A commitment device is economist jargon for things we do to restrict our future actions so that we don’t do something that we will later regret. This is a really large set of strategies, such as throwing out excess Halloween candy so you can’t binge on it, putting your money into a retirement plan with early withdrawal penalties so you don’t waste it all before you need it, and so on.
Joining a monastic society is also a commitment device. In ancient China, it was rather difficult to get out of being a monk on account of government rules and lack of other career change opportunities. Also, having giving up your possessions, it would be hard to turn back and resume a lay life, at least not without a period of having to get along with no assets at all.
Personally, I have no interest or ability to join a monastic society. It is something of an anachronism. Modern life allows for a certain amount of leisure, so full time specialization isn’t as great a benefit as it used to be.
The precepts were also a sort of house rules, law and dispute resolution mechanism. In Christianity, that is all the rules are– some people trying to control the behavior of others for their own benefit while attributing their enforcement to supernatural powers. Buddhism, when ever it invokes karma, reincarnation and hell is also doing this. Meditating on the sutras is an active process of dividing the wisdom from the bull. If we jettison the rules created for social control, what do we have left?
I think we have left natural morality, the sort that modern biologists suspect has evolved to allow cooperative behavior. Without morality, individuals in a cooperative group could paracitize the rest via theft, murder of personal enemies, selling alcohol to the alcoholics, and so on. So morality is something that we innately would like to do and do a good job of it.
But we lapse. So precept taking can be seen a sort of commitment device. This particular one has these traditional components:
1) Regular recitation, two times a month to ensure we don’t forget the rules we want to follow.
2) Public taking of precepts. This can have two effects, one is you gain respect in your peers eyes because you have the goal– sort of like say, “I’m going to write a novel”. People think you are the smart sort who would write a novel regardless to if you follow through. On the other hand, if you say, I’m going to give up eating meat, and then you are seen eating hamburgers, you lose respect in your peers eyes because you are acting out a lack of self control.
2.5) Taking partial precepts. This signals that you actually put some consideration into which precepts you signed up for. It removes the objection, “I violated a precept because I had no choice in taking them all, including ones that I had no intention or ability to follow through with”
3) Public repentance. The fear of breaking a rule and losing face should be a serious motivator to not break the rules. However, I imagine this would have two problems. People can decide not to enumerate their infractions, since it is plausible in a given two week period, no infractions were made. The same person who worries about people thinking he holds back on confessions would instead confess to numerous trivial infractions.
4) “Criticism Pact.” Several of the precepts make it obligatory to encourage other people to confess and repent should someone know that a precept has been broken. This is somewhat muddied by other precepts that discourage criticism, which I suppose includes criticism about how poorly someone is following their precepts. If we imagine that everyone has mutually agreed to police each other’s behavior, then it becomes a commitment device. In an institution though, this could easily turn into a way for the authorities (the guru) to get the students to rat out each on infractions, especially if the guru is officially beyond reproach.
There are also modern commitment devices, many involving money. For example, one might make a “bet” with their friends, whoever eats meat first forfeits the pooled money to the others.
Anyhow, this is the most exciting line of reasoning for the naturalizing of the precepts