I basically pay my mortgage by thinking about contracts and promises. It is a tough job, but someone has to do. Of late, I’ve gotten to thinking about God’s promising. Consider these two quotes:
“I the Lord am bound when you do what I say but when you do not what I say, ye have no promise.”
–Doctrine & Covenants 82:10
“But ’tis certain we can naturally no more changer our own sentiments, than the motions of the heavens; nor by a single act of our will, that is, by a promsie, render any action agreeable or disagreeable, moral or immoral; which, without that act, wou’d have produc’d contrary impressions, or have been endow’d with different qualities. It wou’d be absurd, therefore, to will any new obligation, that is, any new sentiment of pain or pleasure; nor is it possible, that men cou’d naturally fall into so gross an absurdity. A promise, therefore, is naturally something altogether unintelligible nor is there any act of the mind belonging to it.”
— David Hume (emphasis in original)
In the first statement, God speaks unproblematically of being morally bound by his own promises. In the second, Hume points out the very strange nature of promising. In a nutshelll, promising seems to be this mysterious practice by which I can commit myself to some future action and thereby render what was morally neutral morally obligatory. How is this possible? How do we transform the moral universe by our own actions?
One answer that has been given over the centuries is that promising somehow binds our wills. Hume’s argument is that it is impossible to find in the action of promising any sort of intention or action of the will that would correspond to this “binding.” There is nothing about saying “I promise” that somehow changes my will or my soul so that it is now “bound.” Hume’s response was simply the promising was useful, and that we tend to condemn promise breakers. This answer is a bit question begging, as it doesn’t really explain why promising is useful or what we condemn those who break promises. John Rawls offered a different account. Promising, he said, is a social practice, as such it is structured by certain norms. When we participate in the social practice and enjoy its benefits, we become bound by its norms. To do otherwise is a kind of cheating. (The argument here is very similar to Searle’s claim to be able to derive “ought” from “is” although Rawls wrote a decade or so before Searle.)
How does this apply to God? Take the Rawlsian account. We would say that God is bound by his promise because of his participation in the practice of promising and his enjoyment of its benefits. Of course, one of the things that seperates Mormonism from traditional theism is that we are much more radically committed to the notion of God’s personality even at the cost (in the eyes of traditional theology) of his transcendence. God’s emphasis on promising, however, rests not only on his personality, but also on the sociability that personality makes possible. It would be pretty non-sensical to suggest, for example, that the ground of being or the unmoved mover might engage in a social practice. God’s recourse to promising, however, also raises some interesting questions about the meta-ethics of Mormonism. In particular, if Hume is right that we cannot find a “natural” — i.e. metaphysically foundational — account of promising, God’s resort to promissory morality may suggest a certain divine skepticism about foundationalist ethical projects.