Debate Magazine

Moral Premise: Promise Keeping

By Cris

Making and keeping promises is a hallmark of human behavior that many consider to be a cornerstone of “morality.” As such, it is often linked to religion. The linkage is expressly acknowledged by religious groups such as Promise Keepers.

Until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to promises per se or their critical importance to the evolution of conscience. Nietzsche, not surprisingly, understood its importance and addressed the issue in Genealogy of Morals (II:1): “To breed an animal with the right to make promises — is not this the paradoxical task that nature has set for itself in the case of man?” 

In Making Sense of Nietzsche, Richard Schacht highlights the importance of this question — and its answer:

What engages his attention here is the fundamental issue of what the possibility of promising (and keeping one’s promises) presupposes, and the ramifications in human life in the establishment of this possibility. Its establishment, Nietzsche contends, required the development of a kind of memory going beyond the (basically animal) capacity to absorb and retain things experienced.

This immediately calls to mind chimpanzees. Many have observed they are always “in the present,” trapped as it were by memories that can only be cued by external events or environments. The ability to self-cue memories without such prompts — to cease being creatures of the moment — was a fundamental cognitive shift or what I would call a phase change involving consciousness. By this view, which makes considerable transcend-sense, promissory ability is the prerequisite for “moral” ability.


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