Trying to think out the ethics involved here ...
April 17, 2008 8:34 AM   Subscribe

I have an ethical or logical quandary that I'm trying to puzzle out.

I became an Eagle Scout in 1993. Recently, my membership in the National Eagle Scout Association came up for renewal; I declined to renew my membership due to the Scouts' stance on homosexuality, agnostics, and atheists. I feel that their positions are unethical in that they advocate discrimination and intrude into areas of people's private lives which have no relevance to Scouting.

However, unlike some Eagle Scouts, I declined to send in my Eagle Scout Award to national headquarters as a protest. I declined to do so because I feel that I earned that award by virtue of a lot of hard work over the course of my childhood and adolescence, and I won't deny myself an award I rightfully earned. (Furthermore, I did this work over years of service in which Scouting as a whole was nowhere near as neoconservative as they are nowadays.)

At the risk of sounding like a nerd, for shorthand, let's say that my feelings about Scouts are "principle x". And the caveat — that I won't deny myself the benefits of being an Eagle Scout — is "caveat y".

Now, I'm wondering whether or not to take "action z". Do you know how your college's alumni department got in touch with you a few years after you graduated, offering you the chance to list yourself in, and buy, a national directory of alumni, ostensibly one you could use to get back in touch with people, and for business networking purposes?

Scouting is now doing that with Eagle Scouts, and given the number of Eagle Scouts alive, that's going to be one huge directory — presumably a very useful one, given the number of Eagle Scouts alive.

I am trying to decide whether listing myself in the directory, and ordering a copy, is ethically consistent. On one hand, it breaks x because I'm giving money to them by virtue of purchasing the directory. I'm uneased by that.

On the other hand, the use of this directory for general networking could be invaluable, and thus, that caveat y comes into effect: this directory would definitely be a very useful tool for networking, and thus could easily be considered a benefit of having reached Eagle.

Given principle x, and given caveat y to principle x, is action z morally consistent with x and y? Or is it more moral to not participate in the directory?

(I know that speaking solely in a practical sense, whether or not NESA gets a few bucks from me as a trickledown makes little practical difference to them. I'm trying to consider the underlying principles involved, though.)

If you feel differently than I do about either Scouting, their positions, or how I reacted to those positions, I respect your right to feel differently, but that's not my question, and I prefer this thread not run aground on that.
posted by WCityMike to Religion & Philosophy (33 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Given your premises, you must not participate in the directory. I can see no way to explain why to you without "running aground."
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:39 AM on April 17, 2008

On the other hand, the use of this directory for general networking could be invaluable

I think that's it right there. Caveat y and action Z contradict principle X, but the value of Y and Z is higher to you than principle X. In plain English, yes, to buy the directory, or to support them in any other way in this present time, is not morally consistent with your feelings on some of the organization's stances. Whether that bothers you is up to you.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:42 AM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

1) you have declined membership in the scouts because membership has come to included unpleasant connotations for you; support for philosophical positions that you are not in agreement with.

2) you have retained the physical awards from the scouts, as they represent an important time in your life, significant effort, and you feel you have earned them.

3) you are conflicted about remaining in their directory and purchasing it, as you are no longer in alignment with them. However, the directory contains some potential benefit to you.

My take is that it is ethically inconsistent to make use of a membership directory for an organization that you have declined membership in. Keeping your prior- earned- awards seems reasonable to me; they have value to you above and beyond the unfortunate philosophical baggage they carry.

Also, being purely pragmatic, I've rarely found these directories to be of much use in networking with prospects or employers- but I don't know what your business is- maybe it would benefit you significantly; if so, then I'd rationalize my choice.

I'd also suggest that your description of scouting as becoming "neoconservative" is inaccurate; the policies that you are describing seem to have little to do with foreign policy and quite a lot to do with the Mormon LDS takeover of the organization. Religiously fundamentalist is probably a more accurate description.
posted by jenkinsEar at 8:47 AM on April 17, 2008

The decision of whether or not to take action z depends on which of principle x and caveat y is really most important to you. To me, it sounds like you're saying, I can't support the Boy Scouts anymore, but I still want to get the benefit of my hard work and having become an Eagle Scout. There may be ways you could, pursuant to caveat y, still receive the benefits without violating principle x, but action z does not seem to be one of them. The appearance in a national directory suggests that you have agreed to be included and still "stand with the Eagle Scouts."

In my opinion, there is no ethical way for you to appear in the directory if you feel that they take unethical positions.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 8:49 AM on April 17, 2008

Given principle x, and given caveat y to principle x, is action z morally consistent with x and y?

Principle X: the boy scouts are immoral* and should be protested and censured

Caveat Y: you chose not to undertake a certain form of protest/censure because it would negatively impact you, depriving you of a shiney medal

Action Z: you want to buy the book they're selling.

Given that you've already established a willingness to violate your principles (X) when it benefits you (Y) I would say that, yes, action z is morally consistent with x and y.

* you say "unethical" but that can't possibly be what you mean.
posted by 1 at 8:49 AM on April 17, 2008

You should buy the directory and then send a letter to everyone in it outlining your stance on the organization's treatment of above groups. That way you give them an insignificant amount of money but counteract that by making everyone aware of the issue, which I think is more important than whether they get a few bucks from you.
posted by arcadia at 8:49 AM on April 17, 2008 [4 favorites]

You can't take moral positions without sacrifice. That is why I avoid them entirely. Either don't get listed in the directory or accept the fact that your self-interest is more important than your moral compunctions. The middle ground is just hypocrisy.
posted by ND¢ at 8:51 AM on April 17, 2008 [5 favorites]

The way I see it, there is a kind of ethical spectrum that you could fall in given your objection to some of the Eagle Scout's policies:

On one extreme, you could have negative opinions about the Eagle Scout policies, but still be a member and participate the same way that you normally do without taking those opinions into consideration. This would be similar to disagreeing with United States policies but still living in US without actively doing anything to change the policies.

On the other extreme, you could cut off all contact with the Eagle Scouts and actively try to get them to change your policies. This would be similar to moving out of the US and starting an activist group aimed at trying to change US policies.

It's tough to come up with hard and fast rule that says which part of the spectrum you should be on, it's mostly a matter of personal choice. If you want to actually make a difference and change their policies, you will probably have to go even farther than just unlisting yourself from the Eagle Scout directory.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:51 AM on April 17, 2008

In India, the caste system is still alive and well. My family has a place in that system, whether I like it or not. I do not proscribe to the system and I typically avoid discussing it (generally) because it's an embarrassment to me.

If a job opportunity came up, and the prospective employer was looking for a caste like me, and it was a great step up in my career, I'd still reject the interview, because I would have obtained the interview based upon beliefs that I don't respect.

I think the same applies here. Whether or not you did the work to become an Eagle, it seems clear that you are no longer a "Scout". You don't believe in the system that bestowed that honor upon you. As such, you should stand up for your principle and deny benefits, just as you denounce their negative qualities. Having moral clarity swings both ways. You must give up the opportunities the title of Eagle gives you to be consistent.

BTW, I'm also an Eagle. I also received that card in the mail. And I think that brushing the entire Scouting organization with such a broad stroke may be throwing the baby out with the bath water.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 8:58 AM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Your concern may be moot:
Often these directories are not really a scam, but they're not really what they purport to be, either.
They are not truly affiliated with their "governing body" (i.e. the BSA) but are third-party profit-making companies that skirt copyright issues by offering knock-offs ("cheaply bound 'leatherette' editions, suitable for any executive's bookshelf...") and clever marketing pitches to flatter you ("How delightful to close that deal or pursue that lead if you share this prestigious honor of a national listing..."). You NEVER, EVER should pay to be listed in a reputable directory. Of anything.
Contact the National Office FIRST to see if they sanction this; ask where the profits go ( or if there is a percentage, etc...)
Chances are they are NOT INVOLVED.
I briefly sold these things by telemarketing while paying my way through school.
I am sorry.
posted by Dizzy at 8:58 AM on April 17, 2008

> Given that you've already established a willingness to violate your principles (X) when it benefits you (Y) I would say that, yes, action z is morally consistent with x and y.

Does y have any practical effect supporting x? No. Sending in an Eagle medal back to Scouting at its most crassest level actually helps them; Scout troops and/or parents pay for the medal itself, meaning that you've not only given them money but given them back the merchandise someone paid them for.

And given that Scouting fought all the way to the Supreme Court in order to defend their right to oust gay men and women from their organization, the thought that they would be swayed by some medals arriving in their mailbox is not a convincing one.

The harm of y to me significantly outweighs the near-zero support of x that sending in the medal will. Were enough Scouts sending in enough Eagle medals likely to sway minds, that'd be quite a different thing. However, that is very much not the case.
posted by WCityMike at 9:00 AM on April 17, 2008

Dizzy, different thing here. This notice came from the National Eagle Scouting Association, which is legit. It's not one of those "Who's Who in America's Young Go-Getters"-type things. Also, there's a link to the directory project on the NESA website.
posted by WCityMike at 9:03 AM on April 17, 2008

I think the consensus answer is pretty clear by this point.

Thanks, everyone.
posted by WCityMike at 9:05 AM on April 17, 2008

I got the same thing.
Dizzy-There's no charge to be listed, it's just for the directory, it's from NESA.

My question is how closely affiliated with BSA is NESA?
posted by piedmont at 9:06 AM on April 17, 2008

Apologies, W!
Dang. I was feeling so cleansed from my telemarketing sins.
posted by Dizzy at 9:08 AM on April 17, 2008

Buy the directory, but then rip out every other page, so it is less useful.
posted by Futurehouse at 9:17 AM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

You cannot both support your ethical stance and make use of the directory. Also, your rationalization of why you kept the medal is just that. Keeping the medal is also inconsistent with your ethical stance and cannot really be reconciled to it. It doesn't matter whether or not sending the medal back would immediately lead to change, doing so is a symbol of your commitment, just as you want to keep the medal as a symbol of your effort. It's precisely to the extent that you value the medal that it becomes a valuable symbol of your disagreement with the BSA.

(I point this out because as far as I'm concerned there are levels of hypocrisy. Keeping the medal because you value it more than your principles is kind of bad (but they're ultimately your principles and you can do what you want with them); concocting a story about how that doesn't matter is worse because it attempts to remove an ethical decision from the realm of ethics. It's like pissing on someone AND telling them that it's raining.)
posted by OmieWise at 9:19 AM on April 17, 2008

I'm reminded of a piece I heard on the radio about a group of psychiatrists, some gay, who organized to change the diagnostic manual's position that homosexuality was a mental disorder.

I'm not all that fond of the position that you shouldn't participate in order to protest.

Start, as Confucious did, with the family: when you don't like what your family does or think it unethical, should you disown them?

Your neighborhood? Your city? Your state? Your country?

In cases where violence is an element, certainly. Otherwise, membership is kind of a for better or worse senario. I think you should deny them money when you can, but participate in every way that you can. Some of your participation should be as an advocate for change, some should be to further the organization.

Change is not the same as destroy.
posted by ewkpates at 9:20 AM on April 17, 2008

Like most every other organization, Scouting is a mix of good and bad elements. Obviously, they are not gunning down old ladies. But their intolerant stances on social issues, in the eyes of many, harm the larger community of which they form a part. You did not renew your membership in the Eagle Scout Association on the grounds that you believed that by doing so, you were withholding support from an organization which supports these social stands which you feel are wrong. However, you would also be withholding support from an organization which admittedly does much good.

But is that true? Is the Eagle Scout Association connected to the Boy Scouts directly? What does it do with its money? Does it actively promote those stands which you disagree with? These are the questions that you must ask regarding your actions.

Similarly, you must ask the same questions regarding being listed in, and paying for the directory. Will the funds you send them possibly go towards supporting stands with which you disagree? Will being in the directory mark you as a person who agrees with all stands that Scouting has taken on these issues?

Another related question is whether terminating your associations with the movement serves the goals which you espouse. Is it better to fight bitterly and lose within the organization, possibly moving it closer towards a position that you may one day agree with, or best to indicate your displeasure and disagreement with the organization by severing all ties, thus hoping to put pressure along with many others towards moving the organization to where you think it ought to be?

These are the questions you will have to ask yourself.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:29 AM on April 17, 2008

Personally, I think you're fine keeping your award. I do not think there is an obligation on you to act in a certain way to indicate your disapproval. I do think that you are obliged not to further support the organization, though.
posted by grouse at 9:30 AM on April 17, 2008

Caveat y is consistent with principle x because you did not contribute any time or money to scouting after you came to believe principle x. (I'm assuming you came to believe x sometime after 1993.)

Contributing money or time to them now that you believe principle x would not be consistent with principle x, and caveat y does not cover that. Although caveat y allowed you to keep the award you had already received, it would not, it seems to me, permit you to make additional contributions contrary to principle x.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:31 AM on April 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

As far as I am aware, the NESA is part and parcel of BSA. It may not even have a separate corporate existence.
posted by grouse at 9:31 AM on April 17, 2008

I think that if you decide that you are no longer affiliated with scouting on moral grounds, you should reconsider sending the award back. The award is a physical representation of scouting's recognition of your hard work and effort, but it is only that. Your hard work can never be erased and returning the award serves only to show that your ethics prevent you from seeking the approval of the group in question.
posted by nomad at 9:37 AM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hmm, I think I'm less ethical than others, or something. My reasoning would be: These directories are very expensive to put together, and institutions that do the directories don't make any money on the directories themselves (as I understand it), and sometimes actually lose money. They're doing the directory because they think that it helps build good will and promotes future contributions. As for you, you would like the directory for your own uses. Your purchase money will barely cover the institution's costs in creating the directory -- it will not provide any funds for their general coffers. And you know you will not be giving them future contributions from the "good will."

More thoughts/questions: Is it possible to be part of the alumni network in a positive way as an out gay person? Do you have to be an "active" member (which you don't want to be) to be in the alumni network? Do you have a partner? Are they listing partners? It would be cool to be listed as having a same-sex partner.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:40 AM on April 17, 2008

DevilsAdvocate has the clearest answer, I think. It's the timing that makes caveat y irrelevant to the current situation.

Also, having your name listed in a directory of scouts seems like a pretty clear statement that you consider yourself still a part of the organization, and therefore support its principles. Were I in your shoes, I'd be deeply uncomfortable with that.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:41 AM on April 17, 2008

Okay. First, I just knew that the "shiny medals" remark was going to come out somewhere. Thanks, 1, for getting that over with. As to what it means to me, it's a symbol and a reminder of hard work at a young age, and it serves to me, entirely separate from Scouting, as a reminder of a past self that had a hell of a lot of inner strength and strength of personality — something I often find myself needing to remember nowadays.

Second, I've made the decision, thanks to everyone's clarifying input. I've been very firmly convinced by your arguments, and DevilsAdvocate's comment was stated so effectively and clearly that it utterly sealed the deal.

Finally, with regards to the medal:

> Also, your rationalization of why you kept the medal is just that. Keeping the medal is also inconsistent with your ethical stance and cannot really be reconciled to it. It doesn't matter whether or not sending the medal back would immediately lead to change, doing so is a symbol of your commitment, just as you want to keep the medal as a symbol of your effort. It's precisely to the extent that you value the medal that it becomes a valuable symbol of your disagreement with the BSA.

Looked at in strict black-and-white, no-shades-of-practicality-or-gray morality, yes: keeping the medal is a moral compromise. Maybe admitting that will get a few of you off my back.

I'm saying that if action y has no, or infintessimally small, chance to actively support principle x, and by doing action y you incur significant penalty, then the zero- or near-zero chance of support for principle x isn't worth the cost of enacting action y.

Move that structure over to a different principle, as an example.

Principle x: I think the war in Iraq is horrifying, and I don't support it. Action y: I could reduce my withholding down to the minimum possible level (I don't think you can do zero, legally?) and then refuse to pay my federal income tax bill next year when it comes due. By doing so, I would be supporting principle x, that the Iraq War should not be funded.

However, the cost of implementing action y is of great cost to me, with nearly no chance of benefit to principle x. I would be tried, convicted, and jailed. I would have withheld a few hours' worth of funding from the war that would be then taken from me in any one of a hundred different ways the government can collect back taxes and penalties.

So, yes, I could take action y that would, looked at in a black-and-white fashion, support principle x. However, I make the moral compromise of not incurring the great cost of action y when it has either no chance, or an infintessimally small chance, of supporting principle x in any way.

Here, I make the shade-of-gray decision to not send in my medal, because it has no chance of changing the position of Scouting and it has significant personal cost to me. I'd be willing to incur that cost if it wasn't a zero-chance situation. Adopting a black-and-white morality would mean if x, utterly no y, period, end of case.

Or in less stuffy terms: sending them back the medal only hurts me — it doesn't help anyone. I usually have no problems with taking a hit when it can help. This wouldn't.
posted by WCityMike at 10:04 AM on April 17, 2008

> More thoughts/questions: Is it possible to be part of the alumni network in a positive way as an out gay person? Do you have to be an "active" member (which you don't want to be) to be in the alumni network? Do you have a partner? Are they listing partners? It would be cool to be listed as having a same-sex partner.

To be honest, I'm not sure whether out gay former Scouts would somehow be excluded from the directory; I'm not even sure whether partner/spouse data is being collected. I'm not gay myself, but I know that there are "exiled Scouts" type of organizations where Scouts who were punted because they were gay or atheist can meet; I believe James Dale, who was the subject of the Supreme Court case, was a member of one.
posted by WCityMike at 10:09 AM on April 17, 2008

Mike, I'm in the exact same situation. I've been contacted several times, both by local districts looking for help, and by this latest NESA search. I always send them a polite but firm letter. that is some variation of the following:
I am an Eagle Scout from Boy Scout Troop XXX, and I recently recieved notice about your search for Eagle Scouts in the my area. As much as I would like to be active in the BSA, I cannot in good conscience continue to support an organization who discriminates against both homosexuals and atheists.

During my many years in Boy Scouts, I was taught to always strive to be morally straight. I was not, however, taught to be a bigot.


Eagle Scout
Troop XXX
So what I'm saying is no, you shouldn't participate, and you should continue to actively speak out against their policies. I hope that some day they change their stances, because if I have a son, I'd love to be involved with his troop.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:16 AM on April 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

Thanks, Chris. I did send a letter to them.
posted by WCityMike at 10:28 AM on April 17, 2008

Hey, this was my 100th Ask Mefi question. :)
posted by WCityMike at 12:57 PM on April 17, 2008

I don't see how you have any choice about being listed in the directory: you are an Eagle Scout. That much is a fact. I don't see that they need your permission to list you, though there certainly shouldn't be any charge involved in your being listed. Giving back your medal doesn't mean you were never awarded it. If I were to send my degree back to my alma matter, I'd still be in possession of the degree, just not the physical sign of it (which is only wall decoration anyway).

Buying the book is the problem, as that gives them money. You could call up some Eagle Scout friend whom you know will be buying the book and photocopy his. You could argue that you're hurting the BSA by gaining the benefit of the directory without having paid for it. It's dicey, though, as you're taking a moral stand here, and appropriating the data in that way could be seen (in fact, would be seen by most) as theft, pure and simple.

But, given the myriad of social networking sites springing up, I think you'll probably find more contacts through Facebook, LinkedIn, and some Google-Fu than you will through some dead-trees directory. So I vote for not buying the book. But I don't see keeping the medal and being listed in the book (for free) as a moral compromise.
posted by wheat at 2:13 PM on April 17, 2008

> I don't see how you have any choice about being listed in the directory: you are an Eagle Scout.

The card I received in the mail indicates they're only listing those who assent.
posted by WCityMike at 2:31 PM on April 17, 2008

Ah, in that case, your allowing them to add your name to the directory ads value to the directory. So, I'm afraid, if you wish to remain consistent in your opposition to the BSA and its related organizations, you'd have to refuse them permission to list you in the directory.
posted by wheat at 6:57 AM on April 18, 2008

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