then inhibits freedom in the same way that laws against murder, rape, and theft inhibit freedom."

If? ... that's a good question. Does it? Is there any evidence? If there are benefits, what of the liabilities? Do we desire citizens who obediently seek the principles of liberty and freedom, or do we desire citizens whose reasoned convictions for liberty and justice produce an emergence of passion for such ideals?

Regarding oaths of office and/or oaths to testimony, these are verbal contracts, and are voluntarily entered into by individuals who are expected to intellectually understand the terms of the contract. I do not see the pledge as being comparable.

Regarding a pledge to liberty and justice having no negative effect, I think that depends upon the individual. Even before my teen years, the requirement to recite the pledge had a mixed impact on me. It ignited a passion for liberty in me. However, not in the manner intended, but simply because I saw (and still do) it as an affront to the principle of liberty ... I am very jealous of my liberty. The required practice of reciting the pledge contributed to my extreme cynicism of authority, particularly the authority of government.

My cynicism is continually reinforced by the many (majority?) who don't understand that the constitution does not enumerate rights of the individual regarding liberty. These are enumerable. What the constitution does is enumerate the powers of government. Many appear to have these reversed; thinking that rights are enumerated and the governments powers are enumerable :-(

That said, I am not an anarchist, but am disappointed in the education of our citizens regarding the founding principles of our nation.

scott gray said...

current use of the pledge in every instance i've seen is:

-oath of fealty, recited in the presence of others, in settings where the expectations and judgements of others is of primary importance (in other words, the oath recitation has almost nothing to do with the text, and everything to do with the expectations of fealty of others in the room);

-identity marker of inclusiveness of the group reciting the pledge (in other words, participation decides who's 'in' and whose 'out' of the group, and the standards of 'in' and 'out' are decided by those who recite the pledge);

-a device to get kids to school on time (the recitation of the pledge is the authoritarian tardy bell).

none of these is required of u.s. citizens.

while there may be 'good desires' associated with the recitation, there are as many 'bad desires,' depending on your framework of values.

bpabbott said...

Regarding the utility of a pledge, the principles of the pledge which I see as having value are liberty and justice.

Perhaps DesertPhile's version would be more appropriate.

"I pledge allegiance to liberty and justice for all."

Alonzo Fyfe said...

bpabbot

Your corrections were accurate. Sorry about the errors. This was one of the posts where my attempt to edit turned into a substantial rewrite.

Corrections have been made.

bpabbott said...

Alonzo,

Glad I could help.

Your efforts, in general, and particularly in this project are greatly appreciated by me.

Thanks
Ben

anton kozlik said...

Alonzo - "the mere fact that a tool was used by evil people does not give us reason to reject the tool." Now, if people could keep this in mind and read the Communist Manifesto, they may discover that the world "rejects" it because "Lenin" was an evil person, not for the intelligent approach it takes. Of course, the "capitalist" structure saw it as a threat and would have us embrace religion because it has proven an effective means to control the masses. It has become common usuage to refer to it as "Marxsist/Leninist". When one actually "reads" the CM they find that what we don't like today about the western world are the same things framed eloquently by Karl Marx. I doubt if very many Christians or Americans know that the CM objects to slavery, particularly of children and child labour. It was the first major declaration made for the emancipation of women. Christians can not say their Bible evem addresses the "emancipation" issue. (If fact, the Bible goes out of its way to support men's supposed superiority). The most famous, or should I say infamous, statement made by Marx was that "religion is the opiate of the masses". In light of what is happening in our world today, I think his seven word statement sums up why "common sense" can not make any headway in dealing with the problems that confront our world. (I know in advance that my comments will be dismissed by many of your loyal Americans as "pinko" but most of them are the same individuals who dismiss the claims of non-believers)

Eneasz said...

I have to agree that I've never seen these sorts of pledges as anything other than a device to seperate the in-group from the out-group. The actual words may be important, but they are not the purpose of a pledge. I think this is exactly why the most passionate advocates of the pledge are right-wing authoritarians, even though the pledge supposedly enshrines "liberty and justice for all". If the main purpose of the pledge was captured in it's words instead of it's in/out-group designations, it would be the liberals who'd advocate the pledge, instead of the other way around.

So when someone recites the pledge what they're really saying (for the most part) is "I am a part of this group. I give my loyalty to it's leaders, may their will be done." In theory, some of that will is described in the actual words of the pledge. But regardless, it seems to be a tool to create conformist/authoritarian habits rather than to create any desires. And for that reason I object to any national pledge.

However life is what it is, and we are stuck with a national pledge for now. I do fully support your efforts to restore the pledge and I spread the word where I can. :)

Kristopher said...

the pledge is not a loyalty oath.
it looks like a loyalty oath but it is not.

when a governement official gives an oath of office they say it once, at the begining of their term. it is a verbal contract between a consenting adult and the public that they represent.

children are not of a legel age to sign contracts nor do they have the ability to judge to whom they should pledge their loyalty. the pledge in public schools is obviously NOT a mere promise of loyalty.

the pledge is something that children must recite over and over again. this is a propaganda tool, akin to brain washing, in the same way that religions or cults try to indoctrinate followers.

under DU one could ask "does it work to indctrinate children into believing in liberty and justice for all?" in other words "is it good brain washing? is it effective brainwashing"

but this kinds of indoctrination inhibits peoples ability to think critically about their governemnt. it is for this reason that people shout that if you sit during the pledge you are anti-freedom. it is because they are not thinking, and indoctrinating children in this manner teaches them not to think about the issues of governance.

under DU i assert that all methods of repetitive indoctrination tend to thwart desires. they create a population of people who do not think about the value of propositions, this is akin to the noble lie. while it might have some ends that are noble, teaching people to reach them through lies or brain washing are counter productive to the health of society.

loyalty oaths are not bad.
using repitition to brain wash children is bad. even if your brain washing them to believe in liberty and justice for all. good end, bad means.