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Promising and the Good

by Guy Mansini, O.S.B.

Sapientia, 173 pages, $21.95

Why do people today seem to have so much trouble making and keeping lifelong promises? Ever more couples live together without benefit of marriage, and ever larger numbers of those who do marry later divorce. Few make religious vows today and yet an astonishing number of those who do later depart, with or without the benefit of a dispensation.

No doubt, the reasons for the problem are complex, and often so personal as to elude generalization. But Guy Mansini’s analysis in Promising and the Good sheds important light on the larger cultural problem, first by treating the general nature of promising, and then by turning to the specific question of religious promises. Arguing historically, he identifies certain societal trends that have transformed what people think they are doing when they make promises. Working philosophically, he distinguishes between views that ground obligation entirely in the free choice by which someone makes a promise, and views that root our obligations in the nature of what is promised. The final portion of his book offers a theological vision: We could truly never imagine ourselves making the kinds of promises that we do in Christian marriage or religious life without the surety of the promise that God has given us in Christ.

The most significant piece in the historical puzzle is the process by which a faulty view of human freedom has come to infect modernity”and thereby to affect whatever progress had been made over the centuries of Christian culture about the role of lifelong commitments in human maturation. It is not, of course, as if there were no promise-breakers in premodern Christianity; history has always been marred by opportunists and traitors. But premodern culture understood the matter differently. Modern readers of Dante, for instance, are often perplexed by the medieval poet’s decision to regard betrayal and treachery as lower among the circles of Hell than crimes of violence. The difference, for Mansini, resides in the degree to which voluntarism”not just theoretically but practically”has penetrated our modern self-understanding and thereby affected the entire understanding of the moral life.

Considered philosophically, the question is how to understand the fact that promising anything creates an obligation. Clearly, the will has to be involved, for we can hardly be obligated by a promise if we have not made a free and deliberate choice. But there must be more to it than just the will. If the obligation of a promise depended only on the will, why couldn’t a subsequent act of willing simply dissolve an earlier promise and leave one free to move on? The frequency with which people today often do precisely that indicates how different a philosophical justification they need to invoke as a warrant for their conduct.

Mansini’s study interweaves the historical and the philosophical in order to make the case for saying that the source of the obligation of fidelity is not just the freedom with which a given promise was chosen but the nature of the good that is promised. His review of the figures most responsible for undermining the sacred character of promise-making traces the influence of voluntarism through the likes of Nietzsche and Hume and Hobbes back to Ockham, and the resulting survey has a quality that reminds one of Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences .

Of special interest is chapter eleven, where Mansini links the secularization of culture and the corresponding privatization of religion to the diminution of the role that religion has traditionally played in the processes of character formation and personal maturation. In, say, a Hobbesian world of brute nature, most people would live in a kind of practical atheism, with only the Leviathan State to ensure that promises are binding. By contrast, the Christian vision takes God to be the ultimate authority”One who would remind us with the hope of heaven that He wants us to be as faithful to our promises as He Himself is to His, and that He will help us by His grace.

Interspersed with this deftly handled analysis of the abstract reasoning of philosophers like John Searle and Immanuel Kant, one also finds superb psychological insight into the typical excuses that are offered by way of rationalization for the breaking of promises. Invariably these excuses turn on a faulty anthropology. A failed marriage is labeled “a mistake,” as if the promise were really a miscalculation or a failed prediction and not a covenant with another person. Or, in justification for abandoning their ordination, men have been heard to explain, “I’m a different person now. I’m not the same man I used to be””as if it had been someone else who made the promise. These excuses trade upon a view of the self as entirely self-defining”as if there were no goods antecedent to our choices and as if there were complete liberty to create one’s own values as often as needed”and thus to be forgetful that at some point even plastic snaps.

Holding that the promised good is what really generates the obligation, Mansini presents a comprehensive account of the views of St. Thomas Aquinas on intellect and will, with special attention to the interplay of knowing and loving. The will could not be reasonably thought to bind its own future choices unless there were a good to be bound to, a good that needs to be first grasped by the mind and loved as greater than oneself. What thus binds the will is love”love for a good that we do not make good by our act of choice but that we recognize to be good already, independently of our choice, and deserving to be chosen and loved. Unlike Hobbes, who held that the best reason to keep a promise comes from a calculation of comparative utility, Aquinas treats promising as an aspect of friendship and thereby finds that the real reason for keeping promises resides in the duties of benevolence and the intention to look out for the other’s good that is at the heart of human friendship. While freedom is clearly a necessary condition for making any promise that will oblige us, it cannot be regarded as the sufficient condition for the obligation, or else we could throw off a promise to which we no longer felt ourselves attracted.

The act of promising does add something important, of course. It provides security for those who receive our promise that they can now count on our action. But their being able to count on us requires that our obligation to perform a certain action be independent of the mutable state of our preferences, which can surely can change if there is need for sacrifice or even just inconvenience. Likewise, promising adds a public character to whatever good is promised. The advantage here, of course, is a certain force that promotes stability in the will against the possibility of self-interested forgetfulness.

Arrayed against this position is an idea of freedom that has been sapping Western culture for a long time and that has in our era infiltrated even quarters long thought immune to it. Mansini identifies the chief culprit as Ockham’s idea of “freedom of indifference””taken not just as an abstract doctrine of fourteenth-century nominalism, but as an all-too-real element of modern sensibility that makes promise-keeping seem unbearably hard. Every ethical theory, of course, depends upon some vision of human nature. Under this view, binding oneself to a choice for life would seem to mean a diminution of our freedom to define and re-define ourselves”an intolerable burden for those who prize autonomy as the essence of self.

The final portion of Promising and the Good is a theological approach to the topic. Making and keeping our promises”even lifelong promises”is an indispensable aspect of our flourishing. On the need for irrevocable promises, Mansini quotes a fascinating line from Hans Urs von Balthasar: “a self-surrender that is temporary is not a genuine self surrender.” Yet the strength to be faithful, especially to the special vocations to which God calls us, depends on grace. Our confidence about this divine assistance, not to mention our ultimate model for fidelity to promises, is God Himself, whose gift of Christ and the Holy Spirit to the Church is the fulfillment of promises made long before.

The promises of God, in the series of covenants God made with His people, were not, after all, for God’s benefit but entirely for the benefit of humanity. The divine pattern in making promises as well as in keeping them in this way provides a perfect model for our own promises. It pertains not only to the promises that we might make, such as religious life or marriage, where the adventure that begins with the making of the promise is inextricably tied up with the incapacity to know before hand exactly what the promise will require. It also pertains to the baptismal promises that most of us never made for ourselves but that others made for us. In Christ God has promised to make available the graces that will be needed.

Joseph W. Koterski, S.J., is Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University and editor of the International Philosophical Quarterly.