Effects of Oaths.

From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  There is a power and efficacy in our religion which elevates those who heartily accept it above that low moral state in which alone an oath can even be supposed to be of advantage. The man who takes an oath, virtually declares that his word would not bind him; and this is an admission which no good man should make, for the sake both of his own moral character” and of the credit of religion itself. It is the testimony even of infidelity, that “wherever men of uncommon energy and dignity of mind have existed, they have felt the degradation of binding their assertions with an oath.”1 This degradation, this descent from the proper ground on which a man of integrity should stand, illustrates the proposition, that whatever exceeds affirmation “cometh of evil.” The evil origin is so palpable that you cannot comply with the custom without feeling that you sacrifice the dignity of virtue. It is related of Solon that he said, “A good man ought to be in that estimation that he needs not an oath; because it is to be reputed a lessening of his honour if he be forced to swear.”2 If to take an oath lessened a pagan’s honour, what must be its effect upon a Christian’s purity?

  Oaths, at least the system of oaths which obtains in this country, tend powerfully to deprave the moral character. We have seen that they are continually violated,—that men are continually referring to the moat tremendous sanctions of religion, with the habitual belief that those sanctions impose no practical obligation. Can this have any other tendency than to diminish the influence of religious sanctions upon other things? If a man sets light by the Divine vengeance in the jury-box to-day, is he likely to give full weight to that vengeance before a magistrate tomorrow? We cannot prevent the effects of habit. Such things will infallibly deteriorate the moral character, because they infallibly diminish the power of those principles upon which the moral character is founded.

  Oaths encourage falsehood. We have already seen that the effect of instituting oaths is to diminish the practical obligation of simple affirmation. The law says, You must speak the truth when you are upon your oath; which is the same thing as to say that it is less harm to violate truth when you are not on your oath. The court sometimes reminds a witness that he is upon oath, which is equivalent to saying, If you were not, we should think less of your mendacity. The same lesson is inculcated by the assignation of penalties to perjury and not to falsehood. What is a man to conclude, but that the law thinks light of the crime which it does not punish; and that since he may lie with impunity, it is not much harm to lie? Common language bears testimony to the effect. The vulgar phrase, I will take my oath to it, clearly evinces the prevalent notion that a man may lie with less guilt when he does not take his oath. No answer can be made to this remark, unless any one can show that the extra sanction of an oath is so much added to the obligation which would otherwise attach to simple affirmation. And who can show this? Experience proves the contrary: “Experience bears ample testimony to the fact, that the prevalence of oaths among men (Christians not excepted) has produced a very material and very general effect in reducing their estimate of the obligation of plain truth, in its natural and simple forms.”3—“There is no cause of insincerity, prevarication, and falsehood more powerful than the practice of administering oaths in a court of justice.”4

  Upon this subject the legislator plays a desperate game against the morality of a people. He wishes to make them speak the truth when they undertake an office or deliver evidence. Even supposing him to succeed, what is the cost? That of diminishing the motives to veracity in all the affairs of life. A man may not be called upon to take an oath above two or three times in his life, but he is called upon to speak the truth every day.

  A few, but a few serious, words remain. The investigations of this chapter are not matters to employ speculation, but to influence our practice. If it be indeed true that Jesus Christ has imperatively forbidden us to employ an oath, a duty, an imperative duty, is imposed upon us. It is worse than merely vain to hear his laws unless we obey them. Of him, therefore, who is assured of the prohibition, it is indispensably required that he should refuse an oath. There is no other means of maintaining our allegiance to God. Our pretensions to Christianity are at stake: for he who, knowing the Christian law, will not conform to it, is certainly not a Christian. How then does it happen, that although persons frequently acknowledge they think oaths are forbidden, so few, when they are called upon to swear, decline to do it? Alas, this offers one evidence among the many of the want of uncompromising moral principles in the world,—of such principles as it has been the endeavor of these pages to enforce,—of such principles as would prompt us—and enable us to sacrifice every thing to Christian fidelity. By what means do the persons of whom we speak suppose that the will of God respecting oaths is to be effected? To whose practice do they look for an exemplification of the Christian standard? Do they await some miracle by which the whole world shall be convinced, and oaths shall be abolished without the agency of man? Such are not the means by which it is the pleasure of the Universal Lord to act. He effects his moral purposes by the instrumentality of faithful men. Where are these faithful men?—But let it be: if those who are called to this fidelity refuse, theirs will be the dishonour and the offence. But the work will eventually be done. Other and better men will assuredly arise to acquire the Christian honour and to receive the Christian reward.

1 Godwin: Political Justice, v. 2, p. 633.
2 Stobœus: Serm. 3.
3 Gurney: Observations, &c. c. x.
4 Godwin: v. 2, p. 634.

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