Promising Ourselves, Promising Others


Promising ourselves is familiar, yet some find it philosophically troubling. Though most of us take the promises we make ourselves seriously, it can seem mysterious how a promise made only to oneself could genuinely bind. Moreover, the desire to be bound by a promise to oneself may seem to expose an unflattering lack of trust in oneself. In this paper I aim to vindicate self-promising from these broadly skeptical concerns. Borrowing Nietzsche’s idea of a memory of the will, I suggest that self-promising involves an activity of the will, aimed at the preservation and protection of one’s values. I explain how, understood in this way, these promises can indeed bind, and show that the motivation for making them need not involve mistrust or other alienated attitudes. I then turn to interpersonal promising, arguing that this same activity of the will is required for sincerely promising others: in effect, making a sincere promise to another requires making a promise to oneself. Attention to this under-appreciated aspect of interpersonal promising enriches our understanding of all promises, and helps to correct a narrow and distorted picture of what it means to be bound.

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  1. 1.

    These words may be spoken aloud, or in one’s head. While it is a mistake to construe all thought as inner speech, some mental activity is appropriately described this way.

  2. 2.

    The fact that use of the word “promise” is not necessary for making a promise is widely acknowledged. “We very often make promises by use of the special locution, ‘I promise’, but use of that locution is not necessary for promising.” (Thomson 1990: 299) “When I say, ‘I promise to be there at ten o’clock to help you,” the effect is the same as if I had said, “I will be there at ten o’clock to help you. Trust me.’” (Scanlon 1998: 306) “We can promise without using any of its synonyms or part-synonyms… We also use ‘I promise’ without promising.” (Raz 1977: 211) A consequence is that promising is more ubiquitous than one might have initially thought, and this seems no less true of promises to self. It is worth noting, too, that in many cases (both intra- and inter-personal) we find it more natural to use the word “promise” after the fact; I might, for instance, turn down an invitation to a party by saying “I’m sorry, but I promised myself I’d spend more time at home with my family this week” even though the word “promise” was never uttered or thought when committing myself. I owe this observation to Benjamin Chan.

  3. 3.

    By contrast, I might go out and buy an expensive new treadmill, believing that I will be in some way bound to get my money’s worth in order to justify the expenditure. Whatever one makes of the rationality of such an undertaking, clearly trying to bind myself to exercise in this way would be manifestly indirect. A promise to myself to start exercising more is not meant to work like this—the making of the promise does not involve doing anything else that I believe will result in my becoming bound as a further consequence.

  4. 4.

    Indeed, in some cases we may think more of her. A promise to oneself to do something foolish or unsafe, for example, might be one we think should be reconsidered. We would praise someone for changing her mind.

  5. 5.

    Each of these has been urged as the core value that underlies the activity of interpersonal promising, and/or the human need served by the making and keeping of binding agreements. Assurance is the focus of the account offered by Scanlon (1998). The value and stability of social cooperative life seems of central concern to many, perhaps most famously Hume (1978); it is, in a rather different way, at the heart of the idea that we have “normative interests,” the leading idea in Owens (2006, 2012). Shiffrin (2008) argues that promising may be necessary in order to engage in interpersonal relationships, especially intimate ones, in a morally good way.

  6. 6.

    Two recent discussions of self-promising (Rosati 2011; Habib 2009) also aim to combat skeptical concerns about bindingness. A word about how my strategy differs from theirs may be helpful. Both Rosati and Habib appear to accept the assumption that gets the skepticism going, namely that it is a sine qua non of a bona fide promise that it binds by way of generating a moral obligation of performance, where that appears to be understood in more or less the usual way. Thus, both aim to show how the self-promiser morally obligates herself, where that means successfully constraining her future action by making it the case that there is something that must be done (unless perhaps one is “released” by oneself), on pain of committing a moral wrong (presumably, one that warrants blame). By contrast, I think the skeptic is more or less right in maintaining that if promises made to ourselves bind, it cannot be in that way. Thus, in order to vindicate these promises, I aim to explicate another recognizable sense of how we can be genuinely bound by them. As will emerge through the course of this paper (and especially in the final section), I think the skeptic’s real mistake is in thinking that interpersonal promissory obligations are always, or even often, best understood as binding in the particular way that generates the skeptical concerns about self-promising.

  7. 7.

    See for instance Korsgaard (1996, 1989) and Williams (1984). Both hold that facts about what an individual values play an essential role in determining her identity as a particular person; moreover, both argue that these kinds of facts are central among those that unify a person over time, marshaling the idea to counter Parfit’s (1984, 1971) well-known arguments about personal identity.

  8. 8.

    My use of Nietzsche’s memory of the will is an appropriation: what I offer is not put forward as a scholarly treatment of Nietzsche’s brief remarks about promising. Nor do I mean to discuss the place of these remarks about promising within Nietzsche’s larger philosophical project. That stated, I do think the view I develop can credibly claim to be Nietzschean in spirit. For illuminating discussion of Nietzsche’s views about promising, see Ridley (2009) and Migotti (2013).

    Migotti’s paper in particular offers a reading of Nietzsche that exhibits important affinities with my own discussion. Migotti emphasizes the continuity between promises to self and interpersonal promises on the Nietzschean view (though Migotti refers to promises to oneself as “vows,” reserving “promise” for interpersonal promises, this seems a merely terminological point). Along with threats, Migotti counts promises to self and interpersonal promises as members of a single genus, pledges. On the Nietzschean view as he reconstructs it, the making and keeping of any pledge depends on one’s possession of a distinctive kind of “voluntary reliability,” and keeping one’s word is most fundamentally a matter of personal integrity—of remaining faithful to “the very person one is, in the act of promising, setting out to be.” (Migotti 2013: 518). Migotti also stresses the difference between this picture of how a voluntary commitment can bind, and traditional conceptions of the moral obligation to keep a (interpersonal) promise that focus on the entitlement of the promisee.

    It is also worth noting that there has recently been some controversy concerning whether the passages about promising and the ‘sovereign individual’ that launch the second essay of Nietzsche’s Genealogy should be taken at face value. Hatab (1995), Acampora (2004), and Leiter (2011) all argue that Nietzsche is better read as ridiculing or mocking the ‘sovereign individual,’ presenting her as a figure in the grip of delusions about her own freedom and power. A survey of the literature indicates this reading has not won many converts, however. Discussion of these passages that locate the ideal championed there squarely within the broader framework of Nietzsche’s work (thus lending support to the traditional, straightforward reading of the text) can be found in Anderson (2006, 2012) and Miles (2006). Migotti also weighs in on this controversy at the end of his paper, offering additional evidence concerning Nietzsche’s attitude towards promising, which supports the traditional reading.

  9. 9.

    A terminological note may be important. I have been using value and valuing throughout, and will continue to do so. I might have instead used a number of other expressions I am inclined to treat as more or less equivalent, e.g. what matters to a person, what she regards as important, or what is (central) among her cares and/or concerns. I stick primarily to “value talk” throughout because I find it lends itself to cleaner prose; e.g. it is more natural to talk about “a person’s values,” or to refer to us as “valuers,” while referring to “the things that matter to a person,” or to ourselves as “people to whom things are important” is, by comparison, inelegant.

  10. 10.

    To be clear: there is no “in order to” here. E.g., I do not consider being a baseball fan, or being a friend, as means I adopt to make my life more fun or meaningful. Rather, the relationship is constitutive: in following baseball, or being a friend, my life is thereby enriched.

  11. 11.

    The difference between changes to our values that are the result of this capacity for deliberate reflection and changes that are not is a deep distinction, but not a sharp one. In fact, we recognize something of a spectrum. At one end, we consciously reflect upon our values, and deliberately decide to keep or change them. At the other end, changes to our values manifest themselves as though they simply “happen” to us, and sometimes even take us by surprise. In actual fact, most (if not all) changes to our values fall somewhere in the middle, between these two extremes. Changing values is neither entirely something we do, nor entirely something we undergo.

  12. 12.

    I do not (neither in this paragraph, nor anywhere else) offer an argument for the claim that reflection cannot be entirely detached from one’s values. It is, in some sense, a claim I would not know how to defend. Though of course I acknowledge that it is possible to deny it; insofar as one does deny it, one may refuse to recognize the need for self-promising that I aim to articulate. It is worth pointing out that even those who champion an ideal of detached reflection nevertheless will tend to acknowledge that our capacity for detachment is ultimately limited. One leading example is Nagel (1986), who repeatedly reminds us that, though we may aim to achieve a completely objective view of the world, detached from our individual perspective, such a view is, for each of us, a development of our idiosyncratic individual point of view, which cannot be left behind entirely.

  13. 13.

    The point is closely connected to one made by Williams (1973) in his discussion of the immortal EM and her inevitable boredom. One way of understanding why EM’s life eventually “stalls out” is that she has undergone all of the changes that can happen in one human life, and so nothing can surprise or challenge her. In that sense, she comes to have a kind of control over her life that we (mortals) lack, and often seem to strive for: nothing can happen to her that she cannot anticipate and/or does not know how to handle. But her achieving this state coincides with her no longer being able to take any interest in living her life. Moreover, the ambivalent attitude I think we must adopt toward our ever-changing values parallels the conclusion Williams draws about our attitude towards our own mortality. According to Williams, we have reason to be grateful that we do not live forever, even as we should often lament our particular deaths as coming too early. Likewise, we have reason to be grateful that our values are not static, and are never entirely up to us. But we nevertheless must feel resistant to the prospect of many particular changes to our values, when that prospect involves change we do not choose.

  14. 14.

    Jaworska appears to make a similar point. She writes, “one would always view the possibility of not valuing something one currently values as an impoverishment, loss or mistake.” And, “when you value something, say, you value a particular friendship or a local community, you cannot be indifferent to whether you happen to value these things or not—a state in which you lacked your feelings for your friend or your need for a sense of belonging would be one to regret.” (Jaworska 1999: 114) However, in the accompanying footnote she adds “in the case of some (often less central) values, one may anticipate a gradual transformation and loss of value without thinking it would be a mistake…some values are dependent on context and are important only at a specific time in one’s life.” (Jaworska 1999:114–115 fn. 14) The thought strikes me as correct: while any value as such must, from my point of view, contribute to the richness my life, some values do so in a more temporally bounded way. I may, for instance, be very invested in some activity that I associate with my current life-stage, but also expect that I will leave behind that stage, and so “grow out of” the values that typify it. In such cases, the prospect of change need not strike one as a loss, though I think even here we sometimes experience some hint of resistance or reluctance: a kind of prospective analog of the nostalgia we can expect to feel from the other side of such changes. At any rate, this suggests that in the healthy and self-aware, the drive to establish, conserve and maintain one’s values that motivates self-promising must be tempered by, among other things, an understanding of the shape of one’s life as a whole, and some appreciation of the importance of the kinds of changes we think of as manifesting growth and development (alluded to in the previous paragraph). Otherwise, one’s promises to oneself may exhibit a kind of “Peter Pan” quality. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for The Journal of Ethics  for urging me to consider the point in Jaworska’s footnote, and prompting me to think about the importance of values that may be tied to a particular life-stage.

  15. 15.

    Though perhaps not entirely unfamiliar. McIntyre (2006) is interested in showing that the standard notion of weakness of will is too impoverished to capture all the kinds of rational defect that might deserve the title, though I am not sure that even her more capacious account completely captures the sense I go on to discuss. See also fn.17 below.

  16. 16.

    For the classic statement see Davidson (1980).

  17. 17.

    Anderson (2013) argues that Nietzsche saw the problem of weakness of will as both broader and more prevalent than akrasia in the more familiar, narrow sense. (see especially p. 455).

  18. 18.

    The idea that we are driven to attain something fundamentally unattainable is a recurring theme throughout Thomas Nagel’s work, and is especially prominent in his discussions of knowledge, freedom of the will, and the absurd. The idea is of course foundational in Nagel (1986), but see also Nagel (1979) and (2005).

  19. 19.

    Migotti writes that ideal Nietzschean promisors are “faithful to their word because not to be would reveal a particularly contemptible weakness—a weakness of will, and of the memory of the will that is required of an animal entitled to promise.” (Migotti 2013, p. 516). The “because” in this sentence may seem to indicate something about the ideal promiser’s reason (or motive) for keeping her word, as though she does as she promises in order to avoid being contemptibly weak. But in fact I read Migotti as suggesting (on behalf of Nietzsche) something close to what I am urging. The “because” is explanatory: the person with memory of the will invariably succeeds in keeping her word, precisely in virtue of her possession and successful exercise of this capacity. She stays steadfastly committed in the face of external forces and pressures (“a world of strange new things…”) that might otherwise lead her to forget. In so doing, she exhibits the kind of systemic strength of will to which we all aspire.

  20. 20.

    My discussion of this basic human need will evoke, for some, an appeal to the value of autonomy. For that reason it will help to draw explicit attention to a central difference between what I have said in this section and the account of self promises offered by Rosati (2011). Rosati also focuses on the role in our lives played by promises to self, and claims that their binding force can be illuminated thereby. Modeling her account on the account of interpersonal promises offered by Owens (2006; since elaborated in Owens 2012), Rosati argues that making promises to ourselves serves a basic interest we have in furthering our own autonomy. But the kind of autonomy in question, which sets the problem that self-promises are meant to address, is understood by Rosati in traditional Kantian terms: my autonomy is threatened when my desires, feelings, inclinations, etc. continue to exert a motivational influence, even after I have reviewed their merit and decided against acting on them. The value of a promise to myself appears to be, on Rosati’s view, that it provides the true (i.e. pure, rational) self with the extra motivational umph it needs to resist these potential usurpers of its authority. Here is not the place to argue against this traditional Kantian picture. But let me stress that on my account, the problem is not about authority at all: self-promising is not about protecting against the kind of coup in the government of the soul that supposedly occurs when recalcitrant feelings move me to act. Rather, what a promise to myself is meant to forestall—or initiate—are changes in what I value (and so, who I am) that I want to encourage or resist, and for which I might reasonably expect I must exert myself more deliberately. Whether this should be understood as the ambition to realize an ideal that might also be labeled “autonomy” is a further question. For very relevant discussion in the context of Nietzsche’s work, see Anderson (2006; and especially 2013).

  21. 21.

    In addition to the three papers already mentioned (i.e. Migotti 2013; Rosati 2011; Habib 2009), there are two more notable exceptions: Hill (1991), and Downie (1985). Hill’s discussion is very different from my own. He tries to understand promises to oneself as, essentially, interpersonal promises made to oneself. He attempts to show that self-promises are at least logically possible, by considering the various relations a promisor ordinarily stands into a promisee in an interpersonal promise, and then demonstrating that there would be no contradiction in thinking of a person standing in all of these relations to herself (or, at least, all of the important ones). Downie’s conception of promising, which he calls “promising as pledging,” is much closer to the treatment of promises to self I offer. Downie suggests that the fundamental way that a promisor is bound by an interpersonal promise results from her making the stated project of the promise “essential in one’s total concerns” in a way that the “self has been identified with the project[s]” so that carrying it out becomes a matter of “honor or self-fidelity.” (p. 259) And he denies that all promises require a promisee, though he oddly refers to promises to self as “dubious” at one place (p. 266). Downie’s primary concern is distinguishing this conception of interpersonal promising from other accounts, and he does not address the question of the role or purpose that such pledges or promises might play in life, though his account of the bond of a promise has elements in common with the picture I offer.

  22. 22.

    A few examples may help to see the prima facie difficulty of countenancing promises to oneself on some of the leading theories. Take the “rights-transfer” theory, defended by Shiffrin (2008) and Thomson (1990): how could there be a promise to oneself? A transfer of the right to decide from oneself to oneself would be, in effect, no transfer at all. Or, consider Scanlon’s (1998) expectation-based theory: It is not clear how I could lead myself to expect in such a way as to trigger any obligation under his principle F–I simply don’t stand in the right sort of relation to my own actions for it to make sense to speak of my leading myself to expect I will do something. Finally, Rawls’ (1971) conventionalist account: how could breaking a promise to myself involve a form of free-riding on a just social practice, invoking the duty of fair play? It does not seem that I take advantage of anyone else’s participation in the practice of promising by my violating its rules when I break a promise to myself.

  23. 23.

    For example, Thomson explicitly rules out the possibility of promising yourself, saying “it is certainly true that more than one person is required if a bit of promising is to be carried out.” (Thomson 1984: 303) Likewise Raz seems to suggest that “promises” to oneself are not genuine promises, though it’s not clear he thinks they are insignificant: he writes “some promises are mere resolutions (e.g. ‘I promised myself a holiday abroad this summer’)” (Raz 1977: 211).

  24. 24.

    For reasons that will emerge in the discussion, it is worth stressing that my promise is sincere, i.e. not a “lying promise.” I leave to the side the question of whether it would be “permissible” in such circumstances to make a lying promise.

  25. 25.

    A notable exception may be Deigh (2002), who maintains that the conventions that constitute the practice of promising may require the performance of some extorted promises—particularly those made in a state of war. I am not certain whether this particular example would result in any entitlement to performance on Deigh’s view.

  26. 26.

    Scanlon writes, “I understand oaths as working in the following way. A person taking an oath says, in support of a claim to be telling the truth or to have a sincere and reliable intention to do a certain thing, ‘I swear to you by…,’ naming here something to which he or she is assumed to attach great value…The idea is just that it would be incompatible with true devotion to this value to invoke it as a sign of one’s sincerity when one was making an insincere claim.” (Scanlon 1998: 323).

  27. 27.

    For instance, we might think less of someone for knowing she will feel dishonored by doing something, but doing it anyway. Or, we may wonder whether failing to make good on her sincerely undertaken commitment is an indication of a more pervasive defect; in turn, we may then be led to wonder whether this defect also makes her less fit for standing in good relations with others.

  28. 28.

    This kind of case was suggested to me by Rob Hughes.

  29. 29.

    Shiffrin (2011) also discusses and tentatively endorses the idea that interpersonal promises can involve a commitment to consider the point of view of the promisee. The idea appears in her treatment of so-called “redundant” promises—promises where the promised act is already morally required.

  30. 30.

    It may help to note a crucial difference between Downie’s (1985) account and my own. According to Downie, what I commit to when I make an interpersonal promise appears to be merely an act. I am suggesting that I commit to valuing the other person, or more specifically her distinctive point of view concerning the matter of the promise. According to Downie, the content of any promise—the thing that comes to be a matter of honor or self-fidelity—is the act I specify. Thus, according to Downie, making an interpersonal promise to do X is essentially no different than a promise to myself to do X, except I also invite my promisee to rely on my doing X.

  31. 31.

    See especially Shiffrin’s (2008) discussion of the role of promising in intimate relationships.

  32. 32.

    Importantly, it is not merely the presence of the threat of death that matters. Someone held captive by her enemies might, for instance, be prepared to die for a cause she believes in, and so might be able to sincerely undertake a commitment despite the fact that a gun is to her head. The sincere undertaking of a commitment may be possible for her, even if I would be too terrified to do so in the same circumstances.

  33. 33.

    The origin of the picture traces to Prichard (2002), who sets the terms of the contemporary discussion by alleging there is something paradoxical about the fact that a promisor can come to be morally obligated in the relevant way, merely by the act of making a promise. Prichard appears to think it self-evident that this particular kind of obligation is the essence of promissory bondage. This seems to me deeply mistaken; the next several paragraphs give a sense of why.

  34. 34.

    See Herman (2000). Not coincidentally, Herman connects the more general “primal scene” to other themes in Prichard’s philosophy.

  35. 35.

    On Ridley’s (2009) reconstruction of the Nietzschean position, a kind of non-codifiability is essential to the character of all of the promises made by the sovereign individual, such that it is never possible to specify what would count as her keeping her word in advance, independent of some particular way of her actually going on to do so. I am not sure I see the attraction of an ideal that would make every promise like this. But my promise to my friend to take care of her dog might, it seems to me, be a good example of what Ridley has in mind. There is surely no “recipe” for honoring my word.

  36. 36.

    I benefited enormously from feedback on several earlier versions of this paper from countless people; I cannot acknowledge them all here. For vital help with the current version, thanks to Joseph Almog, R. Lanier Anderson, Michael Bratman, Benjamin Chan, Sarah Coolidge, E. Sonny Elizondo, Tyler Haddow, Pamela Hieronymi, Barbara Herman, David Hills, Krista Lawlor, Ira Richardson, Tamar Schapiro, and Seana Shiffrin, and an anonymous referee for The Journal of Ethics. Significant portions of this paper were written and revised while receiving support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, as a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities at Stanford University.


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Dannenberg, J. Promising Ourselves, Promising Others. J Ethics 19, 159–183 (2015).

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  • Memory of the will
  • F. Nietzsche
  • Promising
  • Promising yourself
  • Self-promising