It seems in contemporary society that ‘to promise’ is a rather simple, common action. It is an action performed quite frequently, and sometimes without much thought. Why would such a simple and common action be the subject of a problematization by Nietzsche? And why would promising be the kind of problem, such that Nietzsche questions whether it is “…the true problem of man?” (35). I will attempt to explain why Nietzsche thinks promising is such a problem for man. This will include placing the problem of promising in the context of Nietzsche’s genealogical account of morality, as well as examining a real-life example of promising and the ramifications that promises have in the formation of a morality.
What is it about promising that is problematic? First, a definition of what a promise is: a promise is a declaration or assurance that one will do a particular thing or that guarantees that a particular thing will happen . The problem of promising is that it is a predictive action. More formally, it is an action that imposes the necessity of one’s will on future events in a causal way. Nietzsche thinks this a problem; in that when someone makes a promise they are presupposing the ability of human beings to impose their will on future events in a causal way. Is the presupposition right or wrong?
It seems fair to think that general intuitions about promising suggest that Nietzsche’s characterization of the presupposition is wrong. The reason being is it seems that when someone actually makes a promise they do not consider themselves to be exerting their will in a causal way on future events. Instead, folks generally consider themselves as only saying something and then hopefully doing later on what they said they would do, come what may. The hopefulness that supplies an individual’s desire to make a promise and then fulfill that promise is different than a person exerting their will on future events in a causal way. Yet Nietzsche explains to us that a promise, a real promise, is the exertion of one’s will on future events in a causal way. A promise ensures some future event B is going to happen, and in order to ensure that event B is going to happen event B has to have a necessary and causal link to the force that is ensuring B. Nietzsche tells us what is being presupposed: “In order to have this kind of command over the future in advance, man must first have learned to separate the necessary from the accidental occurrence, to think causally, to see and anticipate what is distant as if it were present” (36). In a sense, one aspect of Nietzsche’s critique of promising is that promising places demands on the promiser be a kind of prophet, a soothsayer, a fortuneteller.
If promising is problematic in the way that Nietzsche describes, what bearing does promising have on a morality? Within Nietzsche’s genealogical account, promising is the mode through which a key trait of a morality develops, namely responsibility: “Precisely this [an account of promising] is the long history of the origins of responsibility” (36). That is, the presupposition that permits a person to promise is also the thing that molds a person into an expected form. The expected form will be the fulfilled promise, fulfilled by a sustained causal event of the will, which the person is then judged by. The expectation is the threshold for judgment, a judgment that will measure the success or failure of a person in their ability to maintain the form that was self-diagnosed at the moment of promising. Responsibility is a self-inflicted mandate, one that a person inflicts on himself or herself whenever a promise is made. And responsibility is an affliction in the sense that one’s ability to fulfill a promise, or lack-thereof, becomes a responsibility apart from one’s initial promise. That is, one is not only responsible for oneself and their promise keeping ability, responsibility is the measure by which other people can gauge the moral aptitude of an individual. When a person makes a promise they may be under the impression that they are involved in a private use of the will, one that they alone are privy to unleash or extinguish. However, the promise introduces responsibility and as such, introduces a chorus of praise or blame onto the often-unsuspecting promiser.
A promise is what institutes responsibility, and responsibility in turn is what gives rise to a communal effort of judging the responsibility of the promiser. In this sense, a promise is a contractual obligation, one in which the promiser owes a fulfillment of the promise. And to what entity does the promiser owe fulfillment of the promise? The promiser owes it to him or herself, to everyone else, and within the morality that Nietzsche is critiquing, God. The contractual obligation is a helpful way of understanding the problem of promising, and now we will examine a real-life contract example in order to elucidate the problem of promising.
When an individual joins the military the process includes signing a contract, thereby promising an allotted amount of time of service to the military . The fundamental problem of promising years of one’s life to some duty without knowledge of future events should be rather easy to establish with this example. In the case of military service, the unknown is looming in the horizon of the promiser. Yet, the contract is meant to stand-in for the unknown: the promise is supposed to be the thing that makes the unknown, known. The promise is a kind of pretending—a making believe—that despite what may transpire in the future the contract has already given the individual everything they need to know about any given situation. Say a soldier experiences an event during their time of service that brings about a questioning of the original promise. In regard to the issue of responsibility, questioning the promise is already something to be chided for. This is because the soldier, simply by the act of questioning the original promise, is undermining the authority of an event that is supposedly necessary and causally connected to future events of the soldier’s life. That is, a moral hierarchy becomes evident in which fidelity to a promise is what constitutes the moral well being of the soldier. And yet, as Nietzsche’s problematization of promising illustrates, the soldier as a promising agent cannot “vouch for himself as future” (36). That is, the idea that someone actually can propose some future event as certain, simply because they have vowed in the past that it is so, is impossible.
Some may argue that a contract with the military is a kind of promise that one can always fulfill because to uphold it is something always within the capability of the promiser. This is a type of argument that relies on responsibility to reign-in the soldier. However, if Nietzsche’s problematization of promising is accurate, the responsibility that is supposed to compel the soldier to uphold the contract does not exist. For in order for there to be responsibility, there first has to be a promise that can see into the future and guarantee the outcome of the future event. Otherwise, responsibility as a particular morality knows it, never gets off the ground.
In light of the importance that responsibility is given in our contemporary moral formation, it is rather provocative that Nietzsche is suggesting the act of making a promise (and all of the important things that promising presupposes), is what provides us with our concept of responsibility. The troubling thing about Nietzsche’s insight if it is accurate, is that our moral formation is based on a concept that forces us to comply with ridiculous notions about ourselves, i.e. that we not only dictate future events, but we can know them before they occur. This seems so obviously absurd, yet I wonder if we would rather continue these practices because of their convenience, even if their continued practice promises that we continue living as fools?