By Michel Hogan
Following a trail of thinking on promises, I landed on “ The Toxin Puzzle”, a thought experiment paper by Greg Kavka. The article explores the relationship between intending to keep a promise and acting to keep it and presents the following problem:
“… The billionaire will pay you one million dollars tomorrow morning if, at midnight tonight, you intend to drink the toxin tomorrow afternoon. He emphasises that you need not drink the toxin to receive the money; in fact, the money will already be in your bank account hours before the time for drinking it arrives, if you succeed … All you have to do is sign the agreement and then intend at midnight tonight to drink the stuff tomorrow afternoon. You are perfectly free to change your mind after receiving the money and not drink the toxin …*
The full paper is worthy of contemplation, providing plenty of fodder to stretch your mind, however, today I’m just focusing on intending as criteria of promising.
Kavka is the tip of an enormous iceberg of content on the relationship between intending and promises. But given the current environment — particularly the activities of banks and politicians, it seemed timely to examine people’s intentions when making a promise.
X promises Y they will do something. Y accepts X intends to do it and exchanges Z, however, X fails to keep the promise. (Note X and Y can be organisations or individuals, and Z can be any currency of trade from dollars to trust.)
There are many examples where, in hindsight, Y suspects X never intended to keep the promise. “A fundamental purpose of promising is to provide assurance,” wrote Abraham Sesshu Roth. However, often Y has a minimal assurance of what X intends. In addition to the letter of the promise, past history and sometimes legal consequences provide the only surety it will be kept.
Surely, the burden of interrogating what is intended should fall to the promiser. This seems obvious, but in today’s landscape too often the reverse is true. Like the characters in Kavka’s article, the promiser gets “paid” whether they keep their promise or not (moral and legal consequences are another matter).
In my experience, many promises are remarkably cavalier. There is an insidious ‘we can always apologise if we don’t keep it’ mentality. The resulting increase of over-promising abdicates responsibility and flirts with making promises without intending to keep them — which is different from the more common intending but failing to act.
Back to Kavka’s toxin puzzle:
“Your drinking or not drinking the toxin hours later cannot affect the completed financial transaction. So instead of planning to drink the toxin, you decide to intend to drink it today and then change your mind after midnight. But if that is your plan, then it is obvious that you do not intend to drink the toxin.”
So the next time you’re making a promise deep dive into what you intend. Look at the reasons to keep it and the consequences if you don’t. Consider resources, risk and potential reward.
A promise not kept is toxic. To people’s confidence in you and or the organisation, and to the resulting brand. So examine what you intend and keep your promises.
This article was first published on SmartCompany, and this updated version can be found in the upcoming book “The Unheroic Work.”
Michel Hogan is an Independent Brand Counsel advising organisations on the risk to their purpose and values of making promises they can’t keep.
* Greg Kafka, The Toxin Puzzle