In politics people do not always keep their 24/7 Wildlife Control. In the 2010 election into the House of Commons, all of the Liberal Democrat Party candidates took a pledge to oppose any increase in university tuition fees and to campaign for their abolition. But after forming a coalition government with the Conservatives, 21 of 57 Liberal Democrat MPs voted to raise the fees.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama pledged repeatedly throughout the 2008 election to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, but the prison remained open during the entirety of his Presidency. I suspect most of us recognize that election promises have to be later shaped by expediency and compromise.
But what about the serious promises we make in our personal lives? Those made to people we know concerning all kinds of matters. Is it okay to violate our own promises?
The law does not always enforce promises. I might renege on a verbal agreement to sell my home to you because a better offer came along. There is not any simple way of you demonstrating in law that you have been gazumped if I signed nothing.
However, usually a person, who is in breach of contract, is liable to compensate the other party. The fear of having to pay out a lot money may make one keep one’s agreement.
But non-legal promises may also be difficult to escape from. Who wants to be seen as unreliable for not keeping their word? A reputation as an honest individual is easily lost and hard to recover. The world is quick to judge.
The question about keeping or breaking one’s promises usually relates to non-contracted promises. What is the importance of others and yourself and the situation in which one believes breaking them?
In his book How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time, Iain King suggests that claims should be kept’unless they’re worth less to others than a new choice would be to you.’ He reckons this takes a relevant, unforeseen and reasonably unforeseeable change in the circumstance. A change that’s judged to be more important than the guarantee itself. Rash promises made in a state of enthusiasm or on in the impulse of the moment are an obvious case in point. On the other hand, a number people are experts in self-justification to suit our needs. Deciding the rights and wrongs about changing one’s mind is probably often quite complex. What higher principles might help our decision making?
We do not believe our social obligations as promises because they are not ordinarily spelt out. For instance, most of us probably feel that a strong debt to our parents and duty to our children. Many feel a duty to support their favourite charitable body.
We might vary in our sense of patriotic ties to our country. However, people usually have some level of commitment towards people they work, live and play with.
In his book The Soul of the World, philosopher Roger Scruton has pointed out that several of the relations which are most important to us involve a kind of unconditional giving to another person. An attitude of expecting something back but not demanding it. To put it differently, we act as if we have made a promise to do good for people we know. And to do so not based on what we can necessarily get from it. This implicit promise varies in strength based on how close we are to the individual.
Oaths and vows as promises
Courts of justice anticipate particular honesty from individuals giving testimony. So, they ask them to take an oath on say the Bible as a sacred object. Traditionally, what is sacred is linked to the notion of God. For many people today, what’s sacred might be the principle or ethic of say the life force in nature, virtue, compassion, truth, or beauty. In giving an oath, we call upon something sacred to bear witness to what we’re saying to demonstrate our sincerity.
Compared to an oath, when making a vow we’re making our promise to and thus directly covering some thing that we venerate. So, there is currently a heightened commitment and risk of betrayal if we do not keep our promise.
In prison camp, the main prayer was,’Get me home alive, God, and I will seek you and serve you.’ I came home, got wrapped up in the party, and forgot about the countless promises I had made to God.” Louis Zamperini (World War II veteran, and Olympic distance runner)
People make what they believe as other sacred vows e.g. to uphold justice, defend their nation, and some make vows of poverty, chastity or abstinence from alcohol. Breaking solemnly made claims of this kind may have huge consequences for one’s sense of honor and well-being.
In our secular times in Britain, 50% of marriages fail. Prospective partners are wary of entering into a commitment for life which could end up this way. And so, marriage vows have been beginning to fall out of style. Instead prenuptual agreements have started to emerge. You can re-negotiate such a contract. One might wonder if a society no longer insists on the vows of marriage, does this provide less security to the children of these relationships?
Conclusion about promises
Would breaking a promise to somebody make great sense in the longer run, maintain with personal integrity or fulfill a greater need? Or would it merely fulfill the requirements of the moment, destroy a trusting relationship, or be self-serving?