The other day I was thinking about promises. What are they? Why are they important? What should I do in regard to promises, both kept and unkept? What may I hope for?
Promises are possibly one of the least contestable concepts in society. A promise is a verbal agreement to do something at some point. The particular details may vary, but from a very general standpoint, it’s a very simple concept. Why do we make promises however? The superficial reasons are myriad, but what they seem to boil down to is the inability or desire to perform something at a later time as opposed to the now. What they do is either reify or defame character as it’s been previously established, either by filling the promise for the former or leaving the promise unfulfilled as the latter.
We ought to ensure that our promises are filled, as they provide us with good character which can be socially banked on. Someone who fills their promises is demonstrated to be of a reliable character, and conversely an unfulfilled promise will cause one to rethink the character of the person making the promise.
Trustworthy is a noble goal, therefore we should keep our promises, as if we are expect others to be trustworthy we must expect ourselves to be trustworthy as well, acting as though “according to this maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” (Kant 34).
What do we do when someone doesn’t keep a promise however? What are our available options? As Kant asks in his Critique of Pure Reason, “1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope?” (735)
We know what a promise is, but what ought we to do?
Ultimately, no action may be the wisest choice of action, as it avoids the majority of pitfalls that would arise out of this situation. Were you to discuss it with them, either they are at fault or they are at fault. Which is to say when you make a promise, it should be made with the intent of keeping it and any reason for it (disbarring legitimate reasoning, if one promises to run a charity marathon then loses their legs in a car accident, it should be noted that there is no possible way they could be expected to run the marathon). If it is an action that must necessarily be completed, complete it yourself and understand that this is a display of their character, and choose your future actions with this piece of knowledge in mind.
After we have gone so far as to choose no course of active action, what can we hope for? We can hope the person recognizes that they have broken a promise, however I doubt the likeliness of that situation. If they were aware, they most likely wouldn’t have broken the promise, as I firmly agree with Plato in Protagoras that, “This inferiority of man to himself is merely ignorance, as the superiority of a man to himself is wisdom.” (426). Were the reprobate more knowledgeable, they wouldn’t have left a promise hollow.
It thus seems unreasonable to allow the person to go on unaware of their transgression, acting as Socrates may have, we should try to encourage that they be aware of themselves, and their relation to the world around them. What we can hope for, and possibly act as a catalyst toward is their own improvement of their character.
Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: Revised Edition. Translated by Mary Gregor and Jens Timmermann, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Hackett Publishing Company, 1996.
Plato. Essential Dialogues of Plato. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005.