Thursday, October 9, 2014

A scout's virtues: trustworthy

From the 1911 Scout's Handbook by the Boy Scouts of America:
A scout's honor is to be trusted. If he were to violate his honor by telling a lie, or by cheating, or by not doing exactly a given task, when trusted on his honor, he may be directed to hand over his scout badge.
I love this stuff. It's exactly what was missing from my childhood. What follows is not a thorough analysis but my first reaction to what I read.

I should add that there is plenty of other good stuff such as a scout's promise and the scout motto but I'm drawn first to the virtues for reasons that, I hope, should be obvious to anyone who has read any of my stuff.

So, is the above a virtue or a rule? It sounds like a rule and you could (mistakenly) take it as one. The thing that makes it more a virtue, in my opinion, is the all-important qualification: "when trusted on his honor". Take it as a rule and that qualification will rapidly start to seem a little ridiculous.

As a rule, it has a lovely, old-fashioned gentlemanly feel about it. "Will you do it?" and then, "On your honour?" One is reminded of one of the Watergate conspirators who was willing to break the law, reportedly, would feel obliged, on his honour, to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth if asked to testify under oath. I don't know if that is true but it demonstrates the fundamental problem with rules. How do you know you're following a rule? The right answer, as all Wittgenstein fans will know, is that following a rule means more than meeting some definition of following a rule. There must also be a shared judgment about what being trustworthy is.

At this point, you might be tempted to claim that is circular. Well, it would be if we were thinking of an entirely abstract thing when discussing being trustworthy. We are not. Trustworthy here means something embedded in some set of social norms and practices. As MacIntyre says, every morality implies a sociology. (That's not an exact quote.) Everyone grasps that some kinds of games not only allow but require you to deceive your opponents. To be asked to do something "on his honour" implies not just a certain set of circumstances but also a general agreed upon judgment that this is such a case that honour is required.

There is also an implied notion of legitimate authority. Suppose a scout were part of a group of hostages and the leader of the group holding the hostages charged him with delivering some message and made him promise, "on his honour", that he would not take advantage of his temporary freedom to inform the police and the scout swore he would keep this promise. A certain kind of moralist would argue that he would be honour-bound. After all, the "rule" seems to imply that. Some others, like me, would regard even discussing the possibility that the scout was honor-bound in such a situation to be ludicrous. On the basis of what? Here, to be Wittgensteinian again, there is a place where reasons stop and we appeal to a shared judgment that says that anyone holding hostages is not a legitimate authority.

Okay, enough about what "on your honour" does not mean. What can be positively said of it?

More from the Handbook:
Indeed, this [honour] is the basis of all the scout virtues and is closely allied to that of self-respect.
I'd humbly suggest that that is/has to be reversible.  What I mean is that all the other virtues taken together will tell us what kind of boy a scout is supposed to be and that if his self-respect requires him to be the kind of boy who does these things, then we can say what honour is; we can say that honour means being the sort of person who actually does these things.

I was reading, on Ann Althouse's blog, the other day of research that said that
"People on the receiving end of an act of kindness were about 10 percent more likely than the average person to do something nice themselves later in the day." 

"On the other hand, those who granted that kindness were slightly more likely than average (about 3 percent) to commit a small act of rudeness or dismissiveness later in the same day — granting themselves 'moral license' to do so."
I doubt very much that the claimed specificity here—10 percent and 3 percent—is anything but hubris. That said, you can see how it could be a problem. Having done my good deed for the day, I might just slack off. How could we overcome this? Assuming we don't pull a Tierney and write it off as impossible, the answer is to make doing good deeds a part of your identity. In that case, failing to do so will feel like a violation of our self-respect. In this regard, doing at least one good deed a day is not a matter of ticking off the requirement as it is a matter of training yourself to be a certain kind of person.

That still leaves "on your honour" undefined but, I think, suggests what the definition would be: it would be an accumulation of requirements like a good deed for the day carried out not just to tick them off but to train ourselves to be a certain kind of person.

I hope to be able to flesh that out as I go along.


  1. Two virtue-related links for you...

    1. Thanks. I've read the First Things link a couple of times and there is a some real gold there. The Financial Times link is insisting that I register before it will let me see it.

    2. I like the First Things article a lot. Especially its correction of Hauerwas.

      The FT link is a Lucy Kellaway column on why conscientiousness is an undervalued quality, in work and personal life. Her column and Münchau's are the reason to read FT on Mondays!

    3. I agree entirely on the Hauerwas point.

      I wonder, though, if the author grasps the full significance of her point for she immediately goes on to say,

      "Hauerwas is certainly correct that the structure of marriage as a permanent binding commitment to obey, serve, and form a family obtains, and must be understood and enforced, in total independence of sentiment."

      Surely, the point is that marriage must include a vow to sustain and nurture good feelings towards your spouse. To say it should be "enforced" in "total independence of sentiment" makes marriage into a life sentence.

  2. To me that seems like the introduction to the discussion of Hauerwas. I think she doesn't want to sound too harsh towards the piece she is correcting/criticizing. I think the point is that marriage is not based on pure sentiment.

    I appreciate this because I read Hauerwas at an impressionable age and came away with the deep conviction that religion & Christianity in general was "a permanent binding commitment to obey and serve and must be understood and enforced in total independence of sentiment." And without wanting to embarrass you with overeffusive praise, this blog was a powerful corrective.

    1. What kind words.

      Yesterday, the second reading from the Office of Readings was an excerpt from Augustine's treatise on John. Here is some of the opening:

      "'No one comes to me unless my Father draws him'. Do not think you are drawn against your own will; the will is drawn also by love. ...

      "What does this mean, to be drawn by desire? 'Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.' The heart has its own desires; it takes delight, for example, in the bread from heaven. The poet could say: 'Everyone is drawn by his own desire,' not by necessity but by desire, not by compulsion but by pleasure. We can say then with greater force that one who finds pleasure in truth, in happiness, in justice, in everlasting life, is drawn to Christ, for Christ is in all these things."