I’m spending the weekend mostly inside (or gallivanting around at dog parks) with the beagle trio (Max, Tulip, Buddy), so I am reading – programming – watching movies. I saw It Could Happen to You, a movie from 1998 that I had no idea existed, with Nic Cage and Bridget Fonda. The premise is that a very honest cop in NY doesn’t have cash on him to leave a tip at a diner, so he promises the waitress half his lottery winnings (from the lottery ticket he just purchased) on the next day. Obviously, he wins, and then he gives her half, fulfilling his promise. Antics ensue.
My favorite part of the movie is later, when the two of them are talking, and she says, “I just couldn’t believe you went through with it.”
“A promise is a promise. Anyone would do the same,” he replies.
“No,” she says, “nobody would do the same. Nobody!”
How important is a promise? I used to believe that keeping my word was one of the absolutely most moral things I could do. Then, as I became a bit wiser (I like to think!) I decided that sometimes doing the right thing means going back on your word, because when you made your promise, you didn’t understand the full consequences of your action. I do think that honoring one’s word has moral value – it is Right to do it, integrity is a virtue worth promoting, and reliability of stated intent is something valuable. That implies that I find lies evil, on principle, but unlike my ideas about fairness or the value of sapient life, I don’t think it is as strong a principle as to form a core of a philosophy.
I’d like to believe that I would have done what Cage’s character did, but like all of my moral posturing, I don’t honestly know how I would act in the moment, when the decision actually stands before me.