In politics people don’t always keep their promises. In the 2010 election to the House of Commons, all the Liberal Democrat Party candidates took a pledge to oppose any increase in university tuition fees and to campaign for their abolition. However, after forming a coalition government with the Conservatives, 21 of 57 Liberal Democrat MPs voted to increase the fees.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama vowed repeatedly during 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 realize 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 sorts of matters. Is it okay to break our own promises?
The law doesn’t always enforce promises. I might renege on a verbal agreement to sell my house to you because a better offer came along. There is no easy way of you proving 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 can also be difficult to get out of. Who wants to be seen as unreliable for not keeping their word? A reputation as an honest person 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 significance for oneself and others and the circumstances in which one considers breaking them?
In his book How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time, Iain King suggests that promises should be kept ‘unless they are worth less to others than a new option is to you.’ He reckons this requires a relevant, unforeseen and reasonably unforeseeable change in the situation. A change that is judged to be more important than the promise 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, some of us are experts in self-justification to suit our desires. Deciding the rights and wrongs about changing one’s mind is probably often quite complex. What higher principles might help our decision making?
We don’t consider our social obligations as promises because they are not ordinarily spelt out. For example, most of us probably feel a strong debt to our parents and duty to our children. Many feel a responsibility to support their favourite charitable body.
We may vary in our sense of patriotic ties to our country. However, people usually have some level of commitment towards those they work, play and live with. For many of us reasonable feelings of guilt can arise when we go against this ethic.
In his book The Soul of the World, philosopher Roger Scruton has pointed out that many of the relations that are most important to us involve a kind of unconditional giving to the other person. An attitude of expecting something back but not demanding it. In other words, we behave 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 out of it. This implicit promise varies in strength according to how close we are to the person. We will want to think twice before breaking it. It helps protect society against the forces of selfish desire.
Oaths and vows as promises
Courts of justice expect special 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 connected to the idea of God. For many people today, what is 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 are saying to show our sincerity.
In contrast to an oath, when making a vow we are making our promise to and thus directly addressing some entity that we venerate. So, there is now a heightened commitment and risk of betrayal if we don’t keep our promise.
“All I did was pray to God, every day. In prison camp, the main prayer was, ‘Get me home alive, God, and I’ll seek you and serve you.’ I came home, got wrapped up in the celebration, and forgot about the hundreds of promises I’d made to God.” Louis Zamperini (World War II veteran, and Olympic distance runner)
People make what they consider as other sacred vows e.g. to uphold justice, defend their country, and some make vows of poverty, chastity or abstinence from alcohol. Breaking solemnly made promises of this sort might have huge consequences for one’s sense of honour 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 starting to fall out of fashion. Instead prenuptual agreements are starting to emerge. You can re-negotiate such a contract. One might wonder if a society no longer insists on the vows of marriage, does it offer less security to the children of such relationships?
Conclusion about promises
The rights and wrongs of breaking a promise seems to me to hang on our motivation. Would breaking a promise to someone make good sense in the longer run, be in keeping with personal integrity or meet a higher need? Or would it merely meet the demands of the moment, destroy a trusting relationship, or be self-serving?
Copyright 2018 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems