Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche are like two rival futbol clubs in the world of philosophy. Their philosophies mostly hate each other. But they come together, surprisingly, on for me the singlemost important ethical principle there is: if you can’t keep your word at all costs you’re not even in the arena of the ethical (as Kant might put it). Nietzsche calls human beings the animals that make promises. I might add that good human beings are the ones that keep them.
If this sounds pedestrian-yeah, of course, keep your word whenever possible—it’s because that ‘whenever possible’ sneaks its way into our contemporary understanding of the promise. Not for Kant, and he gets a lot of shit for it. It’s easy to write him off as dogmatic for arguing that a pledge to tell the truth only means anything if you’d even tell the truth to a cop or killer at your door asking if you’re the one he’s looking for. How could that possibly be good advice? How could it jive with our modern sense of self-determination and agency. Well, it couldn’t, but it certainly does jive with self-determination. Because for Kant, following a law ‘dogmatically’ and self-determination are not diametrically opposed. Indeed, allowing oneself space to alter or update the promise is not self-determination—it’s opening yourself to determination by any host of forces: habit, dumb desire, fear, misperceived need, self-protection, the dictates of your age and place, etc. Nietzsche argues something similar: if you can’t command yourself then you will be commanded. Most assume he means if you can’t keep your promises to yourself you’ll just end up serving someone else’s will. No, he means something more common and dangerous—you’ll be commanded by things you don’t even see commanding you. Namely, the one’s listed above.
Let’s drop the two philosophers and put it my terms, concentrating for the purposes of this blog to the promise between people. Wedding vows, friendship promises, promises between members of a civic organization. The vital rule is that you can’t alter the promise, no matter what new information comes, what new revelation you have, what you now get, unless everyone who agreed to it is in consensus. Why? Because the damage done in upholding bad promises is overall less noxious to society than the damage done by opening the door to unilateral revision. This is because, to put it simply, we are un self-aware, rationalizing, arbitrary, needy, scared selfish and above all infinitely sophistic animals. Most of us have virtually no capacity to distinguish between when we’re arguing something because in good faith, to the best of our knowledge it seems right and when we’re doing so because we desperately need and want it to be right. We’re all whores. As someone argues in Richard LInklater’s excellent Waking Life, the difference between apes and humans is smaller than that between humans and the most courageous minds like Nietzsche’s. What’s so different about someone like Nietzsche? To put it in a nutshell—he’s one of the few good at figuring out when his and others’ motives aren’t what they claim to be.
What I’m saying is you must do something you now ‘know’ is wrong if you promised someone to do so, because if you don’t, you will train yourself and others to abandon their word when it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable. We’re crafty little fuckers. If we get away with an exception once, even if it was a good exception that led to a better state of things, we will figure out how to get away with it whenever we want. And once that’s the case, why even use promises? What’s to distinguish a promise from whims, something you feel like doing at the time.
Let me offer a few examples of the catastrophic consequences of not keeping your word. Let’s say you promise your partner never to lie, as Kant would have it. You may think that lying about one petty thing that will hurt her needlessly is ‘worth’ it, but once you allow yourself that reasoning, you will use it also when it is not worth it. You will use it arbitrarily and compulsively, and if your loved ones intuit it they will do the same. Perhaps your kid sees you lie once about something tiny and later lies to you about heroin use, overdoses and dies.
Of course there are parallels at the level of government. The U.N. makes laws, which are kinds of promises if they’re made democratically. The U.S.A. ignores them and invades Afghanistan. It seems dogmatic not to allow them to do so because they could save so many lives by stopping the terrorist, saving the people from the tyrannous regime, etc. But now they’ve opened the door for everyone watching, from Iran to North Korea, to do whatever the fuck they want as well. Why not? We’ve legitimized the ‘keep your agreements unless you come across an exception in which it seems like more good will come of it to break them’ line of reasoning. Once you go down that route, the exceptions pop up in all shapes and colors, in the mouths of heroes and monsters, for good and for catastrophic effect, and we have absolutely no way to stop any of it.
We forget the most sacred purpose of wedding vows. They are not for imprisoning the will, further patriarchy, or a cheap substitution for thought, they could be and are used that way. They are designed to keep us honest. To keep us working hard on our side of the compromise even though the dark times. Wedding vows are kind of like the rules the wise Chinese shopkeeper gives to the young man who buys the adorable little mogwai animals in the movie Gremlins. Whatever you do, don’t feed them after midnight. They’ll try to cajole you into doing so. They’re so innocent and adorable and loving, how could you resist your instinct and break this one rule? Just don’t. Morning will come and you’ll still have your cute little mogwai friend. If you, don’t, he’ll turn into a monster, and that’s the end of that relationship.
The moral of the story is: don’t be like the USA, and live in exceptionalism, no matter how practical, effective, healthy or just it seems to you. Otherwise your personal life will become like the world under USA hegemony…