Promising, Obligation, and Freedom

“To make any happiness sincere it is necessary that we believe it to be lasting.”—Johnson, Rambler (No. 53)

A belief in the permanence of happiness, as an objective and transcendent fact, is the basis of any meditation on ethics. It is also crucial to understanding the nature of man’s promises. This is the point of Guy Mansini’s Promising and the Good, which I was recently asked to review for a religious journal.

A promise entitles us to hope and trust in the actions of others with some view to a future good. Yet only a sense of obligation provides the surety, or “lasting” quality, of the happiness planned for. Our understanding of what obligation means can, in turn, greatly affect how promises are kept and carried out.

As Fr. Mansini observes, a sense of obligation and fidelity is dying out. The breakdown in commitment has deep roots. Fr. Mansini not only considers those moderns who try (unsuccessfully) to look for the purpose of promising in man’s will, but traces the first ethical fractures in the philosophical writings of William of Ockham (c. 1285-1349). Of particular concern to Mansini is Okham’s view of freedom and the will. Previously, pagans and Christians alike looked to the greater good intended when a promise was made. Yet over time the issue became obscured. According to the author, a paradigm shift came with Ockham’s emphasis not on “freedom for excellence,” but “freedom of indifference.”

By looking at “freedom” simply as an assertion of the will, rather than as directed to some good, Ockham unwittingly paved the way for later materialist thinkers. The shift from objective good to the subjective “goods” of the will undermines the nature of promising in such institutions as marriage. The will itself ceases to be a “faculty for the good,” ordered by reason, but caters to one’s appetite. Hence the individual may say there is no longer any benefit to be derived from a given union. In his mind this lack of fulfillment dissolves the obligation. Modernists argue that the undertaking of firm obligations “narrows us” and limits our “possibilities.” Fr. Mansini counters that

[T]he truth of the matter is that we only become something real and actual by choosing one course…. Fullness in fact lies with the choice of one, not with the fantasy life of living in possibilities…. To keep all our possibilities open is never to amount to anything.

To understand the nature of a promise we have to understand the higher principles at stake. That, in turn, refers us to God, faith, and our transcendent destiny.

If we know our promises, the content of our promises, in this way, we will have the kind of knowledge of them that will move us to fulfill them with an ardor whose principle is the Holy Spirit. We will think the sufferings connected in this age with the discharge of our promises “not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18).

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