Moral Premise: Promise Keeping

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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7 thoughts on “Moral Premise: Promise Keeping

  1. Sabio Lantz

    You said, The ability to self-cue memories without such prompts

    Do you know of people who think they have tested this to be true. I can’t even imagine how they would test it.

    Oooops, I forgot about this site. You still haven’t turned on the ability to follow comments. So if I don’t show up to reply to your replies, it is because I never knew you made any. Sorry ahead of time.

  2. Cris Post author

    Tested what or who to be true? Humans can self cue memories, as in voluntary recall. I’m not aware of any primatologists who think, based on observation and experiment, that non-human primates have this ability. They don’t, in other words, appear to ruminate about last year’s event.

    On the comment thing, I don’t have anything to “turn on” — this is an old WordPress which I can’t update so can’t add the widget for this function. My IT guy is revamping the entire site in early November, so you will have that ability then. Sorry.

  3. Sabio Lantz

    Yeah, I am looking forward to the November revamp.

    You said,

    They don’t, in other words, appear to ruminate about last year’s event.

    I would love if you could support that statement. Perhaps no one has ever shown that they do, but I doubt anyone has shown that they don’t. I’d be curious.
    (until you get feedback fixed, drop by my site and say “Hi” and that will clue me to come back here to see what has happened.)

  4. Cris Post author

    Let’s put it this way: primatologists cannot prove that primates lack this ability, but just about everything suggests they lack it. This is a very commonplace observation in primatology and one that is often made in the literature. Frans de Waal, for instance, discusses this in his chimp books and so does Richard Wrangham. If you did a Google Scholar search for studies on the topic, you would find many. It’s not at all controversial and there are many ways of approaching the issue. Merlin Donald also discusses this issue in his two books on evolution of brain-mind.

    This kind of self-cueing memory is obviously critical for symbolic thinking and language. Thus, chimp researchers are quite keen on finding it. They haven’t.

  5. Sabio Lantz

    That is true, if the are keen on finding it, the studies would be biased that way. Self-cuing is interesting. Is there a self-cuing or is a long chain of causal stuff.
    When my dog dreams of chasing (as he runs and barks in his dreams) — is his brain cuing a prev. memory or making up stuff. I’d imagine it was a mix, perhaps. Then why couldn’t the brain do that during the day, I wonder.

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