Winter 2007

‘An Animal That Can Promise and Forgive’

Robert Spaemann Holger Zaborowski

"In forgiveness, I allow the other to distance himself from his nature, from the way he is. In the moment of forgiveness, the other ceases to be a liar, so to speak. But it takes permission from outside of himself."

Holger Zaborowski: Professor Spaemann, thank you very much for taking time to speak about promising and forgiving. We encounter promises in contexts that are actually quite varied: we speak of campaign promises or of marriage vows, but there are also promises of a more minor character, such as a promise, for example, to water the flowers this afternoon, or my promise to be here at a particular time. The question for you—for the philosopher—is thus: what is common to all of these varied phenomena, these various forms of promising? And what does promising actually entail?

Robert Spaemann: As a rule, a promise is made with respect to another person. Promising gives the other person the possibility to expect certain things of me, and actually not only the possibility but the right—a claim on me. In making a promise, I grant to another the right to expect something, for instance that the flowers will be watered. He is entitled to expect this. If I have not promised this, then he is not entitled to expect it. If I perhaps do it, I can surprise him. In that case, he will be pleased, but if I did not first promise to do it, he cannot complain and say: “But you did not water my flowers.” What specifically characterizes a promise is that, in a certain way, I make myself independent of my current mood. I may not feel like watering the flowers this afternoon, for example, but I have promised to do it, and that is a reason to do it. This capacity is an astonishing attribute of the human person: a person can make himself independent of the way he happens to feel at present, and in this way he realizes a higher degree of freedom.

H.Z.: So when one speaks of promising, one presupposes that the person is free. We see that the human person can relate freely to his own nature.

R.S.: Yes. In this way he is also more independent of outside influences, for my present mood is, on the one hand, determined endogenically by whatever processes are taking place in my body and, on the other hand, from outside myself. Both of these conditions, nature as well as outside influences, are repressed—are actually eliminated—when I say that tomorrow I will in fact do what today I resolved to do tomorrow.

H.Z.: Here we find a very interesting relationship between freedom and nature: man is a thing of nature, dependent on quite varied influences—and at the same time, in making a promise, there is an act of freedom in which one freely promises to do something in the future, and in this way binds oneself to the other.

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