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It's been quite awhile since I've written anything in Stop & Talk.  Been busy.

Today I'd like to float an interesting idea that I've thought about for some time.  I believe that promises are essentially meaningless.  This isn't the bitter, cynical viewpoint that it sounds like.  I actually believe that promises do little to nothing, in fact, to change anything that one person would tell another.  The concept of a promise is largely unnecessary, in my view.

Think about what a promise is supposed to be--one's sacred guarantee that they are telling the truth.  It is our reassurance to others that we aren't lying, or that we can otherwise be trusted, whether it's to tell the truth or to fulfill a commitment.  But how is anything really changed the use of the word "promise" (or any of its synonyms)?  When it comes down to it, the key variable is trust.  Do you trust the person you're talking to or not?  At this point, I must take a brief detour to reiterate my stance on lying, which I have explained in at least one previous blog entry.  I believe that lying, of any kind, is corrosive to all personal relationships, and has no place in them.  I believe lying to be on the continuum of violence, and is only acceptable to use in self-defensive situations when violence would become necessary, should all else fail.  (I'm of course excluding comedy, such as sarcasm, which is fine.)  That said, if you trust someone implicitly, then you should be confident that they are telling the truth whether they use any sort of guaranteeing word such as "promise" or not.  You should know that they are telling the truth, simply because you know that they always tell the truth.  Moreover, I submit that if you find yourself doubting someone's word if they fail to say the word "promise", then you do not trust them as much as you profess to, and this is likely their fault.  If a person has a habit of lying, even so-called "white lies", then true trust cannot exist.  There may be some outlier cases of people who regularly lie, but always tell the truth when using the word "promise".  Such a bizarre aberration would like living in a toxic game of Simon Says.  If one has to constantly doubt the words of another and press them for some sort of truth confirmation, then real trust can never exist.

Furthermore, I would argue that using the word "promise" could even serve to cast a shadow of doubt.  If someone "promises" that they are telling the truth this time, does that mean that each time they didn't promise is suspect?  Why employ that reassurance unless there's some reason to--some past utterances that weren't genuine?  The guarantee simply isn't necessary if true trust has been established.

Likewise, if you do not in fact trust someone, then is your opinion of their words going change in the slightest if they "promise"?  Suppose you know someone to be a liar; are you going to suddenly believe them if they use the word "promise"?  I should hope not.  Suppose you don't know someone at all, and they make a statement.  Could be about anything.  Is your reckoning of whether they are telling the truth going to change based on whether they say "promise" or not?  I doubt it.  You're either going to get an intuitive sense that they are trustworthy, or you're not.  Whether that intuition is accurate or not is another matter, but the word "promise" changes nothing.

This is why the institution of public oaths is a nonsensical one in my view.  Perhaps the Hippocratic Oath serves some purpose in making doctors feel more strongly about staying true to their path of healing, but I would argue that even the most well-intentioned of oaths could be problematic.  In my opinion, an inability to think of a situation in which a doctor "doing harm" may be the best and most ethical thing do to is simply tantamount to a lack of imagination.  But where oaths are clearly ridiculous, in my view, is in the courtroom.  The institution of swearing to tell the truth in court is simply meaningless.  Either a person is honest, or they're not.  If a person is dishonest, then we all know that nothing can stop them from lying under oath, and only a fool would trust them, so why bother with the oath?  Only the honest person would place any stock in the ethics of a promise, which makes it moot in the first place.  A dishonest person won't care about the oath, which makes it pointless.  All we can do is try to gauge the truth of their claims based on all evidence, which is what we do anyway.  The word "promise" is always arbitrary.

On a larger scale, promises on the state or global stage are just as meaningless.  If a country promises to, say, not invade somewhere, or curtail their nuclear weapon program, how do we gauge their trustworthiness?  We tend to look at their actions, and whether or not they have a track record of breaking their word.  Does the "promise" actually change anything?  No.  I'd argue not.

As I said, what it comes down to is trust, and trust is arguably the most valuable thing in the world.  Trust is the foundation on which all relationships are built, and it is how they crumble.  In my opinion, no healthy relationship of any kind can exist without implicit trust.  As we all know, trust is the easiest thing in the world to lose, and once gone, incredibly difficult, and often impossible, to regain.  Trust is also paradoxically the hardest, and easiest, thing in the world to gain.  It's hard to gain because it takes time, but it's also easy because you don't have to do anything special to earn it.  You really don't have to do... anything at all, except be honest, which is actually trivially easy, and quite liberating, if one makes a commitment to it.  Lying is what's difficult, and takes much more mental energy.  Make a commitment to honesty, and many doors open.  A relationship with implicit two-way trust is a healthy one, and one where the concept of promises is simply unnecessary.

That feels very much like an ending to me, and while I could stop there, but I want to quickly take a moment to address something--you may find it strange that I seem to take issue with the social construct of promises when it seems so benign and positive, and I want to make it clear that I don't think promises are harmful.  I don't mean to say that promises are something we should actively try to eliminate from our world.  There are a lot of toxic things that our world could do without (many of which I've written about in this blog), but promises ain't one of 'em.  I just don't think they're necessary.  This is just philosophy, and often times I find it interesting to float ideas like this around, just for the fun of it.


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