The truth about making and breaking promises

Edited transcript of an interview with host Sheridan Voysey and ethicist Rod Benson, broadcast on Sydney radio station 103.2FM, 16 July 2006.

SV     When is a promise not a promise? There’s been a raging debate in the media this week about whether Australian Prime Minister John Howard gave his word to Federal Treasurer Peter Costello that he would hand over the leadership after one-and-a-half terms in office.

Now, we can’t know for sure whether this conversation took place, whether a deal was done, or if a promise was given, but it raises some interesting ethical issues about when and how we should give our word. 

Rod Benson is the Director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College and he joins us to chew this one over.

RB    Great to be with you.

SV     What things do we need to consider before we make a promise?

RB    Well, some promises are more important than others. If I promise my wife that I’ll buy milk on my way home tonight, that’s a different kind of promise than the solemn words of a marriage vow or the technical words of a loan agreement. But as we make a promise, we need to consider:

  • Am I entitled to make it?
  • Am I able to keep it?
  • Does my intention to promise something agree with what I believe to be true?

SV     What distinguishes a promise or a commitment from just an intention?

RB    Most promises imply a guarantee – that you can be confident that I’ll be true to my word; whereas an intention is just that: an intention, something less than a promise, it carries less moral weight.

SV     I’m sure we’ve all been let down when somebody has not followed through on what we thought was a commitment. How can we avoid that situation?

RB    Each party should be clear about what is expected, and the kinds of situations that could reasonably lead to the promise or commitment being broken. Anyone who makes a promise, or looks for a promise from someone else, should try to keep communication open. If it’s important, make sure you both clearly understand your obligations. Sometimes there’s an implied commitment, but not everyone involved thinks of it as a commitment. Insist on honesty, clarity, and transparency in relationships.

SV     Can a lie ever be more ethical than the truth? For example, is it okay to knowingly lie, or make a false promise, if your judgment tells you that the lie will produce a better outcome?

RB    Sadly, people lie for all kinds of reasons. They may lie to avoid punishment, or to protect themselves or others from negative consequences. People lie to protect their self-esteem, or to avoid embarrassment and shame. They lie to gain advantage over others, such as in a commercial negotiation or competition. Or they may feel pressured to lie to conform to social norms or expectations, or to avoid disapproval or rejection. Then there is habitual lying: some people have a tendency to lie frequently, even when it’s unnecessary, due to psychological or behavioural issues.

There will inevitably be situations where, out of a sense of moral duty, or because of the likely consequences, or in the interest of national security, for example, telling a lie may be ethically justified. Think of the use of unmarked police cars. It’s inherently deceptive, but it’s designed to make our communities safer. Social researchers routinely engage in what we might call “minor deception” in the way they phrase survey questions in order to get the results their clients want. Many of us would say that’s not okay. 

Other situations are more complex. If I tell a lie in the hope of preventing a serious crime such as murder or rape, for example, am I doing wrong? Some will say yes, and they might refer to the Ninth Commandment in the Bible for support. Others will say no, because in their view a greater good is done by preventing the violence, even though I had to lie to achieve the outcome. 

 But generally, as the adage reminds us, “Honesty is the best policy.” A world of lies, deceit, duplicity and fudging the truth is not a good place to live, to raise a family, or to do business.

SV     If you made a promise with good intentions, but later realise that keeping the promise would not be the best course of action, is it ethical to break the promise? For example, if John Howard did make that promise, but is now convinced that the best thing for the country and his party is for him to remain leader?

RB    Yes, it can be necessary to break a promise, just as there are various reasons to break a legal contract. But the consequences of breaking a promise can be costly. And be sure to communicate effectively with the other party, and in a timely way if it’s possible. In Mr Howard’s case, if a promise was made in 1994, and now looks like being broken, it may be that his astute political judgment, or the party room, or some other that we are not privy to, requires him to break it. In that case, a good personal relationship with Mr Costello is vital, and a shared common vision for what’s best for the country, and hopefully a lack of hubris. 

SV     Today many marriage vows are watered right down so that they aren’t really promising much at all – “I will be faithful to you as long as our love lives,” for example. Is it more ethical to promise less so we can live up to it, or should we set higher standards, even if we might struggle to meet them?

RB    Well, as I said, honesty is the best policy. Set the standard low, and I think you’re less likely to disappoint. But set a high standard and a clear target, and you may well succeed. We rise to meet our aspirations, whether it’s marriage, politics, sport, work, friendship, or whatever. Most of us respond positively to moral challenges – and promise-keeping is a moral challenge. But too high a standard is unreasonable. None of us is perfect. We all need discernment and grace, and that’s where, for me, the teaching and example of Jesus is so helpful. He had the perfect balance of grace and truth.

SV     I’ve been talking with Rod Benson, Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College.

RB    My pleasure, Sheridan.

Image source: StacCapital

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