Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Swearing In

What book would you be sworn in on if you were elected to public office?

I used to think that my answer would be, “No book.” However, a recent controversy has caused me to rethink that answer, and to offer a substitute.

The controversy concerns the fact that a Muslim, Keith Ellison, has just been elected to the House of Representatives, and that he wants to be sworn in on the Koran. Dennis Prager wrote that America gets to decide what book he gets sworn in on, and America is a Christian nation, so America says that he must take his oath on the Christian Bible.

Well, as the response to Prager’s seems to suggest, if America has chosen what book Mr. Ellison may use, then America would prefer that Ellison take his oath on whatever book he chooses. Reaction to Prager’s remarks have been strongly negative, suggesting that Prager was not, in fact, speaking for America.

He certainly was not speaking for me.

Enough has been written on this controversy that I do not think I can add much that is new and original. However, one question that got asked in the course of this debate, springing from a comment in Prager’s original article, got me to thinking about swearing-in ceremonies.

Prager wrote:

Devotees of multiculturalism and political correctness who do not see how damaging to the fabric of American civilization it is to allow Ellison to choose his own book need only imagine a racist elected to Congress. Would they allow him to choose Hitler's Mein Kampf, the Nazis' bible, for his oath? And if not, why not? On what grounds will those defending Ellison's right to choose his favorite book deny that same right to a racist who is elected to public office?

In fact, I would certainly allow a politician to choose to take his oath on Mein Kampf if that is what pleased him.

The problem here is not that a politician choose to take his oath on Mein Kampf, but that the people actually elected somebody who would take their oath on Mein Kampf. If this is the type of person that Americans are voting into office, then it has far worse problems than worrying about what books politicians are going to use. It means that a substantial part of the population is willing to vote for a Hitler worshipper.

If we want to prevent politicians from getting sworn in on a copy of Mein Kampf, the best thing to do is to make sure that nobody who would do so, who runs for public office, ever gets elected.

If we want to prevent politicians from getting sworn in on a copy of the Koran, the best thing to do is to make sure that nobody who would do so, who runs for public office, ever gets elected.

Yet, it appears that the voters of Minnesota’s 5th District does not mind being represented by somebody who prefers to be sworn in on the Koran. If they do disapprove of this, they will have an opportunity to change their mind in two years.

The ultimate question to ask Mr. Prager, then, is if he equates voting for a candidate wishing to be sworn in on the Bible with a candidate wishing to be sworn in on Mein Kampf. It appears from his article that he does. This, of course, has some very serious implications.

Anyway, enough has been written on that topic.

The question that comes to my mind, as I said at the top of this article, is, “What book would I use if I were to be sworn in as a representative of Congress?”

The answer of ‘no book’ has its problems.

Swearing-in ceremonies are substantially symbolic. They are a lot like language in that they use symbols to communicate ideas and to fix attitudes. Just as the choice of words that I pick in writing this post is fixed, to some degree, by the ideas that I wish to communicate, the choice of symbols that I bring to a swearing-in ceremony is fixed by the symbols that I wish to communicate.

One fear of refusing to use any book, particularly in this culture (which ‘speaks’ its current symbolic language) is that it may be taken to mean ‘no values’.

Here, again, I want to draw an analogy to writing. Every word that I choose in this essay I choose on the basis of a theory. I make a hypothesis that predicts and explains how a the perception of a particular set of shapes (or sounds) will be received. I make my choices on the basis of those predictions. I cannot choose any random set of symbols or sounds, assign a meaning to them, and expect others to understand that meaning right off the bat – not without some explanation.

The same is true of the symbolism in choosing ‘no book’.

For a moment, I thought about the ancient Roman method of swearing in. There is a reason – and it is not due to chance – why our word for a sworn oath (testimony) is very much like the word ‘testes’. Let us say that the Romans, who invented this ceremony long before there were bibles, did their swearing-in on something that had a great deal of value to the owner.

However, languages change over time, and I do not think that such an act would have the same type of significance that it had in Roman times.

I suppose that many theists would expect an atheist to use Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ as a bible. One could make an argument that as a representation of science and the scientific method of problem solving, such a book would have some symbolic value. Yet, in our culture the act would carry unintended meanings in the minds of a lot of people. Many would see it as a threat – an announcement that, “I wish to destroy all that is holy.” Since this is what some people will insist on hearing, then this is not something that I would want to say.

My thoughts eventually came to a book that I received in college, and that has been a constant guide to much of what I say and do since then. It is an old copy of Hurley’s Introduction to Logic.

The book is filled with important moral principles.

• Thou shalt always use true premises. Ifeth thou must use dwell in the realm of risk and uncertainty, then thou shalt include the probability of error in thine premises and carry those factors through to thy conclusion.

• When responding to thine enemy’s claim, thou shalt not attack the person of thine enemy either in words (argumentum ad hominem), nor shall thy threaten to strike, nor shall thy assault thine enemy’s person (argumentum ad bacculum), but sticketh to demonstrating either the falsity (or probability of error) of thine enemy’s premises or the invalidity of his reasoning.

• Thou shalt not lift thine opponent’s words nor his deeds out of their context so as to change their meaning, or creatith so as to attack a straw man of thine enemy’s position that lacks the strength or the solidity of thine enemy’s true arguments.

• Thou shalt not bear false witness against thine enemy.

• Thou shalt stick to the subject of the dispute, and not leadeth others astray with red herrings or other irrelevancies, so as to cloud the issue and to prevent others from thinking clearly about the subject of dispute.

• Ifeth P implies Q, and P is true, then thou shalt give thine assent to Q, even if thou doest not wish for Q to be true.

These are all very important values.

Of course, a logic book would also be missing certain values. It does not say anything explicitly about the wrongness of slavery or the immorality of killing one’s child if he should speak back to his parents, or about the wrongness of rape, or the necessity of killing those who work on the Sabbath. In fact, it does not even have a Sabbath.

However, we are free to do what those who use other books do, and say that everything is contained within our book that can be inferred from any part of the book.

This makes things particularly easy for those who follow standard religious texts. After all, it is a principle of logic that, “From a contradiction, anything can be proved.” Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear people use the contradictions in biblical text to defend any position the speaker seeks to defend.

However, it still allows the Logician to claim that his book contains any moral principle consistent with reason. According to some lines of argument (including the desire utilitarian system that I defend in this blog), much of morality can be logically inferred from the application of logic to true premises.

Hurley’s book on logic also tells us to abandon contradiction.

• Iffeth A is true, then not-A is false; and iffeth A is false, then not-A is true. Thou shalt not hold A or not-A to be both, at the same time, true and false.

That, too, is an important moral lesson.


Anonymous said...

It makes things kind of tough if you must have a belief system that makes it appropriate to swear by some holy book. Notoriously, not everyone has such a belief system.

But if I really had to choose, and if I thought the symbolism of swearing on the Bible was more than a formality, here are some good possibilities:

Galileo Galilei: The Starry Messenger

Lucretius: De Rerum Natura

David Hume: A Treatise of Human Nature.

None of the above are books whose contents one would, er, swear by. But all represent great breakthroughs in the advancement of rational thought about the universe that we find ourselves in.

The Galileo book can represent the rise of modern science. Lucretius represents an attempt at comprehensive understanding of the universe, without recourse to superstition. David Hume represents rigorous sceptical questioning of common beliefs.

They are all works that deserve to be held, in a sense, sacred. Not for their precise content, of course, but for the values that they represent.

Joe Otten said...

Perhaps the USA is heading for its Charles Bradlaugh moment.

Anyway Alonzo, why wouldn't you swear on your own book? I suspected most of the way through the post that this was going to be another plug. You ethical people are not pushy enough sometimes. :)

If swearing in is a symbolic statement of what is morally important to you, then, if you have written a book on ethics, that is likely to be the most appropriate one.

Perhaps one day every representative will write their own book and swear on it.

Anonymous said...

I would consider swearing in on a phone book, which would represent all of the people I have been elected to represent.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Joe Otten

If I choose to be sworn into office by using my own book . . .

Then what should I do if somebody brings me an argument that proves that a part of my position is incorrect? Would changing the book be consistent with my oath?

You're right, us ethical people make poor salesmen.

Anonymous said...

Easy enough and I think all those that are taking oaths of office should place their hand on a published copy of The Constitution of the United States. That is the document they are swearing to uphold and defend. It still amazes me that the swearing in ceremony doesn't take place in front of the document.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, anon. I'd just add that as a naval officer, I had no book to swear in on, just my right hand in the air (and it seemed to be enough). Of course, if, as Jesus is supposed to have said, you let your yes mean yes and your no mean no, neither book nor oath is required.

Anonymous said...

I Love the phone book idea, even more so than the constitution.
The later is the letter of the law, the former its spirit.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, looking through the comments on that article, I see a disturbing amount of acclaim; there does not seem to be nearly as much dissent as you imply, Alonzo. Maybe I didn't look far enough, but I do worry.

Joe Otten said...


I don't see why changing the book would be inconsistent with your oath, unless we interpret the oath as a promise to believe the contents of the book in perpetuity. If that is the case, all such oaths are suspect.

Any book we might swear on could contain errors, any might be revised, particularly those with living authors. Revision doesn't alter the oath that was taken although I suppose it does diminish the symbolic value of it.

I'm a little uncertian of the symbolic value of swearing on a book that is merely good and true, not sacred, anyway.

beepbeepitsme said...

That's an interesting question - which book would I swear on.

What is also interesting is the notion that swearing on a book which has no relevance to the individual is only a gesture that those who hold the book in high regard would find compelling.

So, a christian might find it compelling if I swore an oath on the bible, yet, it would not be symbolic of my ability or desire to tell the truth as far I was concerned.

Similarly, if a hindu is asked to swear on the bible, it would impress those who were christians, but would not alter the hindu's desire or need to tell the truth.

For anyone who is compelled to take an oath on a book, the book, obviously must be something relevant to them. How does one assess the relevance of any book to anyone else?

And how does one in reality ascertain that this act makes the slightest bit of difference to the intention or ability of the person to tell the truth or not to tell the truth?

Perhaps it more simpler than we think. People who are going to lie, are going to lie no matter which book they swear on. People who are going to tell the truth are going to do so, no matter which book they swear on, or if it is no book at all.