No Place for a Promise.

No Place for a Promise.

[Liberty, November 12, 1892.]

A Promise, according to the common acceptation of the term, is a binding declaration made by one person to another to do, or not to do, a certain act at some future time. According to this definition, there can, I think, be no place for a promise in a harmonious progressive world. Promises and progress are incompatible, unless all the parties are, at all times, as free to break them as they were to make them; and this admission eliminates the binding element, and, therefore, destroys the popular meaning of a promise.(51 ¶ 1)

In a progressive world we know more to-morrow than we know to-day. Also harmony implies absence of external coercion: for, all coercion being social discord, a promise that appears just and feels agreeable when measured with to-day’s knowledge may appear unjust and become disagreeable when measured with the standard of to-morrow’s knowledge; and in so far as the fulfilment of a promise becomes disagreeable or impossible, it is an element of discord, and discord is the opposite of harmony.(51 ¶ 2)

H. Olerich, Jr.

Holstein, Iowa.

But it is equally true, my good friend, that the non-fulfilment of a promise is disagreeable to the promisee, and in so far it is an element of discord, and discord is the opposite of harmony. You need not look for harmony until people are disposed to be harmonious. But justice, or a close approximation thereto, can be secured even from ill-disposed people. I have no doubt of the right of any man to whom, for a consideration, a promise has been made, to insist, even by force, upon the fulfilment of that promise, provided the promise be not one whose fulfilment would invade third parties. And if the promisee has a right to use force himself for such a purpose, he has a right to secure such co-operative force from others as they are willing to extend. These others, in turn, have a right to decide what sort of promises, if any, they will help him to enforce. When it comes to the determination of this point, the question is one of policy solely; and very likely it will be found that the best way to secure the fulfilment of promises is to have it understood in advance that the fulfilment is not to be enforced. But as a matter of justice and liberty, it must always be remembered that a promise is a two-sided affair. And in our anxiety to leave the promisor his liberty, we must not forget the superior right of the promisee. I say superior, because the man who fulfils a promise, however unjust the contract, acts voluntarily, whereas the man who has received the promise is defrauded by its non-fulfilment, invaded, deprived of a portion of his liberty against his will.(51 ¶ 3)