Keeping and breaking promises

Sebastian asked:

What did Thomas Hobbes meant when he wrote “Just words, if they are of the time to come, and contain a bare promise, are an insufficient sign of a free-gift and therefore are not obligatory. For if they are about the time to come, as ‘tomorrow I will give,’ they are a sign I have not given yet. And consequently that my right has not been transferred, but it remains until I transfer it by some other act.”?

Why exactly am I relieved from the responsibility of a promise if that promise happens to be the giving of a free gift? Yes, it is true that I would be talking about a future time, but If were to make that assertion, how am I not bound to make sure that the next day I actually give the other person the thing I was talking about?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

This is not as difficult as you seem to believe. The passage echoes an old dictum, “You are what you do, not what you say.” It reflects the unfortunate fact that we humans are inveterate babblers and may well babble out promises at any time which we either can’t keep, or have no intention of keeping, or find impossible to keep when it comes to the crunch. Hobbes’ point is therefore, that a promise is in the final analysis merely a bundle of words, and words are not acts. But the execution of a promise is an act; and until this is performed, judgement must be suspended on the degree of force or validity behind a promise.

Accordingly there are three sides to this issue, the moral, the legal and the pragmatic. In the moral domain, especially politics, promises are broken galore, as you well know. “Circumstances alter cases” is one common excuse; another is that the person is simply dishonest and one has to live with that (i.e. never believe them again or perhaps retaliate?). Here Kant’s categorical imperative is a tough guideline; but in essence it says a promise must be kept, as the phrase “I give my word” is supposed to carry that person’s honour. That’s fine for philosophers, as well as feudal lords and vassals, but babblers don’t have much honour to protect. And therefore for Kant to say: Always behave in such a manner that a legislator following your footsteps could convert your decision into a law, is a stiff demand which most average people could never aspire to.

Which brings us to the legal side, which differs in that society may have conventions in place that make the breaking of certain kinds of promises legally punishable. Among them are such as marriage promises, payment by cheque, things pawned or borrowed, contracts and many other kinds of commitment. These are matters where responsibility is ultimately taken out of individual hands and lodged with the law.

Hobbes’ remarks can also be interpreted in the light of pragmatism. Promises can be of two kinds: casually spoken and bindingly spoken. If there are no witnesses to the former, the intended receiver has no recourse, in part because legally he/she cannot go and take the thing promised without being accused of theft. Conversely the intended receiver cannot sue to promiser for theft, if the gift was withheld. Whereas binding promises are usually made in front of witnesses, or in form of a signed declaration, which is an altogether different matter, because the giver can then indeed be sued. We can see the crucial difference here, that the identical memory of at least two person carries much weight; but the most weight is carried by a signature, because when the gift is not given, the signature can deputise for the act and the giver be forced to surrender it or make appropriate compensation.

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