View Full Version : It Ain't Your Word, It's Who You Give It To

01-08-2004, 11:10 AM
Inspired by the discussion in this thread (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=233533) (which contains spoliers for the movie "The Magnificent Seven,) the question of giving your word to a scoundrel came up.

Labdad quoted this dialog from Pike (William Holden) and Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) in The Wild Bunch:

Dutch: Damn that Deke Thornton to Hell!
Pike: What would you do in his place? He gave his word.
Dutch: Gave his word to a railroad.
Pike: It's his word!
Dutch: That ain't what counts. It's who you give it to!

This is a quandry that fictional heros face, and fictional villains gloat over: the good guys keep their word, and the bad guys betray theirs. This puts the good guys at somewhat of a disadvantage in making deals with the bad guys.

In the Robert Parker Spenser series, both Spenser and Hawk are portrayed as utterly honorable men, for whom doing what they say they will is very important. Yet both have suffered no crisis of conscience when lying to bad guys to achieve the ultimate right result. (Hawk sets up King Powers in Mortal Stakes, for example).

The specific fictional illustrations aren't the point -- if they were, this would be in CS.

The GD is: in real life, does the necessity for keeping your word depend on who you give it to?

- Rick

01-08-2004, 11:57 AM
"...does the necessity for keeping your word depend on who you give it to?"

In my opinion, the answer is no. It's your word. It's your character and reputation at stake (if you care about giving your word and not holding true to that), not the character and reputation of theperson you've given it to.

But, wouldn't it depend on the situation in which you give your word, in RL, as well?

I mean, I could be attacked by a rapist and give my word that I would not call the police once they left if they would just let me live - - G-d knows I'd be dialing 911 ASAP.

However, if I give my word to say, someone I care about who has asked that I, for example, keep something in strict confidence, I would keep my word.

My ex-husband asked that I "keep my word" that I would not tell his best friend's wife that said best friend had an affair, even after we divorced. I think my abusive ex-husband, is a piece of s$#* (although I have forgiven him, I feel for his current wife), I still have kept my word (and I, at one time, loathed his best friend...and didn't care for the wife much either...though I felt the fact he had cheated on her was horrible and that he was a low-life coward).

:) Yogini

Captain Amazing
01-08-2004, 12:00 PM
I think, assuming you give your word freely, you have an obligation to keep it. If you're threatened or coerced, then you don't.

However, there might be circumstances where breaking your word is a lesser evil than what you need to do to keep it. (One example in real life, while an extreme one, might be of a soldier in a evil regime. He takes an oath to serve his country and government, and to obey orders, but he might then be ordered to kill innocent people or commit war crimes. Another, from the bible, is the story of Jepithah, who promises to sacrifice the first thing that he sees to God when he arrives home. Unfortunately, his daughter runs out to meet him.) In a circumstance like that, while you're still wrong to break your oath, you have to, because you're more wrong to keep it.

John Mace
01-08-2004, 12:14 PM
Would you lie to ObL in order to capture him? I would.

01-08-2004, 12:24 PM
The GD is: in real life, does the necessity for keeping your word depend on who you give it to?
I agree that it depends more on the circumstances surrounding the promise than on the character of the giver or receiver. Whenever a promise is made, (IMO, as is the entirety of this post) a form of contract is assumed by both parties, wherein the terms are usually but not always implicit in the type of promise being given. In many cases, the promise is provisional on some aspect of the status quo; if that aspect changes, and particularly if it is altered by the receiver of the promise, then it may be entirely reasonable for the promise-giver to feel released from his/her "word".

Or not. It depends on so many variables, it's probably safe to view any absolute commitment to one's word amost as ethically unsound as a complete disregard for one's word.

01-08-2004, 04:38 PM
Isn't this a rather old debate in new form? Usually, I hear it phrased like this: You're in Nazi Germany. You're hiding Jews in your attic. The blackshirts knock on your door and ask if you have Jews. Say yes, and they're dead, and probably so are you. Say no, and maybe you can keep them safe, but you're a liar.

Me, I lie like a rug in that situation. Where's the debate?

01-08-2004, 04:52 PM
"No, I don't have any juice."

See, you just didn't answer their question. :D

01-08-2004, 05:16 PM
A lighter example of this is the last season of survivor. The winner had to lie at one point "on her children" to trick the other alliance into trusting her.

However, no one who watched the show would fault her for it, because the person she was lying to was "Johnny Fairplay" who was by far the most deceiving, un-abashed liar the show had ever seen.

01-08-2004, 05:31 PM
Everyone lies. Everyone. So the differences between our individual codes of morality really only differ in how often we lie, and in what circumstances we'll lie in.

I don't have a problem lying to most people about just about anything, but its usually easier to tell the truth, so i do in most cases. Sometimes lying is easier, and in most of those cases I'll lie without regret. The only time I'll tell the truth when it's easier to lie is if I am talking to someone I trust and respect.

Basically the level of respect I have for you is the extent to which I'll go out of my way to keep a promise or tell the truth for you. That's all I expect or ask from anyone else, either.

01-08-2004, 05:35 PM
Originally posted by pravnik
"No, I don't have any juice."

See, you just didn't answer their question. :D

It doesn't work in German:

Ne, ich habe keine Juden.


Ne, ich habe keine Saft.

01-08-2004, 06:45 PM
If I gave my word to a scoundrel, I would feel honor bound to keep it. I'd also probably never give it to him again! To me, the content of my character has nothing to do with the character of others. Is another person's lack of moral fiber supposed to make me shed some of mine? No, at least not the way I live my life. My word of honor is very much my bond, and I'm careful of whom I give it to and the circumstances under which I give it. I will not give it lightly, but when I do, I will do everything I can to keep it. It's that simple, and that absolute.


01-08-2004, 08:26 PM
Those who aren't worthy of getting your "word" wouldn't have accepted it anyway. Someone's willingness to accept another at their word is a reflection of their own trustworthiness and moral rectitude. A Nazi looking for Jews isn't going to ask for your word. They'll ask if your harboring Jews and then decide whether to believe you or not. In the event that they did ask for my word, I would weigh the dishonor of lying versus the honor of saving an innocent person. The Jew wins.

01-08-2004, 08:55 PM
Good question Bricker. I have a tough time with this one.

On the one hand, you really can't play chess with a chimpanzee. That is, honor and integrity is a two way street and the morality is kind of a lowest common denominator thing.

Sometimes I think the best way to be is attempt to be just a little bit more moral, one notch up, than the person you are dealing with.

Sometimes I think morality is an absolute.

I'm kind of schizophrenic on this.