Keeping promises is a cornerstone of respect—for others and ourselves. What would our word be worth if we constantly broke it?
Thus far in our exploration of the five fundamental ethical or "life" principles, we have looked at:
Do No Harm
Make Things Better
Respect Others (Part 1)
This week we continue unpacking the duty of respect for others by looking at the obligation to keep our promises.
Promises and Trustworthiness
You have just made plans to have dinner with a friend you have not seen in a while. Then another friend invites you to a party you would really love to attend, but to do so, you would have to break the engagement with your first friend. What should you do?
The obvious thing is to ask if you can bring your dinner date to the party. Let's assume for the sake of argument that for some reason you can't. It would not only be rude to cancel the dinner date, it would be unethical, because it would involve breaking a promise simply to indulge your own desires.
There are always extenuating circumstances that justify breaking a rule. If, for example, a parent is rushed to the emergency room an hour before the dinner date, we not only have a right to reschedule the dinner, but we have a moral obligation to do so. Our duty to our parent outweighs the duty to our friend. The example we're considering, however, doesn't involve a life-or-death decision.
One of the rules that keeps relationships in working order is the rule of keeping our promises. After all, our word would be meaningless if we broke it on a regular basis. At the heart of this moral obligation is the concept of trust. We maintain the trust that people place in us by, among other things, keeping our promises. By keeping the date, you maintain your integrity, and you'll feel better about yourself, even if you end up sacrificing what seems to be the more appealing opportunity. And who knows? You may end up enjoying the dinner after all.
Not for Professionals Only
Closely related to the concept of promise-keeping is fidelity, or loyalty. We get not only "fidelity," but "confidentiality" (as well as "Fido," the standard nickname for dogs, the most faithful of pets) from the Latin root fide. When we speak of a professional having a fiduciary responsibility to a client, we mean that the professional has an ethical obligation to be loyal to his or her client. This duty is tied to the very notion of professionalism.
In fact, the word "professional" comes from another Latin word that means "to make a public declaration." The professional publicly declares to devote his or her knowledge or skills to the benefit of others. This does not mean that physicians or attorneys, for example, have to be self-sacrificing. Rather, professionalism means that in choosing to become a doctor or lawyer, one's primary mission is not to enrich oneself. We go to our physician or lawyer rightly expecting that the recommendations we get will be based on our best interests, not theirs. We trust them to do what is right for us, since they have pledged to do so.
Professionals aren't the only ones who have a duty to keep promises, however; all of us do. Sometimes we create that duty ourselves, such as when we declare, "I promise to call you." Sometimes the duty is created for us, such as when we are hired to do a job. Signing a contract for employment is a legal act, but it is also a form of promise-making and is therefore an ethical act as well. We pledge to our employer that we will do the job that is asked of us. Our employer, in return, promises to create a work environment that allows us to do our job and, every two weeks or so, to pay us.
If we routinely spend our time at work surfing the Internet for shopping bargains or yakking on the phone with friends, we have not only violated our contract; we have broken our promise to our employer and are no longer entitled to remain an employee in good standing. Similarly, if we do our job well but our employer fails to pay us, or turns a blind eye to reports of sexual or racial harassment in the workplace, the company has broken its promise to us, and we are entitled to redress. (Whether it is in our interest to file a lawsuit is another matter.)
Promise-Keeping in Everyday Life
Now that we know the "why" of keeping promises, here are some simple ways we can apply this aspect of Life Principle No. 3 in our business and personal relationships:
1. Don't make promises you can't keep.
2. Keep the promises you make.
3. If you can't keep a promise for a legitimate reason (which does not necessarily include something better coming along), be honest with the person to whom you made the pledge.
Next week we'll discuss Life Principle No. 4: Be Fair.
Have a professional ethical dilemma? Need help figuring out the right thing to do on the job? Ask the Ethics Guy! Write to Dr. Bruce Weinstein at Bruce@TheEthicsGuy.com, and your question may be answered in his weekly column on BusinessWeek.com.