Why should society put such a high value to the act of taking an oath. Oath to say the truth, Oath to become a Citizen, Oath to take an office, Oath to serve a commission, etc. Oath is only as good as a person taking the oath, so what is different about a person expressing an opinion or a belief and doing it under oath? Is our society correct in accepting a higher level of integrity or commitment because of the ceremonious nature of it? After all, it is not difficult to act out an oath as a matter of convenience and not have any sincere feelings about the act.

One way to think about oaths would be to regard them as a ritualized form of promise. If so, then one aspect of these questions is: What's the significance of promises? There's a difference between saying that one plans to do something, which can certainly create reasonable expectations and moral obligations secondary to those expectations, and promising to do it, which creates moral obligations that are not secondary to and do not require any such expectations. So one purpose of oaths might be simply to create the sorts of moral duties a promise would. Whether one who makes a promise, or takes an oath, takes those duties seriously is, of course, another matter.

Another aspect of the questions is: Why should promise-making be ritualized as an oath? I can think of two kinds of answers worth exploring. One might be that the public and ritual character of oath-taking might encourage taking it seriously. (Perhaps that used to be true more so than it is now.) Another might be that the ritual form creates legal obligations as well as moral ones. It's one thing to lie and another to lie on the stand, and part of the point of the witness's oath might be (i) to create the difference and (ii) to make that difference vivid.

Read another response by Richard Heck
Read another response about Ethics