STUDENT VOICES | CHYNN ETHICS PRIZE SECOND-PLACE WINNER
By Anna Nowalk
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands: one nation, under G-d, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
The recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the day is popular in American schools; in fact, some states require it. However, this practice is not without controversy. There have been legal battles on the topic appealing to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. While legal positions warrant reflection, I wish to consider the issue from a philosophical angle. In this essay, I will argue that the required daily recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance by children offends the very nature of pledges and is therefore not ethically justifiable.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a pledge is, “A solemn commitment to do or refrain from doing something; a promise, a vow.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on promises opens with the sentence, “Few moral judgments are more intuitively obvious and more widely shared than that promises ought to be kept.” Making a promise is thought to confer a duty to keep that promise: a “promissory obligation.” Promises closely relate to moral questions around telling the truth, as promising (or pledging) without intending to follow through could be considered lying. Though they disagree when it comes to explanations for promissory obligations, philosophers across ethical traditions have affirmed the importance of keeping one’s word. If keeping one’s word is important, then so is making promises in an ethical. Consequently, one should request the promise of another only in circumstances where both parties can respect the moral weight of promise-making.
With such widespread philosophical agreement on the importance of promises, it’s shocking that we allow children to make a pledge containing words that they may not understand. What are the odds that a five-year-old can define “allegiance,” or “republic,” or “indivisible”? Moreover, what does the “solemn commitment” of a first grader look like, especially in reference to an abstract concept like allegiance to a flag? In addition to not comprehending the words, they may not understand the significance of pledges. One might view this as a solution: a child’s maturity level or incomprehension could reduce or nullify their promissory obligations. This loophole falls short for two reasons. First, it only applies to younger children. Second, if one were to explain this reasoning to a child, they’d run the risk of implicitly teaching them that their promises don’t matter. The safer option would be to simply not make the Pledge of Allegiance a part of the school day.
Mandatory recitation further devalues pledges, as students who assent to the Pledge of Allegiance’s words do so by coincidence. If it were a choice, it would be an expression of belief, rather than an expression of the fact that they were instructed to recite it. Pledges should be freely made and not coerced if their words are to mean anything. Even where it isn’t mandatory, forces like peer pressure and classroom expectation could compel a child who otherwise might not want to say the Pledge to say it.
The daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance can make the words lose meaning. Here, I speak from experience: I stood up, placed my hand on my heart, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance many times without being conscious of what I was saying. I thoughtlessly drifted through the words which I’d spoken so many times they’d become muscle memory. Furthermore, by the time I was old enough to understand what I was saying, I’d become so accustomed to the habit of reciting the Pledge that it took me years to think through the meaning of the words. Additionally, this repetition calls into question the nature of the Pledge of Allegiance’s entailed commitments. Does my allegiance expire after 24 hours? Is each pledge a new commitment, or a recommitment to an earlier pledge? Once I graduated high school and I no longer repeated it every day, was I no longer bound by the Pledge’s words? I know these may seem like silly questions, but if the Pledge is a “solemn commitment,” then the answers are important.
This is not an argument against instilling patriotic values in children; this is an argument against devaluing pledges. There is a way to conceptualize the Pledge of Allegiance as a piece of patriotic theatre meant to impart values through its performance. While this removes issues with moral obligations resulting from pledges, it presents other problems. First, using this method to subconsciously teach children nationalistic principles feels uncomfortably close to indoctrination. Second, in a non-performance space, the line between performance and dishonesty is difficult to draw. The distinction, if there was ever one to begin with, is in danger of being practically nonexistent. As a result, this approach pits the value of maturely making promises against the value of patriotism, with the implicit lesson that patriotism wins out. This is unacceptable.
If pledges don’t matter, then we may as well do away with the required daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Of course, they do matter, so the real question is whether the Pledge of Allegiance is meant to act as a pledge. If it isn’t, whether because it’s nullified from the start or because it’s a piece of theatre, then we ought to do away with it, given that its role as a faux pledge undermines the significance of real ones. A pledge, with its accompanying promissory obligations, should not be casually thrown around or used for theatrics. If the Pledge of Allegiance is meant to be a pledge, a “solemn commitment,” then it is unethical to require children – really, anyone – who cannot assent to its implications to recite it.
Brad Dress, “Here is a breakdown of laws in 47 states that require reciting the Pledge of Allegiance,” The Hill, April 2, 2022, https://thehill.com/news/3256719-47-states-require-the-pledge-of-allegiance-be-recited-in-schools-here-is-a-breakdown-of-each-states-laws/.
Scott Bomboy, “The history of legal challenges to the Pledge of Allegiance,” National Constitution Center, July 14, 2021, https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-latest-controversy-about-under-god-in-the-pledge-of-allegiance.
“pledge, n.,” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2022, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/145633?rskey=OzLmq1&result=1&isAdvanced=false.
Allen Habib, “Promises,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Stanford University, March 4, 2014, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2021/entries/promises/.
Anna Nowalk ’23, is a senior at Fordham University Lincoln Center with a major in music and minors in theology and religious studies. She was awarded second place in the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education 2022 Dr. K. York and M. Noelle Chynn Undergraduate Essay Prize in Ethics and Morality.