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?
Isabel Joely Black says
This is a really interesting problem, not unlike the one debating whether the end justifies the means. I fall strongly into the first category, in the sense that the organisations I support have been chosen because they share my own ideological perspectives.
As an atheist/agnostic, I avoid organisations with a religious perspective and focus my attention on those with no religious agenda. Since my interest lies largely in the support of the developing world, it’s relatively easy to find organisations which have no religious agenda and have the same practical motives that I do. I’m an active supporter of Amnesty International and Plan International as a result.
On the other hand, in my fiction, one of the key phrases that comes up is the problem of “doing something bad to make something good happen” – and actually going for it. There are times when violence becomes necessary in order to alleviate suffering: one need only look at WWII as an example of how entire countries made the decision that the actions of one country made going to war and causing the suffering of their own people in an effort to bring about greater good.
I’m a fan of the idea that one should always work case by case, and assess each one on its merits.
Isabel Joely Blacks last blog post..Amnar Book 1 – 4785 – Episode 10
Charles Gilkey says
@ Isabel: Aye, this problem is somewhat of an extension of the means/ends problem. I often choose to support organizations with a religious perspective as long as that perspective doesn’t demean other people and their ways of life just because those organizations can be really powerful. Imagine the money and political pressure we could put on a problem if you could get the religious right in the U.S. to get behind world poverty or some such thing.
There’s a relatively new moral theory called moral particularism that, among other things, claims that there can be no general moral rules that can be accurately be used to evaluate multiple actions or persons. Moral pluralism, on the hand, gives features that count in favor of doing or not doing any action, but it gives no rules for determining which action to do. If you’re interested in learning more about either of the two normative theories, let me know.
Thanks for the insightful comment!
Jonathan Mead says
I think the most important thing is that you stay true to yourself. Being a part of an organization that does good but has values you don’t agree with to me, is settling. You can still do good without compromising your own beliefs.
Interesting article and I agree, it can be a very tough decision.
Jonathan Meads last blog post..The Secret? There is No Secret
Charles Gilkey says
@ Jonathan: That, indeed, is the very rub, because I’m now wondering whether “who I am” is a guy that values promoting the good over being a part of group of like-minded people. As of now, old habits have the most inertia, but the tide may be changing…
You’ve brought up something that is always an interesting subject and is a conundrum we all face multiple times in our life. May I suggest that you have the answer to your question within you. You just have to open yourself up to it and not fight it.
I worked for many years in business and marketing and was faced with this issue many times in that your entire purpose in marketing is to make money and promote consumption regardless of whether it is moral, useful or necessary. I was always left with this sense that I did not contribute to society in any way whatsoever, and the more I travelled the world and spent time in third world countries, the worse I felt about how I was spending my life.
In the end I realised I was fighting myself too much and could physically feel the resistance in my body so I left and became a teacher. best decision I ever made. Having my values in line with my actions was truly liberating and I felt a lightness that I had never experienced before.
These days I have returned to freelance copy writing (I’m good at it and it allows me to earn money from home and be with my son) but I focus on smaller to medium size businesses who I can feel good about helping.
So, what I am saying in a round about way is don’t just rely on your mind to tell you the answer to this dilemma. Trust your instincts and do what feels right. If you can feel happy and good about being part of the Scouts then do it. If you can’t, then your decision has been made for you.
Kelly@SHE-POWERs last blog post..No, I’m Not Dead
Charles Gilkey says
@ Kelly: You’re right that having your values in line with your actions is an amazing feeling. If you can do that successfully on a day to day basis, then there’s not much need for productivity systems and such – I think that’s why so many of us look for systems that help us integrate our values and our actions.
It’s hard with the Scouting thing because I feel good and happy about working with and helping the individual Scouts but not being part of the BSA. Thus, my values conflict in two different ways: one’s about individual actions, and the other is about group involvement. In this case, they’re mutually exclusive – and it’s hard to tell which should trump the other.
Thanks, as always, for sharing your wisdom.
@lolbeans: Scouting has always been my dream. Maybe I will try it in the future. To achieve that I need to practice more. What you analyze is also very reasonable.
Emma McCreary says
I’ve wondered about this topic too, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that there isn’t a “right” thing, there’s what each person can tolerate and is right for them. I am not able to tolerate much moral ambiguity, so I wouldn’t be able to stay in the BSA. I always gravitate toward making my own cultural forms, etc. However, I also admire people who can stay in organizations and change them from within. And I also think the BSA does a lot of good for a lot of people in the ways you have mentioned, and I think that staying in and being an example of open-mindedness and tolerance and leadership in that way would be a great thing to do as well.
I think that both types of people or choices change things for the better. It’s just about figuring out who you are and what is right for you – not on the basis of external morality rules or ideas, but based on internal measure of what feels more alive for you. Both are good choices and meet different needs.
In general I think that morality and ethical philosophy often misses that people are different. Something may be “the right thing” on paper but if you can’t live it, it’s not going to work. On the other hand, something may be morally gray all over the place, but you end up serving a really important need as an example of a person of integrity in a situation that needs that kind of leadership. What is important IMHO is to look inside, sit with all the realities of the situation, and follow that internal nudge of “this is the right contribution for me to make here”.
Emma McCrearys last blog post..Popularity vs. Life: Following Your Internal Nudges
@Emma: Wonderful comment that I think is dead on! And I also think you’re right about moral philosophy missing that people are different – in many ways, that’s why I started digging virtue ethics (I’m writing my dissertation on it, and something close to what you’ve said is one of the positive desiderata of virtue ethics that deserves more consideration.)
The difficulty is making the distinction between relativism and contextualism. We don’t want to say that what’s right for you is right, but we also have to have a nuanced normative theory that allows for different responsibilities and relations to give the different moral evaluations that seem intuitive and salient.