Topic: Society

The Ethics of Objection

At what point does standing up for a principle stop being a noble and courageous enterprise and start being wrong? One reasonable answer may be this: it starts being wrong at the point when the disruption, inconvenience, unhappiness and annoyance resulting from the stand far outweighs any conceivable benefits that it might achieve, particularly when there is little or no discernable harm in allowing the status quo to continue. For many, the opportunity America provides for individuals to vent their special concerns has become a means of asserting power and seeking publicity for reasons that have little to do with principle and a great deal to do with ego gratification. Under these circumstances, taking a “principled stand” becomes plain trouble-making, disrupting people’s comfort just because one can.

A prominent agitator of this breed is Michael Newdow, the California atheist who has spent years trying to ban the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools because it contained the words “under God.” When his suit to achieve that failed for technical reasons (it was ultimately ruled that he had no standing to sue), he moved on to a new cause: now he has brought a suit challenging the inscription “In God We Trust” on U.S. coins and dollars, because, he says, it infringes on the rights of atheists like him.

Great. Let’s have a court ruling that requires the U.S. Treasury to mint and print all new money. Now there’s a good use of taxpayer funds! Then we can wait for the demonstrations protesting the fact that slaveholders Washington and Jefferson adorn our coins, or that honoring duelists Jackson and Hamilton on the ten and twenty-dollar bills glorify violence.

It strains credulity to believe that anyone is seriously offended, inconvenienced, upset, damaged or traumatized by the designs and inscriptions on the money they use. After two centuries, “In God We Trust” has surely entered the realm of history and tradition, and is no more of a religious statement than the Declaration of Independence. In fact, that would be the likely ruling if Newdow’s suit ever made it to court. Yet there is always the chance that some maverick judge will decide that Newdow is being unjustly oppressed every time he touches a greenback or a quarter, and the next thing you know, lots of resources will be spent and lots of rallies will be held and lots of people will be upset. If “In God We Trust” is banished from our currency entirely, absolutely nothing will change except that America will have lost one more link to the past, a great many people will feel that something has been taken away from them, and Michael Newdow will feel that he hasn’t lived in vain, because he bent the majority to his will.

But standing up for principle isn’t supposed to be about winning. It’s supposed to be about doing the right thing. And sometimes the right thing– the kind thing, the sensible thing—is to realize that your minor annoyance, disagreement or grievance just isn’t that important to you or anyone else, and it would be best to let the vast majority of people who like things as they are hold on to what makes them happy and comfortable. The Scoreboard isn’t advocating that Americans who see real and tangible wrongs and injustice that most of their neighbors don’t recognize should keep quiet; absolutely not. But leave the words on the money alone. Stop complaining about the Star Spangled Banner. Let the Atlanta Braves fans call their team whatever they like. Let there be men’s clubs and boy’s clubs and girl’s clubs and women’s clubs.

And stop making people feel guilty when they say “Merry Christmas.”

Sometimes the ethical act is simply to let the majority do things its way, or to let a minority deviate from the norm as it chooses. Knowing when those times are requires judgement, sensitivity and wisdom, which shouldn’t be surprising. In the end, all ethical decisions rely on those same qualities.

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