Search This Blog

Monday, 26 November 2012

On promises

Let's suppose you want x. Let's suppose you expect x, whether you deserve it or not. For the sake of argument, let's assume you were promised x. Does that change anything? Are you any more entitled to get x, even if you don't deserve it, just because it was promised?

There are a lot of variables at hand, of course. The obvious answer to the last paragraph should go along the lines of "it depends" and I can already hear you complaining about my line of reasoning because the idea just jumps at you and sits there inconveniently, not letting you follow me. Let's consider it, then. On what does it depend?

Does it depend on what x is? If x is something immoral (by any given society's standards), should you be allowed to get it because it was promised? Should Adolf Hitler himself promise you a world of white domination, supposing that sort of thing tickled your fancy, are you right to want it and to expect it and to feel entitled to this white world because it was promised? (There are, of course, more down-to-Earth examples, but I don't want to deal with murky ethics right now). If x stands for everything right in this world, does that entitle you to get it? If God himself were to promise world peace (like so many of his followers do), should you feel cheated if the war goes on? I'm exaggerating only a little with my examples, as far as their scope goes, but you should get the idea. What if x is something seemingly unimportant, in the big scheme of things? What if you had come to expect a piece of candy offered on a silly bet between friends? 

"Well, you get upset on different levels" seems to be the answer. Of course you do. You wouldn't get as upset at your friend for forgetting the bet as you would at your Führer if he couldn't give you a world of sunlight-challenged people. Or perhaps you would. I really wouldn't know. You should probably bear with me and agree that there's a difference if you're going to keep reading.

Does it depend on who promises x? Of course you can't get mad at God if we don't get world peace, it's people who can't follow His teachings that make a mess of everything! You get at least a little mad at your friend because he/she should have remembered, damn it! Isn't it true that we take some promises more seriously than others? No one takes a politician's promises seriously anymore. Some people have the gall to get mad at them because it's their right, but most just wait it out. For the most part, this works out just fine and it has for decades (centuries, even). How about promises you've made? Do you not feel bound to a social contract to keep your word? If you offered x and fail to give it, no matter who's there to check, shouldn't you feel a little bad for not keeping your promise? And I don't think it matters an awful lot whether you promised x to yourself or to others. 

My point is that there is something to live up to. Namely, x. Moral or not, big or small scale, for many or few, there's a promise in the air and someone should do something to make it happen or the whole idea of making a promise falls apart. I feel it's rude to say "I'll call you" if you don't mean to. Why say you'll do something if you don't intend to? No one's asking you to promise. I don't say "I'll call" or "Let's meet!" if I don't mean to. Some might think it's rude of me not to go through with the nicety but I think it's pointless to. In a more abstract way, I think this stands true even when no words are spoken.

What happens when no one makes the promise? "Someone must be making a promise," I can hear you say. Well, consider social contracts and implied promises.  We make promises more often than you'd think. We've all signed a contract (metaphorically, if this is the right word) not to bash someone's head into a wall just because they upset us. There are implied promises of proper conduct when we sit down to eat and choose not to stab the person across the table with any of the sharp objects within grasp. It's rude to eat without offering to share when you're with someone. At least, I was always brought up believing that's the way it should be. If I'm very unwilling to share, I will choose to wait until I'm alone because I feel like eating in front of someone else offers the promise that they can have some too and I hate the thought of not living up to it. It's my unspoken word and I'm a woman of my word, however silent. I will go to many lengths to avoid making promises I don't intend to keep.

My stance depends upon me not wanting others to think ill of me if I fail to deliver. However, these contracts, silent or not, are not necessarily acknowledged by all parties. Who's in the wrong? Me for bothering with something clearly useless in modern day society? Or them, for ignoring basic courtesy? How basic is it? One must assume they weren't raised by my parents (in fact, we know they weren't) and the question arises: why did my parents teach me all this?

One of the most superfluous of contracts I was taught relates to table manners. As a grown woman, I become easily exasperated by people who talk with their mouths full, people who chew with their mouths open, people who dig for food between their teeth with their fingers, people who bite on their silverware, people who chew too loudly, people who blow their nose at the table, people who discuss unsavoury subjects during a meal... The list could go on. I deliberately avoid eating crunchy food unless I'm on my own or there's enough background noise to make the sound of my chewing more tolerable to others. When in company, I very much prefer to eat to the sound of music. I can't help but wonder if I wouldn't have more pleasant meals had I never been taught such things. 

Do you suppose I'd be easier on myself if I didn't take promises less seriously? What is the value of a promise? If all people involved in the making and keeping of a promise don't care about it equally, what is the point? If I make a promise and keep it, there's no certainty that whomever I made it to will care. If someone makes a promise to me, how would they know that I'll be upset if they don't keep it? Are promises worth anything?

It depends on what is promised, I believe. Good table manners make the dining experience more pleasant, or less gruesome (as the case may be). Offering to share your food when eating near someone shows a generosity quite unique to the teamwork that kept a whole group from starving to death when a select few could have pigged out leaving the rest to die. Calling when you say you will shows interest and paves the road to making you trustworthy. This reasoning can be extended further: when someone makes wild promises we know they can't keep, we lose trust in them. Promises made between people are aimed at making life in society less insufferable. The rules you choose to commit to seem to dictate how "fit" you are to live with others. 

What about promises you've made to yourself? What kind of promises are these? Mostly, they're related to self-improvement and I don't think I'm over-generalising. Failing to keep your promises to yourself impacts your life directly. You'll have no one to blame but yourself if you get lung cancer from smoking too much, if you get a heart attack because you couldn't stay away from bacon, if you end up a bum because you refused to get an education. What's at stake? It's a battle between temporary pleasure and long term content. It's not a black and white sort of wrong. To many people, the immediate results weigh more than an uncertain future. Why starve myself to look good in a dress if for all I know tomorrow I could get hit by a bus and make the thought of wearing a dress superfluous? If I get struck by lightning in a few hours, what does it matter if I have one more beer now?

There may be no clearly defined right or wrong when it comes to promises in society. The truth remains that in the bigger scheme of things the idea that it's "every man for himself" is not ridiculous. By these standards, there's no such thing as rude, only competent. "You worry about your own hurt feelings. You never deserved anything I promised and I've got myself to care about." Go back and read that last sentence. It sounds horrible, but think about it. After a while, it begs the question: does anyone ever deserve anything?

The word "deserve" doesn't mean much on its own. It implies that, laws of thermodynamics be damned, what you do in this universe must have a very specific response from the universe to you. I can hear your eyes rolling: "It's too abstract a definition! We're in the context of life in society!" and fine: then so be it. The idea of deserving implies that your actions must have a very specific response from the people around you. Well, why should they? Do they owe you anything? While there is a host of other words, one of them "virtue," one can link to "deserve," I think it all boils down to "trade:"

Doing a must get b in return.

From there, one could take a stab at it from a (very naïve) game theoretic point of view: how much am I willing to give to get c in return? If c is worth very little to me, then next to nothing. Problems come when the same thing isn't worth as much to everyone (or even to one given person at different times). 

Whatever a promise means to make, it means as much to keep and to be made. No one ever deserves anything unless it's written in stone and has been agreed upon by everyone involved (which can be a bit paradoxical, come to think of it...). A promise is merely a rough draft of this setting in stone and it's subject to changes, no matter what it looked like the last time you looked. 

Suppose you deserve x. Suppose you don't. A promise doesn't change what you deserve, or even what you're getting. It only gives you something to look forward to. You're only screwed if you look too often.

No comments:

Post a Comment