wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Thomas Haskell

Objectivity Is Not Neutrality

Historically speaking, capitalism requires conscience and can even be said to be identical with the ascendancy of conscience. This 'tremendous labor' of instinctual renunciation on which promise keeping rests—a labor that even Nietzsche, a reckless critic of renunciation, felt obliged to endorse and make the starting point for his 'sovereign individual' (one whose freedome would continue to be conditioned by his promises)—is an absolute prerequisite for the emergence of possessive individualism and market society. The individual cannot be said to possess his capacity to perform labor at some future time, or to be free to dispose of his labor to others for due compensation, until he is 'self-possessed'—until, in other words, he can overcome his 'healthy' forgetfulness and feel obliged to act on long chains of will. And in the reciprocal manner that always holds between institutions and character, the practices and traits of personality that the market presupposes as a condition of its existence, it also induces and perpetually reinforces.

Conscience and promise keeping emerged in human history, of course, long before capitalism. Moreover, promise keeping is not merely a free-standing psychological trait but a cultural practice, deeply embedded in a fabric of social relationships and dependent in part on an effectively institutionalized threat of force in the event of noncompliance. But it was not until the eighteenth century, in Western Europe, England, and North America, that societies first appeared whose economic systems depended on the expectation that most people, most of the time, were sufficiently conscience-ridden (and certain of retribution) that they could be trusted to keep their promises. In other words, only then did promise keeping become so widespread that it could be elevated into a general social norm. Only to the extent that such a norm prevails can economic affairs be based on nothing more authoritative than the obligations arising out of promises. And a growing reliance on mutual promises, or contractual relations, in lieu of relations based on status, custom, or traditional authority comes very close to the heart of what we mean by 'the rise of capitalism.'

Both the growing force of the norm of promise keeping and its synchronization with the spread of market relations are clearly inscribed in the history of the law of contract. A contract is, of course, an exchange of promises, and as such the law of contract provides us with a direct measure of the centrality of promise keeping in society. But the significance of the rising trajectory that we can trace in the history of Anglo-American contract law is not limited to this, for, in addition to being an exchange of promises, every contract is also an ensemble of mutually contingent recipes. When people enter into contractual relations, each commits himself to bring to pass some designated future event, usually without bothering to spell out the intricate but taken-for-granted sequence of mundane cause-and-effect connections that he plans to rely on.