Promises are a big deal. A really big deal. Could you imagine what society would be like without promises? We rely on others to do as they assure us that they’ll do. How would human relationships, including all kinds of partnerships and friendships, function without promises?
People have divergent notions of what a promise is. Despite the fact that promises are a part of every human culture, when pressed for answers we do not agree about what it means to promise, how a promise occurs, and what consequences to expect or dole out in response to a broken promise. The foggy understanding of promises adds tension to relationships. The good news is that clarifying your understanding of promises has the potential to transform and benefit your interpersonal relationships, especially if you lay your convictions bare for your partner to see. Let’s figure this out! I promise you’ll find it useful!
This week’s journal topic: Promises
What is a promise? In everyday speech, a promise is “a declaration or assurance that one will do a particular thing or that a particular thing will happen.” The strange thing about promises is that they are completely voluntary, yet totally binding, moral obligations. Merely by saying so, you attach huge significance to doing something (or refraining from doing).
There is no obligation whatsoever to make promises, but when we make them we must keep them.
Isn’t that strange? Notice that to promise is to do a purely human act – animals don’t do it. Without cultural exception, humans invent for themselves a moral order from two words: I promise.
What is a Promise (II)?
Promises are very similar to contracts. A contract is a mutual agreement that secures benefits for both people. Key concepts for the contract theory of promises are that a promise must be at least one of the following three:
(1) Rational: There must be a good reason for each actual person involved to agree. That is to say, a benefit exists for each person that entices them into agreement. It’s win-win (however small).
(2) Reasonable: What’s a reasonable promise? It’s one that most rational people would think is a good one. Would you promise to give a random stranger your kidney at great detriment to your health? Most people don’t think it’s reasonable to do so – forcing this obligation on another person sounds like moral extortion. (Some people do in fact give organs to strangers, but there is some perceived personal, moral, or religious benefit attached to this act of giving, for example, to prove your own altruism or to atone for a terrible deed, or to secure a place in Heaven.) Even if you agreed to give away your kidney in this way, it doesn’t seem like anyone can get angry if you back out at the last minute; it doesn’t seem reasonable that they could demand that you keep your promise.
(3) Just and fair: This is similar to rational and reasonable, but in a bigger-picture way. It applies to the promises we undertake by living respectfully as part of a community. Does your promise show a respect for equality? If the answer is yes, then by promising you will increase the odds that others will also treat you with respect. Although a just and fair promise might not secure you an immediate benefit, it benefits you by increasing the likelihood that others will reciprocate justice and fairness.
A promise might fit one of these criteria, or two, or even all three.
When a Promise is Not a Promise
Is a promise always related to speech? Do you have to say, “I promise,” for it to count? Not necessarily. Consider for yourself the following assurances – are they promises?
By agreeing to take on a task, you tacitly promise to do certain things. In other words, merely by taking on the task, you commit yourself to necessary acts that facilitate completing the task and that make others rely on you. For example, parents are expected to put the child’s needs ahead of their own. That is something that the government assumes you promise to do when you agree to have children. Society doesn’t make you sign a contract or pass a test. The implication too is that children have reasonable expectations that you’ll support them and make certain sacrifices.
By accepting/receiving a benefit, you make a promise to contribute. For example, no one is tracking staff contributions to the weekly doughnut fund (a jar in the breakroom). If your coworkers see you enjoying the “free” doughnuts, they would be reasonably annoyed in finding out later that you never contribute. You’re being a “free-rider”! What’s so wrong with that: participating in a system signals (promises) to other people that you will contribute. Likewise for people who massively cheat on taxes while enjoying roads and fire protection.
Not everyone agrees that there can be a promise without a vow or assurance. Some people expect that a promise must be explicit or that there’s nothing wrong with being a free-rider. This causes conflict in interpersonal relationships.
Promises as Social Tools
Maybe promising is just a social tool. Think about how we use promises to build trust. It seems like we make promises even when there is no need. Here are two ready examples:
Convenience promises: There is no important, dire need, nor reliance of one person on another. For example, in a promise such as “I promise to wash the dishes before you come home,” the stakes are low. Nobody’s dying and from the big-picture perspective, it’s nothing more than an annoyance if the dishes are still sitting in the sink. Still, making and keeping this promises would build trust by signalling an ongoing willingness to keep one’s word.
Purely beneficial promises: In these kinds of promises, there is no negative impact to the relationship if the promise is broken, only positive consequences when the promise is kept. We make promises to delight another person, knowing that they will not be disappointed if we fail. You might say that such promises are not real promises due to the lack of negative consequences, because it deflates the significance of the promise. The thinking is: “I’m not reliant on you, so it’s alright if you fail.”
But still, I think the promise is genuine because the person promising (promisor) feels a strong need to keep his word. This type of promise might be easier to understand by example. Craig and Steve are millionaires. One day he is out with his new friend Steve and Steve’s Visa doesn’t swipe. He loans his friend Steve $50, who in turn promises to pay him back. Craig has no need to see the $50 back – it would be as good as a gift, but his respect for Steve doesn’t allow him to report it that way. The next day, Steven hands him a fifty-dollar bill. Craig is delighted by the $50 and the promise being kept, but would not have noticed nor cared if Steve had forgotten. For both Craig and Steve, the promise only has a benefit.
- Do you remember any promises your parents make to you as a child, or to the family? What sorts of things were these promises about, or what need did they fill? (substitute friends, grandparents, teachers, etc. if necessary)
- Did they keep them? Or, what circumstances caused them to break them? Do these indicate a lack of capability or a lack of commitment?
- How do you think your childhood experiences with promises has influenced your current attitude towards promises? (Are you strict? Lenient? Avoidant? Skeptical?)
- How do promises help you feel more secure? Or, do you prefer that people do not make promises to you?
- When you’re in love, do you want your lover to make realistic promises (highly probably) or aspirational promises (emotionally hopeful, displaying future intentions)?
- Have you ever falsely promised (i.e. made a promise lacking capability and/or commitment)? What is one danger to yourself, the other person, and society in general?
- Do you ever explicitly ask for promises from other people? Under what circumstances and why?
How to Get the most out of Know Thyself 2019:
Don’t rush through the questions. Do one question every day, leaving space to add thoughts later as you learn and evolve. The journal is designed to help you develop a consistent, daily practice of self-reflection.
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