Book 3, Chapter 03 : Of Promises
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Book 3, Chapter 03
Promises not the foundation of morality - are absolutely considered, an evil - are of unfrequent necessity. - Imperfect promises unavoidable. - Perfect promises in some cases necessary.-Obligation of promises - of the same nature as the obligation not to invade. another man's property - admits of gradations. - Recapitulation. - Application.
THE whole principle of an original contract rests upon the obligation under which we are conceived to be placed to observe our promises. The reasoning upon which it is founded is "that we have promised obedience to government, and therefore are bound to obey." The doctrine of a social contract would never have been thought worth the formality of an argument had it not been presumed to be one of our first and paramount obligations to perform our engagements. It may be proper therefore to inquire into the nature of this obligation.
And here the first observation that offers itself, upon the principle of the doctrines already delivered,1 is that promises and compacts are in no sense the foundation of morality.
The foundation of morality is justice. The principle of virtue is an irresistible deduction from the wants of one man, and the ability of another to relieve them. It is not because I have promised that I am bound to do that for my neighbor which will be beneficial to him and not injurious to me. This is an obligation which arises out of no compact, direct or understood; and would still remain, though it were impossible that I should experience a return, either from him or any other human being. It is not on account of any promise or previous engagement that I am bound to tell my neighbor the truth. Undoubtedly one of the reasons why I should do so is because the obvious use of the faculty of speech is to inform, and not to mislead. But it is an absurd account of this motive, to say that my having recourse to the faculty of speech amounts to a tacit engagement that I will use it for its genuine purposes. The true ground of confidence between man and man is the knowledge we have of the motives by which the human mind is influenced; our perception that the motives to deceive can but rarely occur, while the motives to veracity will govern the stream of human actions.
This position will be made still more incontrovertible if we bestow a moment's attention upon the question, Why should we observe our promises? The only rational answer that can be made is because it tends to the welfare of intelligent beings. But this answer is equally cogent if applied to any other branch of morality. It is therefore absurd to rest the foundation of morality thus circuitously upon promises, when it may with equal propriety be rested upon that from which promises themselves derive their obligation.2
Again; when I enter into an engagement, I engage for that which is in its own nature conducive to human happiness, or which is not so. Can my engagement always render that which before was injurious agreeable to, and that which was beneficial the opposite of duty? Previously to my entering into a promise, there is something which I ought to promise, and something which I ought not. Previously to my entering into a promise, all modes of action were not indifferent. Nay, the very opposite of this is true. Every conceivable mode of action has its appropriate tendency, and shade of tendency, to benefit, or to mischief, and consequently its appropriate claim to be performed or avoided. Thus clearly does it appear that promises and compacts are not the foundation of morality.
Secondly, I observe that promises are, absolutely considered, an evil, and stand in opposition to the genuine and wholesome exercise of an intellectual nature.
Justice has already appeared to be the sum of moral and political duty. But the measure of justice is the useful or injurious characters of the men with whom I am concerned; the criterion of justice is the influence my conduct will have upon the stock of general good. Hence it inevitably follows that the motives by which duty requires me to govern my actions must be such as are of general application.
What is it then to which the obligation of a promise applies? What I have promised is what I ought to have performed, if no promise had intenvened, or it is not. It is conducive, or not conducive, to the generating of human happiness. If it be the former, then promise comes in merely as an additional inducement, in favor of that which, in the eye of morality, was already of indispensable obligation.- It teaches me to do something from a precarious and temporary motive which ought to be done for its intrinsic recommendations. If therefore right motives and a pure intention are constituent parts of virtue, promises are clearly at variance with virtue.
But promises will not always come in reinforcement of that which was duty before the promise was made. When it is otherwise, there is obviously a contention between what would have been obligatory, if no promise had intervened, and what the promise which has been given has a tendency to render obligatory.
Nor can it with much cogency be alleged in this argument that promises may at least assume an empire over things indifferent. There is nothing which is truly indifferent. All things in the universe are connected together.3 It is true that many of these links in human affairs are too subtle to be traced by our grosser optics. But we should observe as many of them as we are able. He that is easily satisfied as to the morality of his conduct will suppose that questions of duty are of rare occurrence, and perhaps lament that there is so little within his sphere to perform. But he that is anxiously alive to the inspirations of virtue will scarcely find an hour in which he cannot, by act or preparation) contribute to the general weal. If then every shilling of our property, and eveIy faculty of our mind, have received their destination from the principles of unalterable justice, promises have scarcely an atom of ground upon which they can properly and legitimately be called to decide.
There is another consideration of great weight in this case. Our faculties and our possessions are the means by which we are enabled to benefit others. Our time is the theater in which only these means can unfold themselves. There is nothing the right disposal of which is more sacred. In order to the employing our faculties and our possessions in the way most conducive to the general good, we are bound to acquire all the information which our opportunities enable us to acquire. Now one of the principal means of information is time. We must therefore devote to that object all the time our situation will allow. But we abridge, and that in the most essential point, the time of gaining information, if we bind ourselves today to the conduct we will observe two months hence. He who thus anticipates upon the stores of knowledge is certainly not less improvident than he who lives by anticipating the stores of fortune.
An active and conscientious man will continually add to his materials of judgment. Nor is it enough to say that every man ought to regard his judgment as immature, and look forward with impatience to the moment which shall detect his present oversights. Beside this, it will always happen that, however mature the faculties of any individual may deserve to be considered, he will be perpetually acquiring new information as to that respecting which his conduct is to be decided at some future period. Let the case be of an indentured servant. Why should I, unless there be something in the circumstances obliging me to submit to this disadvantage, engage to allow him to reside for a term of years under my roof, and to employ towards him a uniform mode of treatment, whatever his character may prove in the sequel? Why should he engage to live with and serve me however tyrannical, cruel or absurd may be my carriage towards him? We shall both of us hereafter know more of each other, and of the benefits or inconveniences attendant on our connection. Why preclude ourselves from. the use of this knowledge? Such a situation will inevitably generate a perpetual struggle between the independent dictates of reason, and the conduct which the particular compact into which we have entered may be supposed to prescribe.
It follows from what has been here adduced that promises, in the same sense as has already been observed of government, are an evil, though, it may be, in some cases a necessary evil. - To remove the obscurity which might otherwise accompany this mode of expression, it is perhaps proper to advert to the sense in which the word evil is here used.
Evil may be either general or individual: an event may either be productive of evil in its direct and immediate operation, or in a just balance and comprehensive estimate of all the effects with which it is pregnant. In which soever of these senses the word is understood, the evil is not imaginary, but real.
Evil is a term which differs from pain only as it has a more comprehensive meaning. It may-be defined to signify whatever is painful itself, or is connected with pain, as an antecedent is connected with its consequent. Thus explained, it appears that a thing not immediately painful may be evil, but in a somewhat improper and imperfect sense. It bears the name of evil not upon its own account. Nothing is evil in the fullest sense but pain.
To this it may be added that pain is always an evil. Pleasure and pain, happiness and misery, constitute the whole ultimate subject of moral inquiry. There is nothing desirable but the obtaining of the one and the avoiding of the other. All the researches of human imagination cannot add a single article to this summary of good. Hence it follows that, wherever pain exists, there is evil. Were it otherwise, there would be no such thing as evil. If pain in one individual be not an evil, then it would not be an evil for pain to be felt by every individual that exists, and forever. The universe is no more than a collection of individuals.
To illustrate this by an obvious example. The amputation of a leg is an evil of considerable magnitude. The pain attendant on the operation is exquisite. The cure is slow and tormenting. When cured, the man who has suffered the amputation is precluded for ever from a variety both of agreeable amusements and useful occupations. Suppose him to suffer this operation from pure wantonness, and we shall then see its calamity in the most striking light. Suppose, on the other hand, the operation to be the only alternative for stopping a mortification, and it becomes relatively good. But it does not, upon this account, cease to be an absolute evil. The painful sensation, at least to a considerable degree, remains; and the abridgment of his pleasures and utility for the rest of his life is in no respect altered.
The case of promises is considerably similar to this. So far as they have any effect, they depose us, as to the particular to which they relate, from the use of our own understanding; they call off our attention from the direct tendencies of our conduct, and fix it upon a merely local and precarious consideration. There may be cases in which they are necessary and ought to be employed: but we should never suffer ourselves by their temporary utility to be induced to forget their intrinsic nature, and the demerits which adhere to them independently of any peculiar concurrence of circumstances.
Thirdly, it may be added to the preceding observations that promises are by no means of so frequent necessity as has been often imagined.
It may be asked, "How, without the intervention of promises, can the affairs of the world be carried on?" To this it will be a sufficient answer in the majority of instances to say that they will be best carried on by rational and intelligent beings acting as if they were rational and intelligent. Why should it be supposed that affairs would not for the most part go on sufficiently well, though my neighbor could no further depend upon my assistance than it appeared reasonable to grant it? This will, upon many occasions, be a sufficient dependence, if I be honest; nor will he, if he be honest, desire anything further.
But it will be alleged, "Human pursuits are often of a continued tenour, made up of a series of actions, each of which is adopted, not for its own sake, but for the sake of some conclusion in which it terminates. Many of these depend for their success upon co-operation and concert. It is therefore necessary that I should have some clear and specific reason to depend upon the fidelity of my coadjutor, that so I may not be in danger, when I have for a length of time persisted in my exertions, of being frustrated by some change that his sentiments have undergone in the interval." To this it may be replied that such a pledge of fidelity is less frequently necessary than is ordinarily imagined. Were it to be superseded in a variety of cases, men would be taught to have more regard to their own exertions, and less to the assistance of others, which caprice may refuse, or justice oblige them to withhold. They would acquire such merit as should oblige every honest man, if needful, to hasten to their succor; and engage in such pursuits as, not depending upon the momentary caprice of individuals, rested for their success upon the less precarious nature of general circumstances.
Having specified the various limitations that exist as to the utility of promises, it remains for us to discuss their form and obligation in the cases where they may be conceived to be necessary.
Promises are of two kinds, perfect and imperfect. A perfect promise is where the declaration of intention is made by me, for the express purpose of serving as a ground of expectation to my neighbor respecting my future conduct. An imperfect promise is where it actually thus serves as a ground of expectation, though that was not my purpose when I made the declaration. Imperfect promises are of two classes: I may have reason, or I may have no reason, to know, when I make the declaration, that it will be acted upon by my neighbor, though not assuming the specific form of an engagement.
As to imperfect promises it may be observed that they are wholly unavoidable. No man can always refrain from declaring his intention as to his future conduct. Nay, it should seem that, in many cases, if a man inquire of me the state of my mind in this respect, duty obliges me to inform him of this as I would of any other fact. Were it otherwise, a perpetual coldness and reserve would pervade all human intercourse. But the improvement of mankind rests upon nothing so essentially as upon the habitual practice of candor, frankness and sincerity.
Perfect promises will also in various instances occur. I have occasion for an interview with a particular person, tomorrow. I inform him of my intention of being upon a certain spot at a given hour of the day. It is convenient to him to go to the same place at the same time, for the purpose of meeting me. In this case, it is impossible to prevent the mutual declaration of intention from serving as a sort of pledge of the performance. Qualifying expressions will make little alteration: the ordinary circumstances which qualify engagements will in most cases be understood, whether they are stated or no. Appointments of this sort, so far from deserving to be uniformly avoided, ought in many cases to be sought, that there may be as little waste of time or exertion on either side as the nature of the situation will admit.
To proceed from the manner in which engagements are made to the obligation that results from them. This obligation is of different degrees according to the nature of the case; but it is impossible to deny that it may be of the most serious import. We have already seen that each man is entitled to his sphere of discretion, which another may not, unless under the most imperious circumstances, infringe.4 But I infringe it as substantially by leading him into a certain species of conduct through the means of delusive expectations, as by any system of usurpation it is possible to employ. A person promises me, I will suppose, five hundred pounds for a certain commodity, a book it may be, which I am to manufacture. I am obliged to spend several months in the production. Surely, after this, he can rarely be justified in disappointing me, and saying I have found a better object upon which to employ my money. The case is nearly similar to that of the laborer who, after having performed his day's work, should be refused his wages. Take the case the other way, and suppose that, I having contracted to produce the commodity, the other party to the contract has advanced me three out of the five hundred pounds. Suppose further, that I am unable to replace this sum. Surely I am not at liberty to dispense myself from the performance of my engagement.
The case here is of the same nature as of any other species of property. Property is sacred: there is but one way in which duty requires the possessor to dispose of it, but I may not forcibly interfere, and dispose of it in the best way in his stead. This is the ordinary law of property, as derived from the principles of universal morality.5 But there are cases that supersede this law. The principle that attributes to every man the disposal of his property, as well as that distributes to every man his sphere of discretion, derives its force in both instances from the consideration that a greater sum of happiness will result from its observance than its infringement. Wherever therefore the contrary to this is clearly the case, there the force of the principle is suspended. What shall prevent me from taking by force from my neighbor's store, if the alternative be that I must otherwise perish with hunger? What shall prevent me from supplying the distress of my neighbor from property that, strictly speaking, is not my own, if the emergence be terrible, and will not admit of delay? Nothing; unless it be the punishment that is reserved for such conduct in some instances; since it is no more fitting that I should bring upon myself calamity and death than that I should suffer them to fall upon another.
The vesting of property in any individual admits of different degrees of fullness, and, in proportion to that fullness, will be the mischief resulting from its violation. If, then, it appear that, even when the vesting amounts to the fullness of regular possession, there are cases in which it ought to be violated, the different degrees that fall short of this will admit of still greater modification. It is in vain that the whole multitude of moralists assures us that the sum I owe to another man is as little to be infringed upon as the wealth of which he is in possession. Everyone feels the fallacy of this maxim. The sum I owe to another may in many cases be paid, at my pleasure, either today or tomorrow, either this week or next. The means of payment, particularly with a man of slender resources, must necessarily be fluctuating, and he must employ his discretion as to the proportion between his necessary and his gratuitous disbursements. When he ultimately fails of payment, the mischief he produces is real, but is not so great, at least in ordinary cases, as that which attends upon robbery. In fine, it is a law resulting from the necessity of nature that he who has any species of property in trust, for however short a time, must have a discretion, sometimes less and sometimes greater, as to the disposal of it.
To return once more to the main principle in this gradation. The property, most completely sanctioned by all the general rules that can be devised, is yet not inviolable. The imperious principle of self-preservation may authorize me to violate it. A great and eminent balance of good to the public may authorize its violation; and upon this ground we see proprietors occasionally compelled to part with their possessions, under every mode of government in the world. As a general maxim it may be admitted that force is a legitimate means of prevention, where the alternative is complete, and the employment of force will not produce a greater evil, or subvert the general tranquility. But, if direct force be in certain cases justifiable, indirect force, or the employment of the means placed in my hands without an anxious inquiry respecting the subordinate regulations of property, where the benefit to be produced is clear, is still more justifiable. Upon this ground, it may be my duty to relieve, upon some occasions, the wretchedness of my neighbor, without having first balanced the debtor and creditor side of my accounts, or when I know that balance to be against me. Upon this ground, every promise is considered as given under a reserve for unforeseen and imperious circumstances, whether that reserve be specifically stated or no. Upon the same ground an appointment for an interview is considered as subject to a similar reserve; though the time of my neighbor which I dissipate upon that supposition, is as real a property as his wealth, is a part of that sphere over which every man is entitled to the exercise of his separate discretion. It is impossible that human society can subsist without frequent encroachments of one man upon his neighbor: we sufficiently discharge our duty if we habitually recollect that each man has his province, and endeavor to regulate our conduct accordingly.
These principles are calculated to set in a clearer light than they have often been exhibited the cases that authorize the violation of promises. Compact is not the foundation of morality; on the contrary, it is an expedient to which we are sometimes obliged to have resort, but the introduction of which must always be regarded by an enlightened observer with jealousy. It ought never to be called forth but in cases of the clearest necessity. It is not the principle upon which our common happiness reposes; it is only one of the means for securing that happiness. The adherence to promises therefore, as well as their employment in the first instance, must be decided by the general criterion, and maintained only so far as, upon a comprehensive view, it shall be found productive of a balance of happiness.
There is further an important distinction to be made between a promise given without an intention to perform it, and a promise which information, afterwards acquired, persuades me to violate. The first can scarcely in any instance take place without fixing a stain upon the promiser, and exhibiting him, to say the least, as a man greatly deficient in delicacy of moral discrimination. The case of the second is incomparably different. Every engagement into which I have entered an adherence to which I shall afterwards find to be a material obstacle to my utility (suppose an engagement not to write anything in derogation of the thirty-nine articles) ought to be violated: nor can there be any limitation upon this maxim, except where the violation will greatly encroach upon the province and jurisdiction of my neighbor.
Let us apply these remarks upon the nature of promises to the doctrine of a social contract. It is not through the medium of any supposed promise or engagement that we are induced to believe that the conduct of our neighbor will not be ridiculously inconsistent or wantonly malicious. If he protest in the most solemn way against being concluded by any such promise, at the same time that he conducts himself in a rational and sober manner, he will not find us less disposed to confide in him. We depend as readily upon a foreigner that he will not break the laws, and expose himself to their penalties (for this has been supposed to be one of the principal branches of the social contract), as we do upon our countryman. If we do not depend equally upon the Arabs who inhabit the plains of Asia, it is not because we impute to them a deficiency in their social contract, but because we are ignorant of their principles of conduct, or know that those principles do not afford us a sufficient security as to the particulars of our intercourse with them. Tell a man what will be the solid and substantial effects of his proceeding, how it will affect his neighbors, and what influence it will have upon his own happiness, and you speak to the unalienable feelings of the human mind. But tell him that, putting these things for the present out of our consideration, it is sufficient that he has promised a certain conduct, or that, if he have not expressly promised it, he has promised it by implication, or that, if he have not promised it, his ancestors a few generations back promised it for him; and you speak of a motive that scarcely finds a sympathetic chord in one human breast, and that few will so much as understand.
Few things can be more absurd than to talk of our having promised obedience to the laws. If the laws depend upon promises for their execution, why are they accompanied with sanctions? Why is it considered as the great arcanum of legislation to make laws that are easy of execution, and that need no assistance from the execrable intervention of oaths and informers? Again, why should I promise that I will do everything that a certain power, called the government, shall imagine it convenient, or decide that it is fitting, for me to do? Is there in this either morality, or justice, or common sense? Does brute force alone communicate to its possessor a sufficient claim upon my veneration? For, be it observed, the wisdom or duty of obedience proceeds upon exactly the same principle, whether it be to a tyrant, or to the most regularly elected house of representatives. There is but one power to which I can yield a heart-felt obedience, the decision of my own understanding, the dictate of my own conscience. The decrees of any other power, especially if I have a firm and independent mind, I shall obey with reluctance and aversion. My obedience is purely an affair of composition: I choose to do that which, in itself considered, my judgment disapproves, rather than incur the greater evil which the power from whom the mandate issues annexes to my disobedience.6
There is another principle concerned in this subject, and that is sincerity: I may not evade the laws of the society by any dishonorable subterfuge or contemptible duplicity. But the obligation of sincerity, like all the other great principles of morality, is not founded in promises, but in the indefeasible benefit annexed to its observance. Add to which, the sincerity I am bound to practice towards the magistrate, particularly in a case where his requisition shall be unjust, is not different in its principle, and is certainly of no higher obligation, than the sincerity I am bound to practice towards a private individual.
Let us however suppose that the assertion of an implied contract in every community is true, or let us take the case where an actual engagement has been entered into by the members of the society. This appears from what has been already delivered to be of that class of promises which are of slightest obligation. In the notion of a social contract little is made over, little expectation is excited, and therefore little mischief is included in its breach. What we most expect and require in a member of the same community is the qualities of a man, and the conduct that ought to be observed indifferently by a native or a stranger. Where a promise or an oath is imposed upon me superfluously, as is always the case with promises of allegiance; or where I am compelled to make it by the operation of a penalty; the treatment I suffer is atrociously unjust, and of consequence the breach of such a promise is peculiarly susceptible of apology. A promise of allegiance is a declaration that I approve the actual constitution of things, and, so far as it is binding, an engagement that I will continue to support that constitution. But I shall support for as long a time, and in as great a degree, as I approve of it, without needing the intervention of a promise It will be my duty not to undertake its destruction by precipitate and unpromising means, for a much more cogent reason than can be deduced from any promise I have made. An engagement for anything further than this is both immoral and absurd: it is an engagement to a non-entity, a constitution; a promise that I will abstain from doing that which I believe to be beneficial to my fellow citizens.
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