Challenges to The Pledge of Allegiance

Tom Morris

Note to Readers: Here is an interesting exchange of ideas with an American journalist who at the time of our writing was living overseas, a very patriotic person who was nonetheless personally unsure about the Pledge of Allegiance. He read the Pledge essay that I posted, above, and asked the following questions. Below I give his questions and my answers. I hope this helps you in thinking about the issues. TM

The Skeptic: Personally, I don't like to publicly pledge allegiance to anything and as an agnostic (a position arrived at after I'd left junior high school), I would now be uncomfortable citing God specifically, although I appreciate the historic argument. And I might want to have a long, coffee-fueled discussion about your remark that "If an atheist is uncomfortable with the general will of the people in contemporary America he is free to find living circumstances better suited to his sensibilities." - that last little phrase sounds a bit too much like "America, love it or leave it" to me.

I think the "general will of the people" is often WRONG, by the way! Just off the top of my head, suppose you were living in Nazi Germany and required to pledge allegiance to Hitler. One could argue the "general will of the people" was to support Hitler, which was freely expressed by his election as Chancellor - but that wouldn't make pledging allegiance to him morally right).

Tom Morris: When, earlier in life, I went through a period of being somewhat agnostic on the ultimate question of God, bordering at times on the atheistic sensibility (before graduate school), I used to understand the "under God" phrase wholly historically; that is to say, I was pledging allegiance to a flag and republic whose founding was believed by the founders to be "under God", and I could understand those roots, and affirm them, out of respect to the founders, even if I wasn't sure I shared the full cosmic philosophy myself.

I see patriotism as invitational rather than exclusivist, and any pledging of allegiance as signifying a very strong, though in principle, defeasible commitment. The founders started out with a strong but defeasible commitment to mother England until the repeated actions of the King, and parliament, eroded that commitment away, and finally defeated it. Then they broke free, and explained in the Declaration of Independence why they were justified in doing so.

The phrase "America Love it or Leave it" is actually not such a bad sentiment at all. Anyone who opts to live here ought to be committed to loving this country to the extent of wanting to support it when right and improve it when wrong, and that's just what the posture of love entails. Anyone who can't adopt that stance toward our nation ought indeed to find another home, where they can be supportive and productive citizens. It's not that the old slogan was wrong, just that its interpretation during the Vietnam War was all too often deeply flawed. Offering a productive critique of your country should never be equated with a lack of love for it. It can certainly be motivated by that love.

My concluding suggestion in the essay was that anyone whose worldview prevents him from honoring certain basic deliverances of "the will of the people" in the U.S. can certainly adjust his circumstances so as to avoid most offending situations. In the recent case, the atheist father could, in principle, move his child to another school, where recitation of the Pledge is not the norm, or to the homeroom of a teacher who may be likeminded. There are many adjustments such a person can make to secure his own goals short of seeking to immigrate to China. I'm not eager for him to buy a ticket, and I didn't intend for a second to urge him to "get out of Dodge." He's providing us all with a useful civics lesson.

The Skeptic: But what about the fact that the will of the people can be just wrong? It can be evil. What about the masses pledging allegiance to an evil leader like Hitler?

Tom Morris: As to the will of the people, I think Jefferson and the other founders understood its power to be constrained always by those unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which alone would rule out the Hitler worry. It was in part the founders' allegiance to a higher power that allowed and constrained their earthly allegiance to the republic (speaking in terms of the later 1892 Pledge). And, by the way, The Pledge of Allegiance is a commitment to the nation as such, not to any particular leader of the nation, or to any political party of real or prospective leaders, or even to any specific law or policy enacted by any of those leaders. This is important to understand, as it further distances us from the boot-clicking, stiff-arm saluting, "Sieg Heil!" of the Nazis.

The Skeptic: I should make it clear that in my remarks I don't mean to indicate that I see a thing wrong with patriotism. After living overseas again for the past couple of years, I'm feeling about as patriotic as I've ever felt, as I have to endure all these truly goofy anti-American arguments I hear all the time. My main problem with things like The Pledge of Allegiance is that they're often used to repress rather than stimulate debate (e.g., "You either believe this, or you're not a good American"). And I always have philosophical concerns about abstract statements, no matter how well intentioned. Not to be too much of a logical positivist, but I honestly don't know what the Pledge MEANS when I examine it. Let me give you more of an idea of what bothers me.

"I pledge allegiance to the FLAG" -- I don't know how that's done or, wearing my pragmatist hat, what the practical consequences are. If I'm a soldier, I might pledge allegiance to my commander, or a husband might pledge allegiance to his wife, but I really don't see what pledging allegiance to an inanimate object involves.

"Indivisible" I don't quite understand - it surely doesn't mean that the country doesn't allow profound differences of opinion, since, in fact, it was BORN out of one. Maybe this word was written into the Pledge to indicate the country can't be divided by civil war, but THAT'S certainly not the case.

And I could always trot out the old arguments that the phrase "with liberty and justice for all" may sound fine, and is certainly an admirable abstract principle, but the founders apparently didn't think it applied to slaves or women -- and if I were in a REALLY feisty mood, I could even argue that the phrase is self-contradictory, since if a guy is a criminal and justice has been served and he's in jail, he's not at liberty even though he's a member of the "all" category. So the phrase would at least have to be re-worked to take into account real-life cases rather than just remain a pious abstraction.

While I think the Pledge was written with laudable goals, I'm not sure that, In the end, it actually SAYS anything.

Tom Morris: Let me quote or enumerate your concerns one at a time and say something about each of them.

On the fact that we begin by pledging allegiance to the FLAG -- I think the inanimate object is used here as a concrete symbol for the sake of imaginative vividness. Citizenship is such an abstraction to most people, as is "the nation" - it's not something contained in their immediate experience, in a clearly distinguishable way, but Old Glory is. So the Pledge uses a brightly colored object, with a great history of representing the nation, to stand for the country itself. The phrase "and to the republic" that follows then should be understood not additively but more appositively. Consider: "I love my best friend, and the mother of my children." The "and" need not represent two different objects of love. Likewise, the flag and the republic need not be understood as two separate entities that we are pledging allegiance to. It is to the nation that commitment is directed.

You raised a question about the term 'Indivisible,' saying, "I don't quite understand .... Maybe it was written to indicate that the country can't be divided by civil war, but THAT'S certainly not the case." Written as it was, in 1892, I suspect this term in the Pledge was meant to say, or imply, "As you have recently seen, people can try to divide this nation, but they won't succeed - we'll always fight to retain its unity, and we'll always win - that's our commitment." And the unity, of course, is not one of total harmony or agreement in every opinion. There are many varieties of unity, less than perfect harmony, and as a nation we surely exemplify several of them, despite our acknowledged differences.

On your concern that the founders may not have seen liberty and justice in the picture for literally "all" especially as "applied to slaves or women " - I think most of them demonstrably DID mean it to apply to the people who were then slaves, and even more clearly to their offspring, but saw no way to put this into practice right away and still get a "United States" at all. I think that even the slave owner Jefferson was against the institution for precisely this reason, but acted inconsistently with his beliefs in retaining his slaves, just because he couldn't right away rid the nation of slavery. The founders wanted in 1776 to state their basic principles, and then seek to implement them as they could. The case of women is, I admit, a bit of a puzzle to me. I think the founders did see a certain liberty and justice for women, but didn't see it broadly enough. Take for example the high esteem everyone had for Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams. She was their equal and they knew it. There just was no pattern in their minds for women having an equal, or indistinguishable, social and political role as citizens. I really don't have clear evidence on the mind of the founders on the gender issue, but suspect that, if pressed, they would have agreed that they believed women had unalienable rights, yet also worried that they just could not function YET in the full capacities of citizenship, whether because of habitual patterns of education, or social prejudice.

You also said about the "liberty and justice for all" phrase: "-- and if I'm in a REALLY feisty mood, I can even argue that the phrase is self-contradictory, since if I'm a criminal and justice has been served and I'm in jail, I'm not at liberty even though I'm a member of the "all" category. Thus, the phrase would at least have to be re-worked to take into account real-life cases rather than abstraction."

I think the founders saw "unalienable" as meaning that no one else can take away your rights, but that this is compatible with you yourself giving up those rights, and even that this could happen "against your will" when it was a demand of justice. That is to say, we all start off with these rights - no one is born without them - but liberty and justice are such that the former can be given up due to the constraints of the latter (and not vice versa - there is an asymmetry to the basic rights in that regard, just due to their nature).

For all the noise about freedom, we have no reason to believe the founders ever meant to short circuit justice. They were convinced that justice could be served in a society with a greater measure of liberty still being recognized than ever before.

You end by remarking: "So, while I think the Pledge was written with laudable goals, I'm not sure, in the end, it actually SAYS anything."

I hope I've succeeded in clarifying some of its meanings already, but let me add something important here. Conceptually, we can make a lot of progress in understanding the Pledge, but in the end, we also have to go back to some interesting work on language given to us by, ironically, a British philosopher who lived and wrote mid-century, J.L. Austin. In his famous book HOW TO DO THINGS WITH WORDS, he gave us some basic distinctions about what he called the locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary forces of language. Let me use a simple illustration. When a licensed minister , in the proper circumstances, utters the words, "I pronounce you man and wife," he is doing something with language interestingly different from the E! news reporter standing 20 feet away and whispering into his microphone "He is now pronouncing them man and wife." But compared to each other, the two sentences might seem to be saying the same thing, although with different pronouns, reflecting the different circumstances of their utterance. But the reporter's utterance is a locutionary use of language for descriptive purposes. The minister's utterance is a performative or illocutionary, in Austin's lingo - use of words to effect or bring about something. The laws and practices surrounding this performance are such that, in this utterance, something happens, something is created a legally recognized marriage. And, in some circumstances, it could be that the minister's utterance has also a more straightforwardly causal impact, what Austin called its "perlocutionary" function - The caterer is outside the door waiting to hear those words, at which hearing he will fire up the barbeque. The minister knows this, and so knows that, in uttering them, he will legally create a marriage and also alert the caterer, that the former depends on laws and overarching social practices, but that the latter very differently is a simple case of cause and effect, set up on this occasion as a signal.

All this being said, The Pledge of Allegiance is a matter of performance, with a primary illocutionary force that is, in some sense, loosely related to at least some of its component concepts and implied claims. In uttering it, we are doing something. We are expressing a commitment to our country, a noble and strong, though in principle defeasible, commitment (not simply equivalent to saying, "My country, right or wrong"), that we don't just report but reaffirm as we recite the pledge.

I hope this helps you make more sense of the Pledge.

The Skeptic: Excellent analysis! I buy it! (Although, I'm still not sure about the founders' attitudes toward slavery. I guess even if they did oppose it in principle - and some certainly did - the pragmatic considerations outweighed their moral impulse. I would have thought some of them would have made more of a fuss about that. Thanks.

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