Even though I was unable to post this or last Friday’s meditation, it’s still a goal of mine to write something that steps away from the standard topics on Productive Flourishing and instead just gives something to think about. For this week, it’s not a meditation, but instead an applied philosophical problem.
Before you run away thinking “Oh No! Charlie’s hitting us over the head with philosophy again!,” rest assured that we’ll not be talking about whether color exists in the universe or some such thing. The problem we’ll be talking about is the Problem of Dirty Hands and how it relates to personal development.
In short, the Problem of Dirty Hands is a recognition that sometimes, to do something good, you have to get your hands (morally) dirty. It’s often applied to the political spectrum, because part of the art of politics is promoting positions you don’t agree with so that your other agendas can be pushed forward.
But we’re not talking about politics. What I’m talking about is our involvement in social organizations. What has prompted this for me personally is that the Boy Scouts of America have contacted me several times wanting me to take part in their national Eagle Scout registry.
I’ll not get into all of the details of Scouting, but needless to say, being an Eagle Scout is a great honor and is the highest rank that a Scout can achieve. I used to be proud of the fact that I’m an Eagle Scout – that is, until I found out that the Boy Scouts of America have an exclusive policy towards people of alternative sexual orientations, agnostics, and atheists. There are four categories of people that can be denied registration from the Boy Scouts of America, and the fourth type (the other three are previously listed) are felons. Felons, agnostics, atheists, and the LGBTQ community – what a motley crew!
(For more information, visit Scouting For All’s webpage. Also keep in mind that my main contention is not whether the BSA should have the right to exclude whoever they wish, but whether I should take part in such an organization.)
The problem is that I am the person that I am due in large part to the wonderful men and women of the Boy Scouts and the experiences that I’ve had through that community. I also think that I could and should give back and help mold the next generation of Scouts. If you’ve been reading this blog for a bit, you also know that groups can be very effective agents for personal development. Being involved in groups of people committed to excellence helps you excel.
But I’m very uncomfortable being part of an organization that I feel is bigoted and shameful. Sure, individual and regional organizations may have defied the National Council and produced their own inclusive policies, at risk of being banned and censured, but the root point for me is that, officially, the organization has a bigoted and shameful policy that I don’t want to be a part of.
I’ve hitherto decided that it’s not worth getting my hands dirty – my moral cleanliness is more important to me than the potential good I might do. But some of the stuff I’ve been working on for my dissertation is starting to make me feel less secure in that position. To make the point clearer, I’ll give some perspectives for thought:
- “The Keep Your Hands Clean” Perspective:
What’s important is that you choose your conduct based off of what you think is right or wrong. It may be unfortunate that there could more good advanced in the world by you choosing an alternative action, but choosing a bad means for a good end is never justified.
- “The Get Your Hands Dirty” Perspective:
What’s important is that you choose your conduct based off what produces the most good. If you can make the world better and don’t do it, you are at least minimally morally responsible for the world being less well off than it otherwise could have been. Whether you get your hands dirty to pursue a good end or not do something that would create a better situation, your hands are still dirty.
- “The Get Your Hands Dirty But Clean Up the Work” Perspective
Another option is to stay within the organization whilst trying to change it. This perspective acknowledges the obligation to help while not accepting the undesirable features, but I still have to wonder whether, by promoting the organization (via participation in the organization’s projects, etc.), I am also promoting the organization’s policies.
Of course, there are other alternatives, such as finding other organizations that pursue similar ends without having the undesired exclusivity, but the question is whether those organizations are as effective as the Boy Scouts of America due to its cultural entrenchment.
That’s my specific problem, but it’s obviously just a species of a general problem. People from certain religious communities have a similar problem: is it worth remaining part of a church that begins to take on exclusivist and bigoted policies, even though those organizations at the same time promote otherwise noble social ends? Is it better to remain clean or to promote the social good, when they are mutually exclusive?
People in activist organizations are also in the same boat. I personally don’t agree with all of the policies of the NAACP, NOW, or the Sierra Club – but, then again, I think there’s a qualitative difference between not agreeing with the NAACP’s stance on affirmative action and disagreeing with the BSA’s policies that categorically devalue certain types of people on indefensible grounds.
Helping others and promoting social goods in the world is both intrinsically good and good for personal development since we become better people by actively doing things that make us better. And the best way, often times, to help other people and promote social goods is through collective activity, but sometimes being involved in those collectives make us dirty.
No answers here…just food for thought. What do you think?