3. What’s in a Promise?
Promise: In a general sense, a declaration, written or verbal, made by one person to another, which binds the person who makes it, either in honour, conscience or law, to do or forbear a certain act specified; a declaration which gives to the person to whom it is made, a right to expect or to claim the performance or forbearance of the act. (Webster’s Dictionary, words emboldened by the author).
If a promise is enforceable in law, legal recourse is open to those who belive they have been let down.
But, many promises that matter – and promises on national education policy matter a great deal – are not readily subject to legal sanction if broken. In these cases, what enforcement mechanisms are we left with? Being bound in ‘honour’ and ‘conscience’, together with a ‘right to expect performance’ on behalf of the promisee.
So the main imperative for keeping promises that are not legally enforceable is essentially moral or ethical.
At this point the pragmatists may be scoffing. Honour? Conscience? Morality? These are not material considerations. Breaking these bonds does not usually imply any material disadvantage, and the consequences of doing so are always negotiable.
Idealists will object. But even the most fervent idealist will concede that it is difficult to frame objections which pass the materiality test. It is hard to identify the adverse material consequences of breaking a bond of honour, at least in the short term. Idealists are left to fulminate – breaking promises is just plain ‘wrong’.