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Oaths and giving your word - Elizabeth Unexplained
Lots of data but no answers
Oaths and giving your word
The other day psychohist made a post that generated a fair amount of comment. I always like his posts, and its great that more people are reading his stuff and commenting. There is also some interesting related discussion in tirinian's thread. I felt like at least one of the commenters either didn't get what I felt to be a major point, or disagreed with it... I wasn't really clear which. Either way I find that vaguely disturbing, so I thought I'd make my own post to explore my own thinking about what I consider to be the deeper issue. That way I can talk about it without the baggage of the thing that prompted the post, an issue that many of us feel strongly about.

So here is my basic issue: You've taken an oath to do something, but now that means you have the choice of breaking your oath or doing something that you personally disagree with. What do you do?

For me, breaking an oath is a big deal. In my book people of integrity ought to do what they say they're going to do. Now obviously there is a bit of a scale to these things; a formal oath is a bit more important than your average idle promise. An oath or a vow is a formal way of saying 'this is important and I really mean it'. Its how we differentiate an big important promise from just idling agreeing to do that third load of laundry. If a person takes an oath to do something, I expect them to do everything in their power not to break that oath. That is what oaths are for. Its why people go through the formality of swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in court. Its supposed to mean something, something more than simply knowing that you can theoretically be prosecuted for purjury.

So why do we need oaths? Well, we need them because we need to be able to trust certain people in order for society to work. We need to trust that the police officer who has just pulled us over actually believes we were speeding and is not looking for a bribe. We need to believe that the judge deciding a case is actually ruling based on established law, not which lawyer handed in a bigger bribe. We need to believe that the doctor treating us is actually treating a condition that we have and not just making stuff up to collect insurance payments. If we can't trust these individuals in these situations then society starts looking very bad very quickly. So we ask these people to take oaths, trusting that giving their word will be enough for all but the truly bad apples among their number.

So then we get to the part that disturbed me, the part where a friend seemed to say that he thought it was better to violate his oath than his personal ethics. Perhaps that statement doesn't seem like a nonsequiter to everyone else, but personally I find it hard to imagine a personal code of ethics that does not have keeping one's solemn word right up there at the top. I can imagine it not being your absolute number one, but generally ethical people I know who have something higher on their lists don't tend to put themselves in situations where its even vaguely likely that they'd have to violate their solemn word. To put it more concretely, people who feel that killing other people is never justified don't tend to join the military. Perhaps I am old fashioned in this, but I take oaths to be very serious things, and if you would violate your most solemnly given word, how am I to trust you in anything? Put another way, if there are a great many things that are potentially more important to you than your given oath, isn't that just another way of saying you are a flake?
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enugent From: enugent Date: January 5th, 2007 01:35 am (UTC) (Link)
Well, I think the poster in question would happily describe himself as a flake. :)

But I was also taken aback, to the point of being almost unable to argue.
greyautumnrain From: greyautumnrain Date: January 5th, 2007 02:26 am (UTC) (Link)
You may be interested in reading the post by tirinian since you're also a lawyer and there is some interesting legal discussion going on there.
twe From: twe Date: January 5th, 2007 10:06 pm (UTC) (Link)


Not to mention that the nature of the medium seems to encourage glib answers, especially in the comments section.
From: treptoplax Date: January 5th, 2007 03:16 pm (UTC) (Link)

blame Mills.

I think the disconnect here is because a lot of people are, either explicitly or more commonly through cultural osmosis Act Utilitarians; that is, they believe actions are good if they increase happiness and bad if they decrease it. Under this theory, taking an action that decreases happiness is obviously bad; if a promise is broken by not doing so, you would weigh against that the potential decrease in global happiness caused by a general decrease in trust. That is, breaking the oath is not ipso facto bad, but only because of consequences of doing so, which may well not outweigh the consequences of action.

Obviously, if you don't share that framework, and nobody is being explicit about it, confusion results.

Other forms of Utilitarianism might argue more strongly in favor of keeping one's word (eg, because it's a general rule we want everyone to follow); many non-utilitarian philosophies would have no problem saying that keeping one's word can be correct even if the consequences are clearly negative.
greyautumnrain From: greyautumnrain Date: January 5th, 2007 04:53 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: blame Mills.

Interesting. I hadn't thought of it from quite that angle.

I am not a utilitarian. On the other hand, I think that even utilitarions should think again on the balance of the equation when it comes to breaking your word and the resulting decrease in trust. I will be the first to admit that I value trust much more highly than most people, but I believe that I am correct in that valuation and I think more people would agree with me if they thought through the long term consequences. Societies are largely built on trust, damaging that trust has long term consequences that are not immediately obvious.

One of the things I was thinking about in relation to this whole discussion was the war of the roses. I know it seems odd to be thinking about a 15th century war in the context of the legal machinations around the gay marriage ammendment, but that's just how my mind works. You see psychohist had made a remark about his old fashionedness when it comes to his take on oathes. It occurred to me that for people in power or those who aspire to it breaking an oath as a means to what they consider a favorable end is nothing new. And that's how I arrived at the war of the roses. In 15th century England things had been pretty going pretty well, and no one disputed the Lancastrian kings even though the house of York had a claim they could make. Then came Henry VI, who was not so bright and there was a period of bad governance largely due to his advisors being far more interested in their own well being than that of the kingdom. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time for the Warwick to violate his oath of fealty and back the Yorkists against the Lancastrians. Pretty soon no one was keeping to their oaths and the results were bloody. Pretty soon you couldn't trust anyone, as was illustrated in 1483 when the younger son on the late Yorkist king had his two nephews murdered in the tower so that he could claim the throne for himself, and act so outrageous that the many of the remaining members of both houses joined forces against him.

Now obviously one politician violating his oath of office is probably not going to cause another war of the roses. But when a person's word ceases to mean anything people become untrustworthy, and in a climate of untrustworthy people it tends to be that the least trustworthy gain the most power, and when that happens bad things follow.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: January 5th, 2007 06:12 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: blame Mill?

I was thinking the same thing. I hope it's implicit, because in my opinion they tend to miss a few things that they should catch if they were thinking explicitly about it. From the standpoint of evaluating the consequences of their acts, they miss the fact that not everyone has the same preferences they do, acting as if everyone shared their personal utility functions; as a result, their actions only tend to increase the happiness of themselves and other similar people, while decreasing the happiness of people different from themselves. From the standpoint of philosophical structure, they miss the fact that promises don't make sense from a utilitarian standpoint: nonbinding promises don't change the actual state of the world, so they can't make things better. From the standpoint of practical consequences, they miss the fact that western society is largely built upon the keeping of promises - contracts - even when it becomes personally unfavorable to keep them.

I think a real utilitarian - by which I mean one who understands what he's doing, rather than just following a set of habits that aren't really thought out - wouldn't bother with promises at all; after all, when it comes time to decide whether to actually follow through on the promise, they should be acting on the state of the world at that time and ignoring the promise, so the promise is meaningless.

Promises and contracts only make sense within a contractarian philosophical framework. Here, of course, the utilitarian framework is rejected, either as unworkable or as philosophically unsound. I think the confusion arises more from lack of understanding of contractarian philosophy on the part of naive utilitarians than lack of understanding of utilitarian philosophy on the part of people who think promises should be kept.

So how do you think Mill fits in - because of his connection to utilitarianism, or because he caused the confusion? I'm inclined to the latter view; Mill broke from previous utilitarian thinkers such as More and Bentham in advocating a degree of liberty incompatible with true utilitarianism, but he failed to see the incompatibility for what it was, papering over the inconsistency with his framework of "qualitatively different" types of utility. Put another way, he was trying to rehabilitate utilitarianism by force fitting values like liberty that more naturally emerged from contractarian theories as examined by people like Locke.
From: treptoplax Date: January 5th, 2007 08:41 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: blame Mill?

No, nothing so clever; I was just using Mill as a placeholder for utilitarianism, because formulations of the form of "Blame (dead white guy)" amuse me.

IMAO: Come to think of it, if I were actually assigning blame, I'd probably pin it on Rousseau, who I would put in the vanguard of the phenomenon you mention as 'miss the fact that western society is largely built upon the keeping of promises'.

I'll admit to being a bit fuzzy on the thinkers of that period and my own mind, though, so YMMV, void where prohibited.

kirisutogomen From: kirisutogomen Date: January 6th, 2007 05:14 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: blame Mill?

I clearly don't understand what you mean by utilitarianism.

I think I am a utilitarian, and I believe in the value of nonbinding promises, because I believe that they do change the state of the world. They change what other people expect me to do, which in turn affects their actions.

It sounds like your utilitarian is incredibly shortsighted, and isn't taking account of the outcomes of his actions except for outcomes that are immediate and absolutely certain.
dcltdw From: dcltdw Date: January 5th, 2007 04:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
I am tempted to infer from your post that you believe in absolutes, although that's probably an important enough question that it warrants being clarified by being asked explicitly.

For me, I used to. I try not to anymore.

Hmm, I fear I have wandered quite far from your post. :) Right, back on topic:

For me, breaking an oath is a big deal.
So then we get to the part that disturbed me, the part where a friend seemed to say that he thought it was better to violate his oath than his personal ethics.

How are these inconsistent? To me, they are not.

Of course, I'm possibly picking your words out-of-context; you immediately then follow with:

Perhaps that statement doesn't seem like a nonsequiter to everyone else, but personally I find it hard to imagine a personal code of ethics that does not have keeping one's solemn word right up there at the top.

...and that's how I arrived at my opening question.

If you believe in absolutes, then once you've decided that Something is So, then Thus it Stays -- and yes, if one subscribes to that, then oaths are inviolate and I see where you're coming from.

I picked the first sentence ("breaking an oath is a pretty big deal") because that's not a bad summary of how I feel. Are oaths inviolatable (is that a word?) to me? No. Are they a pretty big deal? Ha, what an understatement. But there's a difference between 0.99999 and 1.0, if you see my analogy.

I guess I don't believe people when they say they will Always Alawys or Never Ever do something: sure you would, because everyone has a breaking point. But I totally believe when people say that something is Really Really Really Really Important. Except that it's undesirably comical to say "Really Really Really Really Important", so saying "oath" is better.

So to people who believe in absolutes, they'll look at me and think, "wait... you would break your solemn promise?" Whereas I would listen to someone giving their oath and think, "you gave me your solemn promise, and since I trust you, I know you won't break it unless something really really really really dire comes up." Which is not at all a cynical thing (*cough* trust me, I could share my cynical thoughts on some people's promises), but rather, a recognition that I cannot foresee what will occur.
enugent From: enugent Date: January 5th, 2007 05:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think the disconnect occurs because you didn't appear to be giving any particular weight to the oath-breaking aspect of following your ethics in your post - just to how they might affect your hypothetical political career.
greyautumnrain From: greyautumnrain Date: January 5th, 2007 06:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
What the other Elizabeth said.

In the comments on the other thread, you don't seem to take any notice of the oaths being violated. Instead you frame it only in terms of politcal capital. Here's where I think you sum up your position most clearly:

To me, the greater imperative is to treat everyone equally, but if the cost is great personal loss (namely, my career), then I'd prolly chicken out (see above reality check), at which point, I'd hide behind the cloak of upholding the rule of law.

You say now that you think breaking an oath is a big deal, I got the sense that you didn't seem to appreciate that doing so was the very issue that bothered most of the rest of us when it came to the question of the legislature possibly avoiding voting on the ammendment. You also didn't seem to appreciate the fact that the act of voting itself would not cause the ammendment to be passed and for people to be treated unfairly, that won't happen unless the thing gets a majority vote in a general election. Its not a simple case of breaking an oath to prevent an injustice, the injustice is only a possibility.

So I take that to mean that you want to do the right thing (cause people to be treated equally), but you seem to have no appreciation of the fact that if you were one of the politicians in question you would have had to take an oath of office. I don't know the exact text, but I believe the standard formula includes upholding the constitution. I don't think they let you take office unless you swear the oath, so no matter what you personally think of the oaths, in order to be in this position you would have had to have taken one.

I don't think anyone involved in this discussion is silly enough to swear that they will always of never do something without lots and lots of consideration. I don't know where you're coming up with the absolute stuff from. Swearing to uphold the law and the constitution is a pretty narrow and not terribly absolute oath to take. So is defending the constitution of the United States, though as psychohist it has some scary implications if you're a submariner. Are you saying that psychohist and countertorque were kidding themselves when they swore to defend the constitution? You don't have to be an absolutist to do that and mean it. People who take oaths and take them seriously are very careful about exactly what they swear to so that they don't put themselves in the situation of swearing to an absolute.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: January 5th, 2007 06:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
I guess I don't believe people when they say they will Always Alawys or Never Ever do something: sure you would, because everyone has a breaking point.

Do they? While in the minority, there have been plenty of people who refused to break promises even while being tortured to death. What was their breaking point?
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: January 6th, 2007 05:08 pm (UTC) (Link)

A different digression

In legal contracts, there's the idea that a contract in which one side gets or provies nothing isn't as enforceable as one in which both sides get/provide things (tirinian probably knows more accurately what I think I mean.)

I think that oaths often end up feeling the same way. That is, harrock and I swore "til death do we part". But if one day he told me "by the way, I'm moving to Nevada to live with three starlets. You can come and be the fourth, or stay here, I don't care", or something else equally implausible, and none of my convincing changed his mind, then eventually I'd feel that he had violated his half of the bargain that I was no longer compelled to keep my half, and that I was justified in divorcing him. The oaths we swore are, to some extent, defined by the seriousness with which we both take them.

Oaths of office, and other one-sided oaths, in which one person swears to do something, but there's no other-sided oath, end up without that countering oath to be true to. I'm not saying that means they're automatically justified in being broken, but I think people do end up judging them based on "how seriously are other people taking this?". Certainly I've been given the impression that people who swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in a court of law, frequently do not actually keep that oath very well, and the people familiar with the system are familiar with that flaw, so they don't take it very seriously as an oath either.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: January 7th, 2007 12:33 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: A different digression

True about the legal contracts.

Oaths of office do have an "other side", though: you get any benefits attached to the office, such as perhaps a salary. More subtly, you get the opportunity to do work that benefits society as a whole, rather than just your part of it. Finally, as Dave pointed out (possibly in another thread?) you are generally allowed to resign the position and be released from the oath.

As for the court oath, my impression is that lying on the stand is very rare, which I'm a bit surprised at. Then again, in the U.S., one can generally refuse to testify.
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: January 7th, 2007 02:49 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: A different digression

That's true, oaths of office do have the perks of office associated with them too; oaths taken when testifying don't so much (other than the general "we have a legal system that mostly works" perk). My impression from tirinian is that lying on the stand is not so uncommon, and that prosecution for perjury is incredibly rare.
Also, there's things like testifying before Congress, which I tend to think of as being done by people who do this sort of thing more often than random witnesses to crimes do. That sort of testimony is under oath, and those seem to have a lot of "I don't recall" given as answers, which is (I personally believe in those cases) untrue but nigh unto unprovable; my inference is that the people testifying that way are not necessarily lying any more than the naive testifyers, they've just gotten better at lying safely.
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