When I was an active and devoted Boy Scout, I was asked a question about the Scout Law that I couldn’t adequately answer at the time. This is the answer that occurred to me years later, and I’m only now writing it down.
To advance in the upper Boy Scouting ranks (Star, Life, and Eagle), not only do you have to fulfill merit badge and service requirements, you also go before a Board of Review and satisfy them that you’re ready to advance. At various Boards of Review, I’d been asked to tie a bowline, demonstrate pocket-knife safety, and report on some of the things I’d learned in my merit badge progress. Occasionally, though, I’d get a more abstract question which, like any good essay prompt, traded less in rote knowledge than in personal interpretations and reflections.
I do not remember which rank’s Board it was, but one question I remember getting was this:
“If you could make one change to the Scout Law, what would it be?”
The Scout Law
For those of you who don’t know, the Scout Law goes a little like this:
A Scout is
- Clean (and)
We recited it every week, along with the Scout Oath, in which we swore “on [our] honor” to obey it.
My Answer Then
This question absolutely threw me for a loop at the time. I was a very rules-oriented youth, you see. Despite paying very close attention in my Civics class, I saw the rules that governed my life as the boundaries within which reality operated, rather than structures put into place by other people (specifically to be treated later like the boundaries of reality). The Scout Law was the Scout Law, second in my reverence only to the Ten Commandments.
So I hemmed, reader. And also, I hawed. And in time I put forward an answer that satisfied my Board: Adding “A Scout is Humble.” Maybe there’s still something to that. I sometimes tell my students “humility is the core of scholarship; you can’t learn anything without recognizing there are things you don’t know.”1 But in the years after answering that question, a better answer occurred to me.
My Answer Now
The Scout Law does need a new point:
A Scout is Discerning.
Each of the twelve points is meant to embody some important virtue. But are they all virtues, without the ability to judge application and circumstance?
Let’s go down the line. Note that, although I will consistently use the language of what a Scout is, and about how children should be taught, there’s no reason any of these observations should be limited to Scouts, boys, or children at all. Categorical Imperative and all, perhaps we should consider how the effect of these precepts if everybody were to follow them. Also, although I do occasionally refer to the descriptive language of these points, I deal with these points more as the totalizing moral abstractions they’re often remembered or presented as.
A Scout is Trustworthy
I’m all for this one. Let your yes be yes and your no be no, after all. Be known to honor your promises as best as you can.
Of course, a Discerning Scout will know not to promise too much. Also, although always having an answer may make you appear reliable, Discernment tells us that sometimes an honest “I don’t know” will make a louder argument for how well you can be trusted on a matter than a dozen assertive guesses.
A Scout is Loyal
Here’s where we start to see problems. Loyalty is not virtuous in and of itself. Loyalty to monsters is complicity in the monstrous. Turning a blind eye to the failings and criminality of the people “on your team” is not an action to aspire to.
In short, loyalty is only a virtue if you are loyal to the virtuous. And even virtuous leaders and organizations, if followed blindly, can mislead you.
I find it interesting that the 1911 edition of the Handbook clarifies “[a Scout] is loyal to all to whom loyalty is due.” So there does seem to be a qualification there. But does “due” here mean “those who deserve loyalty by their behavior and decency,” or does it mean “any authority figure that has been placed over you, ever”?
Here, discernment is needed. Yes, the Scout should be encouraged to stick with people in rough times. But the Scout should also be encouraged to gauge when their loyalty is being weaponized against them. If someone should back down from their conscience for fear of being labeled “disloyal,” it is the loyalty there that is the problem, not the conscience.
A Scout is Helpful
Sure! Let’s be helpful! I love the 1911 language here, which reminds us of the daily “good turn” to another, and of being ready to save someone’s life. These are unqualified goods!
Yet even this point works well with discernment. In the circumstances that aren’t near as clear cut, we must think about what we’re helping others to achieve. I grew up in a tornado-prone area. My Scout Troop helped in more than one clean-up effort after natural disasters–as have many Troops, worldwide. But then you have that Troop in Utah that helped to destroy a natural landmark. Was this action un-Scouting-like? Not by a strict adherence to the Scout Law–they were only being Helpful (and Loyal, besides). But was this sort of purposeless destruction, and disruption of nature, the sort of thing they needed to help bring about?
Also, I recently heard about how the Boy Scouts used to be brought in to supplement strikebreaking forces in the early twentieth century.
Hey, look! They’re helping! But what are they helping to bring about? Not fair wages or safer conditions for hardworking miners and laborers in their community. Who’s in greater need of help: the mine owner who wants to keep a low overhead, or the powerless men who need to feed their families, don’t want to die because of cut corners, and don’t want to be cast aside when they’re no longer useful?
A Scout is Friendly
Yes, be friendly. But how about we don’t be friendly with the cruel?
A Scout is Courteous
Sure, courtesy is great! When I said “don’t be friendly with the cruel,” that doesn’t mean we need to go out of our way to put burning bags of animal feces on their doorsteps. But it’s at best a superficial virtue. It’s nice to be nice, but we must not sacrifice our conscience to a veneer of civility. Sometimes moral action–standing up for the downtrodden or speaking out for the wronged–will run counter to politeness. A Scout should be empowered to judge when “please” and “thank you” need to take a back seat to grabbing the steering wheel before the driver runs someone over.
And while courtesy is fine, I think it’s easy to see how meaningless it can be. Abusers are adept at maintaining a civil air in public as a means of casting doubt on their accusers. Courtesy is a wonderful aspiration, but shouldn’t be mistaken as a quality of substance–just as you can’t transmute dog crap into gold by covering it in shiny paint.
But what is the line? How far do we go in devotions to courtesy before they get in the way of other moral action? I don’t know, man. That’s situational. That’s why a Scout must be Discerning, because there’s no way even the most diligent and virtuous moral instructor can prepare them for every situation they’ll ever be in.
While I have my magic wand for changing the Scout Law, perhaps here’s another point I would change: Let’s swap out Courtesy for Compassion!2 Too girly?
A Scout is Kind
I wish at the time I had thought more about the fact that Courteous and Kind are separate points. Sometimes the kind act is not always the nice one. If you have a friend destroying themselves (say, through addiction) and you intervene, they may not thank you or even like you in the time. There is perhaps no way of saying “you are destroying the people close to you” that will be received as courtesy by the person you say it to. But it can be a kind act, nonetheless, coming from a desire to see them safe.
But even then, not all kind acts are kind to all involved. If you go no-contact with an abuser in your friend- or family-circle, they will not thank you, and they may never stop seeing themselves as the victim in the exchange. But perhaps it is the only way to show kindness to your children or the other people in your life that that contact would have given the abuser access to.
So the difference between courtesy and kindness is one that already invites reflection and encourages discernment. So discernment cannot be far from the spirit of the Scout Law, can it?
A Scout is Obedient
Ah. Here we are. As with loyalty, obedience is only a virtue if it leads you to virtuous action. Raising up obedience as a virtue in and of itself is pretty much the opposite of the discernment I propose. At the risk of flouting Godwin’s Law in addition to that of the Scouts, isn’t this the lesson we were supposed to take away from the Nuremberg Defense? Didn’t we as a society hold that “following orders” is not a sufficient justification for participating in atrocity?
Perhaps I would replace this one entirely, and let discernment take its spot.
But to be clear, refusing to enshrine unqualified obedience is not the same as enshrining disobedience. Help around the house and eat your vegetables and all that. But not even all parental orders are in our best interest: orders to stay quiet about abuse, for instance. I recently learned about how far-reaching abuse has gone in the Boy Scouts. I knew of some cases, but was not prepared for the scale. I’m fortunate that, in the four Boy Scout Troops (and two Cub Scout Packs) I was a part of, I never encountered this. But I have to wonder if it’s been able to thrive so long, and hide so long, because generations of victims were trained up to obey without discernment.
A Scout is Cheerful
“A Scout must not have bad moods or express any of the more unsightly emotions.”
Maybe I’m not being fair.
Sure, let us not be fatalists. Let us not give so much of our bandwidth to the horrible things that are happening that we lose sight of what it is we can do in these times.
Also, part of being helpful is taking the burden from others, and what we could have here in the admonition to be cheerful is a call to that sort of restorative emotional labor.
But there are circumstances when a cheerful demeanor undermines our trustworthiness, and even our kindness, if we can only maintain it by putting our heads in the sand or silencing those who call for help.
I don’t have a problem with cheer, in its place.
A Scout is Thrifty
Thrifty is fine when it’s about balancing a household budget, making sure you can meet all your needs. There’s also an ecological bent to it, insofar as thrift can discourage you from buying useless crap that’s only going to waste resources.
But here in the richest nation in the world, the thrift flag is often unfurled to oppose affordable healthcare, fair housing, decent wages, a social safety net, equal education–including arts and humanities, a functioning postal system, and any kind of public cultural institutions.
So people are kept hungry, cold, sick, uneducated, and left without any fulfillment.
But I get to call myself thrifty.
When fetishized, thrift can run counter to helpfulness and kindness. Am I saying to toss it out? No, but know when not to apply it.
A Scout is Brave
Absolutely! Be brave! But bravery without discernment is foolhardy. Action for the sake of action can lead us down some very dark roads. Also, the Scout should be able to identify bravery in all its forms. Bravery is not always tied to physical action. When self-interest and greed rule the day, and people must earn their human value through profitability, a kind word can be brave. When pressured to heap scorn on the unloved and unpopular, staying silent can also be brave.
A Scout is Clean
Brush your teeth and wash your junk! Washing your hands was important even before the Pandemic, but hey, what a reminder!
What about clean language? See “Courtesy.”
A Scout is Reverent
I continue to be a practicing Christian, despite the best efforts of people who share my faith to prove it meaningless by their actions.
But, anathema though it may be to my upbringing, simply saying that a thing is religious is not a magic word to excuse it from all criticism or questioning.
One man sets up a multi-million dollar business in the shape of a church. He makes enough to live in a mansion and have a private jet by telling the rich that, despite what they may have heard about camels and needles, God is totally fine with them hording everything an letting their neighbors starve. To the poor, he says their poverty is a sign of God’s disfavor, but there is a (somewhat) affordable, tax-exempt cure! And no, you may not take shelter in this church during a natural disaster.
Another man says, “That pastor’s a jerk.”
Which one is being irreverent?
There’s a place for reverence, though it doesn’t always look like we want it to. Reverence isn’t just people respecting my religion (or what I say it is that week). Reverence is also me respecting theirs. Even the 1911 language notes that the Scout “respects the convictions of others in matters of custom and religion.”
But a Scout needs to know that not everyone who claims to be passing messages along for the Almighty is actually on God’s Christmas card list. “I am with the church” cannot be the magic words that make a Scout turn off his reasoning or conscience. That’s a message that needs to be learned early. And it shouldn’t even be a particularly heretical stand: 1 John 4 admonishes us to “test the spirits,” after all.
This the answer I wish I had given when I faced my Board of Review for whichever rank that was. If any of those Board members see this, which I doubt, consider this a formal emendation and reevaluate your own decisions accordingly.
Ha! Could you rescind my rank if they found my alterations wanting? To my knowledge, there is no such mechanism in the BSA. Doesn’t matter though. You were entrusted with the ability to say a boy was ready or not ready to advance, based on your convictions as much as their answers.
If you will trust your discernment in these matters, do not deny me out of hand the exercise of my own.
- I don’t say this very much, mind you. Apart from a few recovering honors students, most of my pupils have no difficulty with humility. It’s recognizing their accomplishments as accomplishments and appreciating their own abilities that they need more. ↩
- As Kurt Vonnegut said about dignity in Palm Sunday, “If you give to that sort of a stranger the uncritical respect that you give to friends and relatives, you will also want to understand and help him. There is no way to avoid this.” ↩