I recently heard a discussion on the radio with the ethicist Prof. Asa Kasher about whether politicians should be held to their campaign promises as if such commitments were business contracts. We have all witnessed news personalities cornering a politician into a public promise, as if in a competition for who can extract the most outrageous promise, and to politicians sprouting promises they’ll never deliver, with some even adding physical manifestations to prove seriousness (anyone remember the infamous shaving of a mustache?).
What explains this culture of public promising? I think of the numerous times colleagues in the university asked – implored — me to promise: To promise not to cut academic positions; to promise to increase a budget; to promise to help with a promotion; to promise to champion a particular field; promise, promise, promise.
What lies behind this need for promises? When else was I implored to make a promise?
“Abba, promise me you won’t die.” Decades ago, as a young father, each of my children at around age three asked me to promise not to die, and of course I did, knowing full well that I was lying. I did it to assuage their fears, and because I knew they were incapable of comprehending the complexity of life at that stage. They needed a clear answer to sleep well, and I provided it, with the inborn fear that I could be setting them up for one of life’s worst lessons.
But academic faculty and administrative employees are not toddlers, and so I do not make promises simply to assuage fears. Rather I speak of stances, of values, of vision. I speak of intention and consequences and of the unknown. And I ask them about their fears and motivations. Why is it so important that I promise? What do they expect of me? And how will they feel if in the end I have to change my mind because of some unforeseen event?
Indeed, values and stances are far more important than promises. Values and stances are complex and nuanced, while promises are made solely to assuage. What good are promises if we know that we may not be able to keep them? So I promise only what is certain. Though I cannot promise not to die, I can promise to always love my children. I promise to lead Ben-Gurion University with integrity for the good of the Negev and Israel. I promise to emphasize and promote the role of research in building our future. But I do not promise who I will hire or how I will fund a department.
How much better we would be as a country if our leaders stopped making empty promises as if we were toddlers and started talking about value-based intention. How much more serious the discussion would be if our newscasters stopped asking shallow “promise” questions, and instead challenged our leaders to articulate the future they see. And if a reporter must ask a “promise” question, I suggest: “Do you promise to put the needs of the country over the needs of your party or yourself?” That’s a question I would like to hear answered because that is a promise worth making.