This oath, I swear. Until I swear something else.
June 26, 2013 9:55 AM   Subscribe

How did classical philosophers or ethicists handle the fact that attachment to oaths, creeds, promises, allegiances, etc, can (and often must) evolve and change over time? You swear an oath and uphold it until such time as you discard it for something better or more useful. Did any famous philosopher ever outline how that process should work when it's appropriate?
posted by Cool Papa Bell to Grab Bag (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

Matthew 5:

33 "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.'
34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne;
35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.
36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.
37 All you need to say is simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

posted by tel3path at 10:03 AM on June 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

There were three sayings carved into the temple of the oracle of Delphi. Two are cornerstones of Western thought: "know thyself" and "nothing in excess." The third is (as I learned it) "make a pledge or offer security, and trouble will surely follow" (wikipedia says "make a pledge and mischief is nigh"). So, at some point, it must have been a serious consideration, even before Matthew.
posted by kimota at 10:32 AM on June 26, 2013

There's an In Our Time episode that you might find relevant: The Oath
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the importance of the oath in ancient Greece and Rome, The importance of oaths in the Classical world cannot be overstated. Kings, citizens, soldiers, litigants all swore oaths, inviting divine retribution if they proved false to their word. Oaths cemented peace treaties, they obliged the Athenian citizenry to protect their democracy, they guaranteed the loyalty of the Roman army to its Emperor and they underpinned the legal systems of Athens and Rome.
The link is to the streaming version, but it is also available as a downloadable podcast.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 11:17 AM on June 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure if I have understood you correctly, but to some extent it sounds as though looking at deontological (loosely speaking, rules based) morality versus something more relativistic like utiliatarianism or virtue ethics, would cover the kinds of conversations in moral philosophy that deal with changing societal norms and values, and how to respond to them. They also consider the role of circumstances in informing moral actions. Those terms may help you google further. You want to compare guys like Kant to guys like Bentham.
posted by jojobobo at 3:39 AM on June 27, 2013

Response by poster: Deontological ethics gets me halfway there. I'm interested in what's happens when the rules break down or change or get discarded. If Kant says everyone must act according to their duties, what does he say about the guy that wakes up one day, rubs his eyes and goes, "You know, this duty is kind of silly, so fuck it, let's do something else."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:49 AM on June 27, 2013

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