There is, I gather, a saying, which goes, “you don’t need to keep promises made to thieves and whores.” I wonder why? Is it because those professions are so inherently dishonourable that they wouldn’t know what to do with a kept promise, with them as either giver or receiver, if it slapped them in the face? What about the oft-lauded “honour amongst thieves”? Don’t grass on your mates, help your friends out when they need it, don’t pick victims who can’t absorb the loss – sounds okay, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what any moral person (and is there anyone in the world who doesn’t consider themselves a moral person?) would hold to be a decent code to live by? So does that mean we’re all thieves? And if we’re all thieves, we needn’t keep promises to each other, because we’re all inherently dishonourable, that’s why we don’t grass on our mates, help our friends out when they need it, and don’t pick victims who can’t absorb the loss. Erm…
So then, we’re all worthy of having promises kept. One-size-fits-all decisions are rarely good for all circumstances. What if you are compelled to make a promise, because to do otherwise would mean extreme poverty or hardship? What if you make a promise to someone who, when they require that you fulfil it, will use it for immoral purposes, or put you at a severe disadvantage? Do you, in those circumstances, have a moral choice to make about whether you should in fact fulfil the promise?
It’s generally held in law that any agreement, deal, statement or treaty made under duress is invalid. If you are sitting across a table from someone pointing a gun you believe to be real and they tell you choose between two pills, one of which will kill you, the other of which will have no effect, then if you take the lethal pill, the person holding the gun is guilty of murder. Unfortunately, being a bastard is not a punishable offence, so telling someone you’ll only give them the £100 they need to make this month’s rent if they promise to do something for you is fine, apparently. Remember, they either get the £100 or they have to start living on the streets, and you want them to promise to do something for you before you give it to them.
The person you’re talking to is known to be an corrupt, skinflint control-freak, but they also happen to be the one person in a hundred miles who can do something for you. Before they help you, they want you to promise a favour for them at some point in the future. Do you agree, going for the convenience of having your problem solved now without extra hassle, or do you find someone else to help you, knowing that if you had promised the favour to the first guy, you might have been called on to commit a crime or something.
What if the person who is extracting the promise from you manages to do so in a way which means you are legally obliged to keep the promise, no matter how abhorrent or inconvenient that is to you? Do you keep the promise, making the moral choice not to break the law? Or do you break the promise, and break the law, making the moral choice not to do something you personally find unacceptable? It depends what the promise requires, and which is the lesser of two evils in your moral worldview – is breaking a promise (or the law) more reprehensible to you than doing something you in other circumstances wouldn’t contemplate?
Moral choices come in all sorts of guises. It’s not just big things – do you donate money to the Philippine disaster relief fund or not, or do you protest the visit of a head of a state known to condone child abuse and torture or not – they can get right down to the fine detail; you can make one when you go shopping at the local shop, when you choose to buy the product from the evil multinational whose CEO recently said that access to water is not a basic right, or the same product from the other evil multinational that doesn’t pay a living wage to any of its’ workers (although those could be the same company).
Do you make the choice to tell that person what you did, in the knowledge they, as a corrupt skinflint control-freak, could use that information to make life incredibly difficult for you, or do you not? And when it comes down to it, are they the sort of person who will delay any attempt at redress by any means necessary, and eventually deny that any redress is needed if higher authority says that they are being a complete bastard? Because if they are, it’s a no-win situation, and you have to make a choice as to how much you’re willing to degrade yourself and your soul to continue doing as close to what you’ve been doing as you can.