Politicians Need Not Make Promises. If They Do, They Should Not Always Keep Them 6 October 2017

It is a commonly accepted view nowadays that the election manifestos of political parties and USA presidential candidates should contain lists of ‘promises’, ‘pledges’ or ‘vows’, where such terms are used synonymously. It is commonly assumed that politicians are morally obliged always to keep their promises, and to honour their pledges and vows.

However, political manifestos need not contain promises, pledges or vows. For instance, they might contain expressions of intentions, preferences, aspirations and hopes. Furthermore, politicians and others are sometimes morally obliged to break their word.

The stress on promises and pledges is a recent thing. Consider, for instance, the Conservative Party General Election Manifesto of 1959.  Harold Macmillan says, in the foreword:

‘Our policy can be simply stated:

Prosperity and Peace…. Vital international negotiations lie ahead and I ask you to continue to entrust them to a Conservative Government.’

There is not a hint of a specific promise, pledge or vow in the entire, short document.

In the Labour Party election manifesto of the same year there are no promises. There are two pledges. One is the pledge ‘to bring the work to the workers’.

In addition, the manifesto says:

‘… we have solemnly pledged ourselves to devote an average of 1 per cent of our national income each year to helping the underdeveloped areas.’

It is made very clear that not all the policies that are outlined in the manifesto are considered to be pledges.

Notice that it is curious to suggest that this pledge has a particular ethical quality. If someone says that he or she pledges to donate part of his or her own income to a charity of some sort, this would seem to be laudable. However, it is neither altruistic nor generous to donate others people’s income to a charity or to any other purpose. Why the solemnity?

The so-called pledges and promises of politicians typically relate to the transfer of public funds from one particular use to some other use and, directly or indirectly, they typically involve the transfer of money from some particular citizens to other particular ones.

What might seem like a promise to some can be a threat to others. We would hardly say that we are morally obliged always to carry out the threats we make. Yet, when a politician pledges to, say, introduce a mansion tax, this is a threat to the owners of mansions as much a promise to anyone else.

If we make a promise and thereby create for ourselves a moral obligation to keep it, we should be aware that we have not thereby removed all the other moral obligations that we have and which might well compel us to act in a way that is contrary to our promised behaviour.

If we promise to marry someone yet come to the view that it would be a dreadful mistake, we might well be, overall, obliged to call off the wedding. To go through with the wedding only because we have promised to do so might be foolish and unethical.

A parent who thinks that good parenting merely involves always doing what you have promised to do and what your children imagine that you have promised is likely to be a poor parent.

A good, reliable, trustworthy parent is one who can be trusted to fulfil the duties of parenthood even when that involves breaking promises and apparent promised to their children however much it might disappoint them.

Suppose a politician promises to adopt or to refrain from adopting a particular policy and then, in the light of, say, further reflection or an increased knowledge of the complexities of the issue changes his or her mind and comes to the sincerely held view that the promised course of action would be a serious mistake. He or she should break his promise.

To uphold or reject the particular policy merely because he or she had promised, or pledged to do so would be irresponsible.

For instance, President Trump famously – or notoriously – said, in his presidential campaign, with reference to alleged criminality associated with illegal immigration from Mexico: “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”

If there are good reasons for building such a wall that Mr Trump sincerely entertains, he should persevere with this policy. However, if he comes to be persuaded that it as a foolish policy, he should not try to implement it merely because ne repeatedly assured potential voters that, if elected, he would promptly do so.

We are not the clients of politicians in the way that, for instance, customers accept one of the rival offers to, say, landscape our gardens.  We make a deal with such contractors who, in return for our money, promise to deliver the service they have promised to provide.  We do not similarly make a deal with electoral candidates or political parties.

Members of Parliament are the representatives of all their constituents not merely those who voted for them. They have responsibilities towards these constituents and towards the citizenry in general. It is the central business of duly elected governments to govern in what they honestly believe is in the best interests of the public. If this conflicts with what they have, foolishly, promised or pledged to do, they ought to break their promises and dishonor their pledges.

Politicians are striking a pose rather than a deal when they make their so-called promises and pledges. They should be discouraged from doing so.

About Hugh McLachlan

Hugh V McLachlan is Professor of Applied Philosophy in the Department of Social Sciences, Media and Journalism at Glasgow Caledonian University. He is due to retire at the end of September, 2016. He is a specialist in medical ethics and is the author (along with J. K. Swales) of From the Womb to the Tomb: Issues in Medical Ethics. He also serves as an elder in the Church of Scotland and worships at Paisley Abbey.

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