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If I make a promise verbally or sign an agreement then someone is trusting on my word, that I will do what I said I will do. If the same me later say I will not do that or through action break the promise/agreement then why am I considered doing a bad thing?

Isn't the latter me more knowledgeable and mature than the former me?

Why my saying that I will do something is valued more than my saying later that I will not do that? Its the same me all around and with time I gain knowledge and experience. Shouldn't the words of latter me given more importance than words of former me?

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  • Well, YMMV, but if someone breaks their contract with me I might think they are just the same as everyone else that meant nothing to me, just another cog obeying the dehumanising capitalist logic of exploitation.
    – user64279
    Jan 20, 2023 at 14:22
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    Trust is vital in a society. Other people depend on you keeping your agreements. The more interesting question is, if you make a vow to yourself and nobody else is concerned, is it ever rational to bind yourself to an action that your future self will not want to carry through?
    – Bumble
    Jan 20, 2023 at 16:57
  • If you make a promise at time A, then later break that promise at time B, you can see the wrong action happening at time A (when you made an empty promise) or at time B (when you broke the promise), but ultimately it doesn't matter how you view the situation, it's still wrong.
    – Stef
    Jan 20, 2023 at 17:43
  • I'm not aware of any moral framework that would care how mature you are at any given point in time. If you initially decide not to stab anyone, but then later on, when you're more mature, you decide to stab someone, should that later you be given more importance than the you who decided not to stab anyone? That question is irrelevant because you shouldn't stab people.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 21, 2023 at 21:29

10 Answers 10

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No, the fact that you are more mature and better informed at a later time is in most cases irrelevant.

In most human societies there is a convention that a promise should be honoured, and that to break it without an acceptable reason is bad. That convention is important because most societies thrive as a result of cooperation, where two or more people agree to do things with reciprocal benefits. For example, I might agree to paint your house in return for a fee. If I paint your house, and you do not pay me, or if you pay me and I do not paint your house, then one of us will consider ourself to be unreasonably disadvantaged, and we will not be appeased if the other says they have broken their side of the bargain because they are older and wiser.

(Of course, there are exceptions. If you tell me you will give me five magic beans if I agree to paint your house, and - having started to paint your house - I learn that there are no such things as magic beans, I might put down my paint pots and brushes because I have become wise to the fact that your side of the bargain is worthless.)

Without a general convention of trust, societies would not be able to function cooperatively. I suspect, but have no specific evidence for what I suspect, that the idea of trust is an instinctive one in humans, engrained as a consequence of evolution.

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If you break a promise, you lied. It's as simple as that. This rather lamentable practice, although in some circumstances completely unavoidable, is what the phrase empty words was coined for.

Furthermore, it's not just the lie that's the problem; there are consequences, negative ones, for failing to keep your word: "A pledge, a calamity" ~ The Delphic Oracle.

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    Breaking a promise and lying are not at all the same, at least not necessarily. The promise entails forethought, a rational purpose, and a voluntary commitment. It generally does imply circumstantial assumptions. If you are keeping a sword in trust for a friend, Socrates says, it may not be "just" to return it when the friend asks in a state of rage. So, Socrates is no Kantian; commitments cannot be made entirely outside of circumstances, which may substantially change. Lies are a different matter, defined more by circumstances than by any voluntary commitments. Jan 20, 2023 at 21:29
  • @NelsonAlexander, I should've included a ceteris paribus clause, but I did ssy circumstances may void the promise made. Jan 20, 2023 at 23:44
  • 'as simple as that', huh? What if you are someone who never lie but is dumbfounded of how stupid it is to keep your word most of the time? Jun 2, 2023 at 8:56
  • Ah maybe it's not too late to put your ceteris paribus clause because it changes everything because there's never ceteris paribus. What does ssy mean? Jun 2, 2023 at 9:00
  • @samuelnihoul, I'm not in a position to comment in any way whatsoever on that statement. Science may have a thing or two to say on the matter. Nevertheless, *The woods are lovely, dark and deep//But I have promises to keep//And miles to go before I sleep//And miles to go before I sleep. Jun 2, 2023 at 12:08
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The problem is not that it's intrinsically "bad", but that it makes you an unreliable partner for future transactions and that real losses might be incurred by your counterparts in the contract/promise/agreement. You can renege on any contract/promise/agreement you want, but your partners who entered the contract with you might incur real losses, so they will not be keen to re-enter contracts with you in the future, which may in turn be a loss (at least of opportunity) for you.

So, it is not so much about you having more information later allowing you to exit the contract/agreement/promise without consequences as practical considerations about possible losses that gives value to following through on a promise/agreement.

And it doesn't seem good for you to not be a reliable partner anyway. You might in turn lose something in the future.

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You may be more knowledgeable at a later time. Or more deluded, desperate, amoral. As a practical matter, we do often "revise" commitments according to circumstances or build conditions into the original contract. Socrates notes that if we are keeping a friend's sword it may not be "just" to return it if our friend demands it in a state of rage. Circumstances, he implies, may affect the validity of the commitment.

This is, however, highly vulnerable to abuse. As a businessman, Trump was notorious in New York for nonpayment and for breaking signed commitments. His lawyers always argued that the original circumstances had changed. He was a true innovator in that he realized, as advised by Roy Cohn, that it was actually cheaper to break contracts and go to court than to fulfill contracts. If you'll excuse that aside.

In both practice and reason, philosophy offers at least are two main reasons to not break promises. The first is that in doing so we disrupt the continuity of our identity over time. Identity is in many ways a kind of ongoing self-promise. In the case of someone like Rep. Santos, to draw again on the news, this can actually lead to a social, psychological, and existential disintegration of identity, not to mention legal peril.

Second, the very capacity to form and utter promises depends upon the coherent reciprocities of language. So the breach of promise is a contradiction of the very thing it depends on. This is something like Kant's categorical imperative, which in turn is like the childhood admonition "what if everybody did it?" The act doesn't "scale up" to the level of universal maxim. Yet, as the examples above indicate, the weakness of Kant's CI is precisely this overly abstract assumption of circumstantial isolation.

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@voice_of_reason, you have a very interesting thought.

Before we can even look at your question, you do have a serious problem. You questioned:

Isn't the latter me more knowledgeable and mature than the former me?

Very good question. By who's standards are you suggesting that you are improved? Throughout my own life's experiences, I've been amazed by how many times I felt like I've mastered a particular concept or situation, only to realize I had barely scratched the surface. We as humans have a very flawed and limited perception of the world around us. We need a single Source of Truth to determine what is improvement. Until a source is found, in our limited human understanding and perception, we need a medium by which we can work and collaborate with fellow human beings. A promise, or commitment, is what we use as an attempt to control the changing factors around us (in this case, human beings) as we learn and improve.

A very common theory today states that "truth is relative". "What's right for me might not be right for you. What's wrong for me, might not be wrong for you." While I don't agree with this theory, I will point out that in such a case, a medium for collaborating with others is extremely necessary.

I know I might not have directly answered your question, but I feel like this fundamental concept may aid you in understanding this better.

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Your promise can be related with commerce. If you break your word the other person will trust no more in you and you can lose a client or a provider.

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    or you could look at it the other way: the person you've conned sees the value of you keeping your promise, why can't you?
    – user64279
    Jan 20, 2023 at 13:48
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Breaking a agreement should be analysed from the topic of the agreement or concerned elements and how loss of planned agreement is expressed in term of financial or physical loss. It's mainly how insurance works. But in a more informal context, the only consequence is about how your partner is going to treat you. This fact dont make you a bad person but we can assuming some personnality trait or temper, especially if the behavior occurs many time and in many differents cases. Assuming that some behavior are strictly and absolutly right or wrong cant be done because it implys that we can categorized personnality trait or temper into good and bad one. The human value hightlighs by promise is solidarity.

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Well, if your right or wrong depends on the perspective from which you are perceiving this situation. For the person whom you violated the promise you made with them, of course it can be said you're wrong. After all, all us humans put much value in to trust; our society wouldn't function without it. So you can say, what often is considered right, is what the majority of people in a group deem to be right.However, in your perspective, you weren't wrong either; after all you did have good reason to break the promise.Even if you didn't have good reason to back it up you wouldn't be wrong.But in most cases, it's better to stick with the norms associated with how promises must be used:it's more likely less troublesome for you and the person your making the promise with.

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Your question is rather broad, and seems to ask, why do people utter "I promise" and "what value is there of a promise". This is a Q&A forum, so there's no short answer, however, we can touch on some regions of philosophy that give some insight.

There are already a number of psychological and sociological answers here that raise questions regarding trust, but I'm going to offer some leads on the development of a philosophical response. Obviously, promises are about trust, both the psychological aspect of motivations and actions, and the sociological aspect that underlies collective intentionality, characterizes eusocial behavior, and undergirds the building of social institution. Promises also may be seen as contributing to social construction, where realities are built and shared by individuals.

Philosophers do carry out analyses on trust (SEP). A proper philosophical response would require an analysis of various aspects of including pragmatics, which is the study of what sort of meaning derives from real-world context, meta-ethical and ethical analysis, and how various minds interact, which involves the philosophies of mind, psychology, and sociology. As this board is a Q&A format, let's just note a few starting points for further discussion.

In philosophy of language, pragmatics contains ideas known as performativity. From the article:

Performativity is the concept that language can function as a form of social action and have the effect of change.1 The concept has multiple applications in diverse fields such as anthropology, social and cultural geography, economics, gender studies (social construction of gender), law, linguistics, performance studies, history, management studies and philosophy.

When someone says "I promise...", they are performing, in the philosophical sense. This involves questions about direction of fit which explores intentionality (SEP) and relationship between the mind and the world, and vice versa, sometimes subsumed by questions regarding mental causation (SEP).

In ethics, one has to take a meta-ethical position, which is the act of choosing an theory. One such famous characterization is the deontological (SEP) which explores right choice and action through the lens of duty, and is exemplified by theories such as the categorical imperative. Thus "I promise" is understood as "I have a duty".

Lastly, one might look at how the words "I promise" and understand how exactly they build a shared consensus and further collective intentionality (SEP). Such an exploration has been undertaken by Searle and others, and explores exactly how societies build and share knowledge (SEP), which is the epistemological aspect, or agreement on what exists, which is an ontological aspect. If one uses psychology and sociology as a springboard for philosophical discourse, one is taking a naturalistic approach to social construction (SEP).

The philosophical analysis of trust is not as extensive as classical questions, such as free will, dualism, causation, and so on, but one can presume that there are academics out there now stretching the boundaries to include trust. A good place to start looking is PhilPapers.org.

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When you promise to do something for someone else, the other party is likely to take actions that rely on you fulfilling the promise. For instance, if you're a car salesman and promise to deliver a car, the customer may sell their old car so they'll have a place to put the new one, since their garage only has room for one car.

If you break your promise, the other party is likely to be disadvantaged as a result of these actions. E.g. in the above example, they no longer have a car. Sometimes they may be able to arrange things so they don't take contingent actions until after you fulfill the promise, so your failure is innocuous. But in many cases this would be difficult -- it takes time to sell a car, so they can't wait until after you deliver the new one.

More generally, our lives run more smoothly when we can make plans about the future. Nature exhibits many regularities that we can rely on: the sun rises each day (except in polar regions, but they know when it doesn't), the seasons come and go, most dropped objects fall, etc. Society requires making plans that depend on the future behavior of other members of the society, and being able to believe promises is integral to this.

Promises sometimes have to be broken, since circumstances may prevent you from being able to perform your obligations. When writing contracts, it's common to include "escape clauses" that explicitly mention the circumstances that can be reasonably foreseen. For example, insurance contracts often list exceptions that the insurer will not cover. Long-term contracts allow for changes in terms or cancellation, but may specify a sufficient notice period and/or compensation.

But if someone breaks a promise by choice, rather than due to circumstances, this violates the social contract that allows communities to work together well. If this happens too much, society will fall apart. So we punish these people as a deterrant.

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