We have a new King, and a new government with its new Cabinet and new Prime Minister. Appointment to these great offices of State involves oaths, vows and pledges. What are 'oaths' or 'vows' or 'pledges' and how are they to be distinguished from promises or contracts?
I shall begin with the more familiar idea of promises. The standard philosophical account of promises was first outlined by David Hume and developed by contemporary philosophers such as John Rawls. Hume's approach to promises is an outcome of his general views on justice. These views are that there is no natural motivation in human nature which would lead us to perform just actions if these are taken singly. But experience of family life and rowing boats leads us to see the advantages of accepting certain systems of co-operation which help to rectify our confined generosities and precarious existence. Thus we have an interest in accepting systems of justice. This obligation of interest is moralised through our sympathy with the public interest.
The system of promises and contracts is one of the systems of justice and, like justice in general, it offers mutual benefits granted our self-interested natures:
...when each individual perceives the same sense of interest in all his fellows, he immediately performs his part of any contract, as being assured that they will not be wanting in theirs.
, III, II, V)
There are two essential points in Hume's account which must be stressed here: promises are essentially contractual, and they can be justified by a utilitarian theory. Following Adam Smith, I shall call this the 'jurisprudential' account of promises, and argue that it does not explain the nature of oaths, vows or pledges.
The jurisprudential account of promises, such as we find it in Hume and contemporary philosophers, involves at least the following assumptions:
that promising is essentially contractual;
that, therefore, there must always be a specific promisee;
that promises are invalid if made under duress;
that the practice of promising or contracting has utilitarian justification.
These assumptions don't fit oaths or pledges. For example, consider a witness taking the oath in a Court of Law: to tell the whole truth, etc. When a witness takes that oath, he/she is not promising the court anything but rather promising in front of the court (and God) to tell the truth. There is no specific promisee or contract.
I don't know whether medical students still take an updated oath, but if they do they are not making promises to specific patients; rather they are pledging themselves in front of their teachers to work for the benefit of their patients. That is quite different from agreeing a contract with the health board or hospital trust. Similarly, when our new King made a pledge of devoted service, he was not making a contract with us but committing himself publicly in front of the world to a life of dedicated service. There was no specific promisee.
Consider now duress. Adam Smith in the Theory of Moral Sentiments
takes the case of a highwayman who by the fear of death obliges a traveller to promise him a sum of money (TMS
, VII,iv,13). The question is whether such a promise, extorted under duress, ought to be regarded as obligatory. Smith argues that if we view the matter as a question of jurisprudence there is no problem; the traveller could not be held to be legally bound by his promise. But if we view it as a problem of morality the answer is not so easy. (Smith uses the term 'casuistry' but I shall ignore that complication in this context.) The good man might feel himself bound by the promise. It all depends on the circumstances, how much the sum was, how the traveller was treated by the highwayman, and so on.
But Smith stresses the important point that:
Whenever such promises are violated, though for the most necessary reasons, it is always with some degree of dishonour to the person who made them... Our imagination therefore attaches the idea of shame to all violations of faith, in every circumstance and in every situation... Fidelity is so necessary a virtue, that we apprehend it in general to be due even to those to whom nothing else is due, and whom we think it lawful to kill and destroy.
Classicists will know the story of Marcus Atilius Regulus, a Roman Consul (267 BC) who was captured by the Carthaginians and released on parole to negotiate a peace treaty, which he did not succeed in doing. He had made a vow to return, insisted on keeping his word, and did return to Carthage knowing he would be executed. He was executed, probably by torture.
The point emerging is that the difference between promises or contracts and oaths or pledges is the difference between a legal and a moral point of view. What is the distinction between the two points of view?
Those who write upon the principles of jurisprudence, consider only what the person to whom the obligation is due, ought to think himself entitled to exact by force; what every impartial spectator would approve of him for exacting… The casuists [moralists] on the other hand, do not so much examine what it is that might properly be exacted by force, as what it is that the person who owes the obligation ought to think himself bound to perform from the most sacred and scrupulous regard to the general rules of justice, and from the most conscientious dread, either of wronging his neighbour, or of violating the integrity of his own character. It is the end of jurisprudence to prescribe rules for the decisions of judges and arbiters. It is the end of casuistry [morality] to prescribe rules for the conduct of a good man.
Smith is therefore making a clear distinction between promises seen legally (the sphere of 'judges and arbiters') and promises seen morally (the sphere of a 'good man' who is concerned with the 'integrity of his own character'). My claim is that this is the distinction between promises in the sense of contractual agreements, and oaths or pledges. Confusion can arise because the words 'promise' or 'oath' are often used interchangeably.
Consider now the justification for promises on the one hand, and oaths or pledges on the other. Hume's position is clear. The general idea is simply that the institution of promises has grown up for mutual advantage (public utility). There may be individual cases in which keeping our word does not produce maximum utility, but even in these hard cases we ought to keep our word because otherwise we may undermine the system of promises. This utilitarian account works for business promises or contracts, but not for oaths, vows or pledges.
Smith's different sort of justification involves language which suggests Stoicism rather than utilitarianism. Thus he writes:
A brave man ought to die, rather than make a promise which he can neither keep without folly, nor violate without ignominy... Fidelity is so necessary a virtue, that we apprehend it in general to be due even to those to whom nothing else is due, and whom we think it lawful to kill and destroy.
Taking oaths or making pledges seems more in accord with a Stoic position than with a utilitarian. The justification involves self-respect and honour, although these terms may be too weak for some cases in which our very identity as moral beings is involved. It is as if through taking an oath we attempt to extend our moral self along consistent lines, or we resolve to preserve our personal identity through consistent policies. In short, taking an oath, making a vow or a pledge is a way of pinning the self on the future!
As John Locke earlier put it: 'For truth and the keeping of faith belong to men, as men, and not as members of Society' (Second Treatise on Civil Government
, chapter 11). Certainly, one cannot justify keeping a promise to a highwayman in terms of the principle of utility. On the contrary, it is arguably anti-utilitarian to honour contracts made in such circumstances. One is therefore forced back to Stoic concepts such as that of personal integrity if we are to make sense of vows, oaths or pledges. As I have already stressed, there is a confusing overlap in language – the term 'promise' being used very widely – but oaths, vows and pledges are essentially different concepts from contracts and promises. The difference is between a moral and a legal point of view.
Our new King used the terms 'pledge' and 'commitment' in his first address to the nation. I have no doubt that they are appropriate terms for him to use. But let us hope that our new politicians who make vows or take oaths as they accept the great offices of State also see these as matters of personal integrity, rather than as the business contracts with which they may be more familiar. Their views on international treaties, such as the one with the EU, are not encouraging.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow