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?