In politics people don’t always keep Centurian Pest Control. From 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 vowed 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 afterwards shaped by expediency and compromise.
But what about the critical promises we make in our personal lives? Those made to people we know concerning all kinds 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 home to you because a better offer came along. There’s not any simple way of you proving in law which you have been gazumped if I signed nothing.
However, usually a person, who is in breach of contract, is liable to compensate another party.
But non-legal promises may also be difficult to escape from. Who wants to be viewed as unreliable for not keeping their word? A reputation as an honest person is easily lost and hard to regain. The world is quick to judge.
The question about breaking or keeping one’s promises usually relates to non-contracted promises. What is the importance of others and yourself 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 indicates that claims should be kept’unless they are worth less to others than a new option would be to you.’ He reckons this takes a relevant, unforeseen and reasonably unforeseeable change in the circumstance. A change that is judged to be more important than the guarantee itself. Rash promises made in a state of excitement or on in the impulse of the moment are an obvious case in point. On the other hand, some of us are specialists in self-justification to suit our needs. Deciding the rights and wrongs about changing one’s mind is probably often quite complex. What greater principles might help our decision making?
We don’t believe our social duties as promises because they are not ordinarily spelt out. By way of 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 might change in our sense of patriotic ties into our nation. However, people normally have some degree of commitment towards people they work, play and live with.
In his book The Soul of the World, philosopher Roger Scruton has pointed out that several of the relations that 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 this not based on what we can necessarily get from it. This implicit guarantee varies in strength according to how close we are to the person.
Oaths and vows as promises
Courts of justice expect particular honesty from people giving testimony. Traditionally, what is sacred is linked to the notion of God. For many people today, what’s sacred could be the principle or believer of state the life force in nature, virtue, compassion, truth, or beauty. In giving an oath, we call upon some thing sacred to bear witness to what we are saying to demonstrate our sincerity.
Compared to an oath, when making a vow we’re making our promise to and thus directly addressing some entity that we venerate. So, there’s now a heightened commitment and risk of betrayal if we don’t keep our promise.
In prison camp, the most important prayer was,’Get me home alive, God, and I will 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)
Folks make what they believe as other sacred vows e.g. to uphold justice, defend their country, and a few make vows of poverty, chastity or abstinence from alcohol. Breaking solemnly made claims of this sort may have enormous consequences for one’s sense of honor and well-being.
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 may 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
Would breaking a promise to someone make great sense in the longer run, be in keeping with personal integrity or fulfill a greater need? Or would it merely fulfill the demands of the moment, destroy a trusting relationship, or be self-serving?