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Why swear on a Bible?

20th May 2012

I just read an article by a barrister arguing that it was an anachronism to swear oaths in court, and unjustly privileged the religious. Instead, he claimed, everyone should solemnly affirm by whatever they most highly value, which is all that an oath comes down to, anyway.

I take it he does not practice at the criminal bar.

His speciality in ethics seems too high-minded for that. Because it's obvious that the great majority of people who perjure themselves in court, or who lie under affirmation, do so precisely to protect something that they value greatly. There must be the occasional psychopath who lies in court just out of habit, or for the sheer hell of it, but most lying witnesses and perhaps all lying defendants have much more practical motives.

Now, it's no use whatever to say that people ought to value other things – let's call them values, for short – rather than their own self-interest. Perhaps they ought to, but they often don't. If all the courts had to deal with were honest misunderstandings there would be very little need of law. Nor is it clear where this binding "ought" comes from in the first place. (For the avoidance of predictable comments, I am not claiming that the "ought" must come from religion; just that it doesn't come from reason). It's hard to see how you could persuade a dedicated follower of Ayn Rand, for example, that it is wrong to lie in court even when telling the truth would have unpleasant consequences.

Andrew Brown | The Guardian

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