Promises as Monads

18th of April, 2022

1342 words

While async/await has become extremely popular in the javascript and typescript communities (to which I’m just going to refer as javascript or js henceforth), having spent the last two years writing almost exclusively in Haskell, I found myself irritated with the ergonomics of error handling in javascript when using this paradigm. Coming back to js, I was struck how old Promise-based code I had written had far more in common with the monadic Haskell I was now writing than my newer async/await-based code. So I set out to see if I was right – can we treat Promise like an instance of Monad (probably more like ExceptT e IO a), even if much more loosely-typed (in typescript, for example, we can’t specify the type of the error with which a Promise might reject()).

Monads and Monad Laws

Monads are defined1 (in Haskell) through two functions which apply to them: bind and return:

class Monad m where
  return :: a -> m a
  (>>=) :: m a -> (a -> m b) -> m b

Broadly this means that you can use return to insert a value a into a monadic context m, and you can chain together computations which operate on that inner value using bind (or >>=).

There are three monad laws with which any instance of the Monad typeclass must comply:

  1. Left identity: return a >>= f ≡ f a
  2. Right identity: m >>= return ≡ m
  3. Associativity: (m >>= g) >>= f ≡ m >>= (\x -> g x >>= f)

One nice example of a monad in Haskell is the Either monad, which can be used to represent a computation which can fail with some error type. This is remarkably similar to the concept of a Promise which also represents a computation (although, in this case, an asynchronous one) which can fail.

The Either monad allows us to chain together computations with >>= or bind without having to continually handle the error cases, because >>= will only run the bound function on a Right value, not a Left value. For example:

-- Doubles a number and fails if the result is greater than 10
f :: Integer -> Either String Integer
f x = return . (* 2) >>= \y -> if y > 10 then Left "too big" else Right y

-- Let's chain this together to demonstrate its utility
result1 = f 8 >>= sendSecretCode
-- In this case, `sendSecretCode` will never be called, because f 8 == Right "too big"
result2 = f 4 >>= sendSecretCode
-- In this case `sendSecretCode` will be called with the argument 4

This is a very contrived example (there are plenty of monad tutorials out there to explore, and this is not the aim of this exploration), but it shows that we can chain together computations without having to worry about what happens if one fails, until the point at which we want to handle the failures properly.

Can we apply the monad laws to Promises?

The above Either case looks a lot like how we handle errors in Promise-land:

const f = (x: number) => new Promise((res, rej) => {
  const y = x * 2;
  if (y > 10) {
    rej("too big");
  } else {

const result1 = await f(8).then(sendSecretCode);
const result2 = await f(4).then(sendSecretCode);

To check if this intuition is correct, we will first create some definitions so that our Promises can look a bit more like Haskell’s monads:

const _return = <A extends any>(x: A): Promise<A> => Promise.resolve(x);
const _right = _return;
const _left = (e: any) => Promise.reject(e);
const _bind = <A extends any, B extends any>(p: Promise<A>, f: ((x: A) => Promise<B>)) => p.then(f);
const _withLeft = <E extends any, B extends any>(p: Promise<any>, f: ((e: E) => Promise<B>)) => p.catch(f);

This gives us constructors for the different Either cases _left and _right, as well as our monad functions _return and _bind. We also create _withLeft which allows us to handle the error cases.

To make this slightly more ergonomic to write, we will also create some helper functions whose uses should become clear in the examples.

async function assertEq(p1: Promise<any>, p2: Promise<any>) {
  const [a, b] = await Promise.all([p1, p2]);
  if(a !== b) {
    throw new Error(`Assertion Failure: ${a} /= ${b}`);
async function seq(xs: (() => Promise<any>)[]) {
  return xs.reduce((c, x) => c.then(x), Promise.resolve());
const pipe =  (first: any, ((x: any) => any)[]) => {
  return rest.reduce((x, f) => f(x), first);
const curry2 = <A extends any, B extends any, C extends any>
  (f: (x: A, y: B) => C) => (x: A) => (y: B) => f(x, y);
const flip = <A extends any, B extends any, C extends any>
  (f: (x: A) => ((y: B) => C)) => (y: B) => (x: A) => f(x)(y);
const _bind1 = flip(curry2(_bind));
const _withLeft1 = flip(curry2(_withLeft));
const mLog = (...args) => { console.log(...args); return _return(null); }

Let’s check that we can actually apply the monad laws:

// First, left identity
async function testFirstMonadLaw() {
  const f = (x: number) => _return(x + 1);
  const a = 5;
  console.log("Testing left identity (first monad law)");
  await assertEq( pipe(_return(a), _bind1(f)) // return a >>= f
                , f(a));

// Second, right identity
async function testSecondMonadLaw() {
  const m = _return(42);
  console.log("Testing right identity (second monad law)");
  await assertEq( m
                , pipe(m, _bind1(_return))); // m >>= return

// Third, associativity
async function testThirdMonadLaw() {
  const m = _return(2.712);
  const g = (x: number) => _return(x - 1);
  const f = (x: number) => _return(x * 2);
  console.log("Testing associativity (third monad law)");
  await assertEq( pipe(pipe(m, _bind1(g)), _bind1(f)) // (m >>= g) >>= f
                , _bind(m, (x) => _bind(g(x), f)));   // m >>= \x -> g x >>= f

// Let's run them:
seq([testFirstMonadLaw, testSecondMonadLaw, testThirdMonadLaw]);

These all pass just fine, so we can actually treat Promise as a monad as it satisfies the monad laws and has the right properties.

Is this useful?

While it is quite satisfying to demonstrate that the initial intuition is correct, and that Promise can be treated as a monad, it would be nice to also have a practical benefit to this realisation.

The main ergonomic boon highlighted above with respect to the Either monad is that we can chain computations together without worrying about handling the error state until the end. There are some limitations to this in js, because the type system is not very strict (even with typescript), and there is a mixture of error-handling systems (e.g. mixing throw into a Promise-based system entails some extra handling if you want to avoid “unhandled exception” notices).

We can demonstrate this with our new syntax:

async function errorStatePropagation() {
  console.log("Demonstrating error state propagation");
  const f = (a: number) =>
    pipe( _return(a)
        , _bind1((x: number) => _return(x * 2))
        , _bind1((x: number) => x < 10 ? _right(x) : _left("too big"))
        , _bind1((x: number) => _return("Got " + x))
        , _withLeft1((e: string) => _return("Failed with " + e))
  // This is the equivalent of:
  //   f a = either ((<>) "Failed with ") ((<>) "Got " . show) $
  //           return a
  //           >>= return . (* 2)
  //           >>= \x -> if x < 10 then Right x else Left "too big"
  await assertEq(f(3), _return("Got 6"));
  await assertEq(f(7), _return("Failed with too big"));

This works, but getting the types right on _bind1 and _withLeft1 is tricky, meaning that the typescript compiler might not be very helpful for avoiding mistakes.

Whether we use this Haskell-esque syntax or the original Promise syntax, however, I think that representing computations in this way (monadically) is much more ergonomic for a programmer, rather than relying on nested try ... catch clauses which are required for async/await.

There is an executable script version of all the code in this exploration on Github, in case you want to play around with it yourself.

  1. While there are formal definitions of Monads from category theory, for the purposes of this exploration a code-based definition will suffice.