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The Illusions of an Oath

Illusions of an OathDo you think taking an oath makes a person more reliable? For me, the short answer is “no.” Either someone is honest and has integrity in what they do and say, or they don’t. Taking an oath doesn’t change that. But I think it might be good to discuss some examples of oaths, past and present, and what they might have meant and what they typically mean now.

The etymology of our English word oath is obscure, according to my Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Ed. It might have been derived from a Celt word meaning “to go” or “to advance.” Nowadays, it is understood to mean a ritualistic declaration to speak the truth or be faithful to someone or something. The most common public venue for this is being “sworn in” to a government position, either to lead or to follow.

Privately, people use the same concept, but tend to only use the vocabulary “swear to it,” or something like that. The idea is that somehow a simple yes is not believable or valid. This is probably the case because too many people are liars or have conveniently bad memories about what they have said.

Practically, there may be a reason to have a clear signal that an agreement has been reached. Discussions and communication are fraught with the perils of misunderstanding. It can be useful for everyone involved if some unique word or action indicates that it is time to validate a final agreement. This is one reason writing and signing contracts is common.

Having witnesses is another way to increase mutual remembrance of agreements. Even without anything in writing, knowing that other people are aware and watching can put the right kind of pressure on people to be reliable. However, even in these cases, a clear signal for everyone to witness can help. It shouldn’t be something like scratching your nose or blinking, because those are motions that are commonly made at random. But something like shaking hands or exchanging sandals is more definite.

Agreements between parties work best when there is a proximity and capability to observe the results. Such agreements also imply an equality of status, such that both parties can equally go before their common associates to ask for support. Reputations are more important between equal members of a community and by such things even less honorable men can be influenced to be reliable.

Government types of oaths take these ideas and twist them in a number of ways. When a position of power is taken by someone, they are supposed to swear an oath, probably both to a legal document of some kind and to the group of people under the declared jurisdiction. (Let us lay aside for now the fact that many of the people is such groups have not agreed to and are not seeking anyone to fulfill such a role to control their lives.) Almost immediately upon taking such an oath, the person is then given some degree of power over the people. This is not the kind of agreement between people that lends itself to mutual benefit or equality of contract.

Besides the power, there is usually secrecy, or at least proceedings not easily accessible to or influenced by most of the people affected by them. For some reason, the special oath is often believed to mean the people in government can be trusted with power and secrecy. Because, what could go wrong when you give people such power and access to free money?

Those who take oaths of loyalty to work under those with most of the government power are basically signing their consciences over to someone else. Or thinking they are, because no one can really do that. We are all responsible for our own decisions.

Taking an oath to uphold laws too often leads to the law becoming more important than the people. It also leads to bizarre conclusions by enforcers when they cannot treat individual situations creatively, because they, too, might get in trouble with “the law.”

There are many instances of such government workers enjoying their own little zones of power as they represent the government … which supposedly represents the people … to keep the people obeying all the laws that people in positions of government power impose … on the people. All while they are all under oath to do what?

For all of these reasons, I am NOT impressed when I see anyone take an oath of government office, or any oath that affects me, that almost certainly 1) I haven’t agreed to, and 2) I have no way to monitor. Similarly, I don’t really care if a doctor has taken a hippocratic oath if I have no way to discern the doctor’s character and evaluate his work. The agreement with any person to provide any service or product for me has to be somehow subject to some sort of censure from me, or they can do whatever they want to me. I don’t care how many other people vote for so-and-so to have power over me. That is not an agreement I am making or that I have any real influence over. And some person taking an oath doesn’t make it all better.

For most people, I simply need their yes to mean yes, and their no to mean no. No crossed fingers behind their backs or telling me I shouldn’t have believed them because they didn’t use other special vocabulary like promise.  I don’t need anyone to swear on their grandmother’s grave or favorite book. I tend to trust people less if they feel that is somehow impressive or necessary. No one can take an oath that turns them into something they are not. No one can take an oath and thereby convince me he or she should be trusted or is looking out for me. Let me make my own agreements, no oaths needed.