Breaking Promises

Consider two scenrios

1. I promise to pick you up from the airport but then my mom dies and I have to leave town before you get to the airport. I feel bad that I cannot honor my obligation but I figure I’ll call before you get to the airport and explain. Hopefully you can take the subway.

2. I promise to pick you up from the airport but then Don’t Forget the Lyrics comes on and I decide to watch it. It is the season finale and though I have Tivo it is so much better to see it live. I feel bad about not honoring my obligation, but hey you can take the subway and I’ll explain later.

It seems clear that in the second scenerio I have broken a promise to you. But have I done so in the first case? It doesn’t seem that way to me. True I do not keep my promise to you, but I do not break it either; I am excused from the obligation all together. What exactly constitutes an excuse from an obligation is soemthing that we debate about a lot, but the point is that these kinds of cases do not threaten the universality of ‘it is always wrong to break your promises’. This is because in the kinds of caes that we normally describe as cases of breaking promises that morally good are really misdescribed. The promise is not being broken since one is excused from the obligation.

The very same thing happens in the case of lying. Everyone recognizes a duty to tell the truth and that lying is wrong (indeed, as I argue ‘lying is wrong’ is analytic) but we think there are some circumstances where one can be excused from this duty and so can tell a falsehood. Now what counts as a proper excuse is something that we can debate, but that there is this distinction seems undeniable. I have suggested that we opt for a bit of reformationism and reserve ‘lie’ for ‘unjustified falshood’. This way someone who tells a justified falsehood doesn’t lie (this was Knat’s position).

So what do you think? Do you think I have broken my promise to you in scenerio 1?

10 thoughts on “Breaking Promises

  1. Yes; but I think there are sharp limitations to the obligation to keep promises. But I also am tempted by your suggestion about the lie/promise-breaking parallel; I find that a long time ago I myself suggested something similar about promises on the basis of a law/promise parallel — that is, one can reasonably suggest that, just as natural law theorists say unjust laws bear some features of laws but aren’t laws in the strict sense, so one could say that while certain kinds of ‘promises’ bear features of promises but aren’t promises for moral purposes.

  2. I would rather maintain the logical definition of ‘breaking a promise’ and say yes you have broken a promise but I’d be unreasonable to sanction you for it. Otherwise I don’t know exactly what a promise means anymore and that would be of great concern to me. However, I think thats a matter of my preference rather than an absolute fact of language.

    I would prefer for all my words to have unambiguous meanings and then to assert their moral status explicitly where required rather than to assert their moral status every single time i use the word and for them to have extremely complex meanings that are not consistent with the definitions used by those I talk to.

    Also in terms of the moral analysis – there is a potential situation where you say to the person “I will pick you up unless someone I know needs me more” or “unless I have something better to do (morally speaking)” *
    that seems to me less like breaking a promise and more of an ideal scenario. (i.e. I should not recklessly promise to help you do something important if I know my mother is on her death bed and her death would cause me to leave you in the lurch unless i explain the risks to you)

    *Then you will find that there are then people who explicitly tend to offer more valuable promises than other people (i.e. promises with less exclusions). And presumably it is an additional benefit being able to tell those people apart.

  3. Hi Brandon,

    So, you don’t there are any circumstances that would count as excusing someone from their obligation to fulfil a promise?

    Hi GNZ,

    I don’t know what you mean when you say that you would rather ‘preserve the logical definition’ of breaking a promise. That is exactly what I am doing. We ordinarily would not describe situation one as one where I broke my promise. This isn’t how people talk. Rather we say that the person was excused from keeping their promise.

    Consider an analogy. Say I get drafted into the Army. I then have an obligation to join. But suppose that I have extreme asthma and on the day that I am to enlist I have a very bad asthma attack. Seeing this I am dismissed fromt he Army. Did I dodge the draft? Of course not! I was excused from obligation. Or another. Say I get a speeding ticket and go to court to protest it. Say the officer who issued the ticket doesn’t show up and so the ticket is dismissed. Did I fail to pay the ticket? Of course not. I was excused from the obligation.

    So why should we describe situation(1) as a case where I fail to keep my promise as opposed to the more reasonable description where I am excused from the original obligation and so do not fail to keep the promise? This is not some changing of the meaning of words, this is how we talk already!

  4. No I don’t mean that you are changing the definition – I mean that I want a fixed definition that we can easily agree on. Common usage may be to infuse the word with moral judgment but presumably those moral judgments are often very different so I’m not sure that amounts to a useful definition.

    On to the example

    “Seeing this I am dismissed from he Army. Did I dodge the draft? Of course not!”

    many people I know would consider you ‘dodging the draft’, even without a ‘legitimate’ excuse, to be a ‘good’ thing to do. In fact, it may be (not sure about this, but I’m not kidding) that ‘a US draft dodger’ may well have more positive connotations than ‘a US soldier’ for most people in the world. The point being that burying the good/bad connotations in the words may result in a lot of talking past people you want to talk to and that that is not an ideal scenario even if it is the current one.

    To me at first glance “dodging the draft” didn’t in itself seem to exclude the scenario that you mentioned, it just went in the bucket with ‘dodging a bullet’ ‘dodge ball’ etc, of course you do presumably intent it to carry that negative connotation and there is also the degree of intent to consider (dodging usually has some aspect of intent).

  5. So, you don’t there are any circumstances that would count as excusing someone from their obligation to fulfil a promise?

    Certainly in some sense there would be — for instance, any circumstance both the promiser and the promisee would take as a good excuse not to fulfill the promise would be a good excuse for not fulfilling it. But in this, and every other case, its because under those circumstances the promise ceases to carry any obligation.

  6. “But in this, and every other case, its because under those circumstances the promise ceases to carry any obligation.”

    Right, I agree. That was the point I was trying to make. In scenerio (1) I do not break my promise. My promise cease to be obligatory because I am excused from the obligation. You may not agree that the situation that I described counts as one where the obligation ceases to hold, but I don’t think you are disagreeing with my basic point.

  7. I don’t think you broke the promise in case 1. I have two incompatible stories to tell.

    1. Ordinary valid promises are made subject to standard qualifiers, such as “assuming some duty of greater weight does not prevent me”. Without such a qualifier, the promised content is one that could be immoral (it would be immoral to fail to comfort grieving relatives, let us suppose), but promises to do immoral things are invalid. If so, then while you don’t fulfill the promise, neither do you go against it, because the promise was implicitly conditional, and the condition wasn’t met. It’s like when you promise to help me if I ask, and I don’t ask. You haven’t broken the promise, but neither have you kept it.

    2. To “break a promise” is loaded in the way “murder” is. Thus, we should rather say that you failed to keep the promise, or that you went against what you promised, when this was justified, just as when a killing is justified, we say “x killed y” instead of “x murdered y”.

    I prefer the first option.

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