Wednesday, June 23, 2004

I give my word

In a discussion at Times & Seasons about the moral responsibility of a soldier following immoral orders, Lyle Stamps commented:

It isn't about loyalty to commanders. It is about loyalty to your own integrity, your own word...when you affirmed your allegiance to your country & promised to serve as a soldier.

This reminds me of the famous statement by Karl G. Maeser:

I have been asked what I mean by word of honor. I will tell you. Place me behind prison walls—walls of stone ever so high, ever so thick, reaching ever so far into the ground—there is a possibility that in some way or another I may be able to escape, but stand me on that floor and draw a chalk line around me and have me give my word of honor never to cross it. Can I get out of that circle? No, never! I’d die first!

(Alma P. Burton, Karl G. Maeser: Mormon Educator, p. 71)

As a general principle, of course I agree that keeping your word is proper, right, and important. But in exceptional circumstances (such as deciding whether, as a soldier, to follow an immoral order, when you have sworn an oath to obey your superiors), it seems to me that it may be immoral to keep your word.

For example, if I had given my word that I would remain within a chalk circle, and then someone stood just outside the chalk circle and began to molest my child, I would not hesitate to break my word and step out of that circle. Honesty, important as it is, is not the highest moral value.

Of course, there are ways of attempting to avoid this dilemma, such as being extremely careful about giving our word that we will do something. Or we could add all kinds of contingency clauses to any promise: “I won't step out of this circle, unless X or Y or Z happens.” But I doubt that it is possible to avoid this kind of dilemma altogether. In a more benign example, suppose I have promised my son that I will take him out for ice cream this evening, and then another son falls and breaks his arm. Is it immoral for me to renege on my promise to my son so I can take the other to the hospital? I don't think so.


  1. The quote by Karl G. Maeser is often used when the topic of honesty is discussed. I know that prophets have used the example -- so maybe for that reason alone I should respect it?

    Still, I cringe every time I hear that quote, because it is completely hypothetical and unrealistic. Foolish promises should not be kept if greater knowledge or wisdom reveals the foolishness of the promise in the first place.

    In other words, I'd rather break a foolish promise and live than keep a foolish promise and die.

    I'm trying to imagine the legacy such a person would leave behind them. I don't think they'd be remembered as a great example of integrity. Rather, that person would become the subject of derision. I can easily picture people shaking their heads, chuckling and saying: "Remember the idiot who starved to death inside that chalk circle?!"


  2. The other common case like this is the one presented to Immanuel Kant when he insisted that lying is always wrong. What if a murderer asks you where the person they're hoping to kill has gone, and you know where the person is, and you know they're trying to kill the person? Should you lie? Kant said no, but almost everyone else thinks it's ok.

    I can think of two biblical examples relevant to this. One is Exodus 1, when the Hebrew midwives lie about Moses. The narrative doesn't condemn this and even seems to indicate approval, given the blessings on them at the end of the chapter. The other is Jephthah's vow in Judges to sacrifice the next thing to walk through the door, and it turned out to be his daughter. He kept his vow. He should never have made it. Given that he did, should he have kept it? I don't think so, and the passage seems to be treating the whole episode as evidence of the decay of moral leadership in the nation.

  3. Grasshopper: Don't forget illegal orders. One doesn't have to obey those. However, as the leftists like to point out...there is a difference between "illegal" & "immoral" ... and that they shouldn't be conflated/or try to control the (im)morality part.

    p.s. I took my 1999 BYU Graduation (B.A. in PoliSci w/University Honors) photos by the Maeser statue & created a circle made up of roses around the base. Needless to say, I was sporting a full on Bro. Brigham Beard in both of their honor.

  4. I don't think there's any necessary contradiction as long as we allow for implicit statements in every promise (which is done elsewhere in language).

    If we assume that every promise (e.g., "I promise to do X...") carries with it the implied statement "...unless it conflicts with a promise I have previously made or which is more important, in which case this new promise will be subordinate to the requirements of the earlier or more important promise."

    Then we just consider our allegiance to other principles, like preservation of life or protecting the helpless, as either previously made promises (whether from the premortal life or part of the contract of existing) or more important promises. So exiting the chalk circle to prevent starvation or to prevent child abuse is maintaining our honor by giving preference to a prior or more important promise. Not really a contradiction.

    I don't think absolute loyalty to the principal of word of honor means we have to only consider semantics while leaving out pragmatics in language. (See the Liar Paradox on Wiki for another example.

  5. Anonymous-
    Would you also call those Lamanites in the Book of Mormon who suffered death because they would not take an oath that they knew that they could not keep, to never come up again to war against the Nephites? Many would, in our day. There is a story in the bible about a warrior named Jephthah in Judges 11. He makes a foolish oath to God that, if God grants him the victory in his coming battle, he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to greet him. Likely, he expected it to be a lamb or a cow or a goat. But it was not. It was his daughter. It was his only child. But Jephthah kept his oath to God and sacrificed his daughter. I do not know the whole situation here. I do not think that God wanted his daughter to run out to Jephthah. I imagine He would have rather had a goat or a lamb run out. But I don't know. God's ways our higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). Regardless of the situation, Jephthah was expected to keep his word to God. And so shall we. Many would call him a fool for keeping that oath. I call him a fool for making it. I think that Karl G. Maser demonstrates a beautiful and true principle in the quotation mentioned. Not that he would in a hurry agree to stand in a chalk circle, but if he did, there he would remain.
    These are my views, and I apologize if I have misinterpreted or misunderstood the scriptures or other concepts or doctrines. I am trying to say that which I feel to be true, though.