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Kenneth Head

Moral complexity in the making and keeping of promises

The making of a promise involves the voluntary giving of one's word that, if and when a particular circumstance or situation comes about, one will undertake to act in a manner defined by the terms of the promise one has given. The act of making the promise, in other words, implies a willingness to keep it. What is being agreed is that, on the basis of something said in the past, one's future actions will, insofar as the future is foreseeable, follow a particular course and no other.

On the related, but rather different question of the motivation involved in keeping a promise, it may be that the promise-maker's acting or deciding in a particular way places him in a position identical to or in complete sympathy with the person to whom the promise has been made. Equally, it is, possible that events may turn out in such a way as to suggest that to keep the promise would be harmful to the interest of the person to whom it was made. Should this dilemma arise, whether or not the promise is kept must depend upon the particular circumstances of the case. Choosing not to keep a promise in such a situation would be not a demonstration of the promiser's inability to keep his word, but a clear indication of his quite proper awareness that, in deciding what course to take, the promiser has quite properly concluded that the interest of others must be placed before his own.

This situation is philosophically interesting in two immediately apparent ways: firstly, because of the questions which it raises concerning the ways in which a present or future obligation might be argued to exist in relation to a promise given in the past; secondly, because it is possible to imagine a society in which the concept of keeping promises does not exist, so that the notion of individuals ever placing the interests of others before their own would simply not arise. In such a society, it would be argued that knowingly to place oneself in a position of future disadvantage when others do not do so is clearly foolish and dangerous, since just as there is no moral credit to be gained from keeping a promise, so no blame will be acquired as a result of breaking one.

The implications of this second point are well highlighted by the classic problem in games theory known as the prisoners' dilemma, in which it is made clear that co-operative behaviour [both prisoners keeping their promises] leads to the best possible outcome. In a social context in which promise-keeping is perceived solely in a subjectivist or self-interested way, however, promise-making could never be more than a possible move in one's strategy, while promise-keeping would not be regarded as the desirable outcome in all situations. Rather, it would be related to the ratio of rewards and penalties currently "in play". Individuals would show willingness to co-ordinate their behaviour in ways consistent with the notion of promise keeping only if such co-ordination seems likely to be aligned with their own self-interest.

In considering, firstly, therefore, how it is possible to assert that a promise made in the past imposes an obligation on the maker of that promise which may extend far into the unforeseeable future, it is clear that very complex questions are being posed. These questions concern the nature of a promise-maker's understanding of the significance and value of his willingness to accept that there are benefits to be gained from the co-ordination of behaviour between individuals, or an individual and a group, such that the promise-maker is willing to allow his behaviour to be controlled by factors which may well be either unforeseeable or unfavourable to the promise-maker. Put briefly, it is necessary to address the very fundamental question of what it is that makes individuals want to make and keep promises.

The moral scepticism of our own age and the prevalent sense that "there are no objective values and ... that no substantive moral conclusions or serious constraints on moral views can be derived from either the meanings of moral. terms or the logic of moral discourse" [Mackie: p. 105] is not a view that is universally held. The origin of the impulse to honour one's word absolutely will, for some individuals, be spiritual or a matter of religious faith and will have to do with the ways in which they feel compelled, perhaps by the teaching of a particular holy book or church, to respond to such questions as "What should I do?" and "What kind of person should I be?". For others, the sense of the moral centrality of promising will have to do, perhaps, either with an ethic of prima facie duties or with a rather more rigid deontological ethic. Whatever the path taken, the further one goes in considering this question, the more apparent it becomes that, in one way or another, notions relating to the significance of promising lie at the very heart of moral philosophy, both in all its theoretical aspects and its applications to everyday life.

That this is so becomes clear when one considers the nature of an action, someone's doing something intentionally. The actions of an individual, what that individual does, as well as the actions of others in relation to him, what is done to, or involving him, by others, constitute a context of events in which an infinity of differing types of interactions may take place. These may take the form of physical responses of one kind or another, or they may take the form of events that occur only in the mind, but their intentionality, it may be argued, always derives from the fact that the individual who acts does so because he believes something and desires some end that seem to justify and to constitute a reason for undertaking it. An action, therefore, is an event involving an individual trying to do something because he feels that there is sufficient reason to do so.

In the context both of promise-making and promise-keeping, this belief in the sufficiency of the reasons for an action must have to do, whatever their origins, either with the personal values and beliefs of the individual making the promise, or, whatever their basis, with his relationships with other individuals involved in the situation out of which the promise giving has evolved or which has made it necessary. In other words, an individual acts in a specific, promise-making manner because he believes, as a matter of faith, perhaps, or familial upbringing, or thinks, as a consequence of reasoning and analysis, that to do so is the correct or appropriate way to behave. Promise-making, therefore, together with its implication of promise-keeping, is a matter of feeling that certain kinds of behaviour are acceptable in particular contexts, while others are not: that one ought, at such times, to behave in a certain way and that one ought not to behave in any other.

The central interconnectedness of the institution of promising and the problems for moral philosophy inherent in attempting to derive "ought" from "is" are, of course, famously discussed in John Searle's paper [Foot: pp. 101-114] "How to Derive "Ought" from "Is". For Searle, it is fundamental that to make a promise is to undertake an obligation, since, he argues, it is this which defines the institution. Anyone failing to understand this rule cannot understand what promising is.

The intricacies of the relationships contained within this notion of "obligation", between choosing, deciding and intention are not, however, easy to define. What is clear, however, is that the implicit questions do have bearing on a number of important aspects of moral philosophy and that these, in turn, are centrally related to the entire issue of promising. It is not difficult to demonstrate, for example, the extent to which choosing and deciding bear importantly upon the problem faced by moral philosophers of the relative importance of, on the one hand, the motivation for a moral action and, on the other, its consequences or outcomes. Perhaps more importantly still, choosing and deciding are central to the debate concerning free will and determinism, in which, to summarize briefly, libertarians argue that freedom requires choices or decisions which are originations, as distinct from effects of previous causes, while determinists argue for what William James referred to as "the iron block universe", a universe in which "those parts of the universe already laid down appoint and decree what other parts shall be" [Honderich: p 194].

As is made clear above, by the response to the prisoners' dilemma, there are, perhaps, insuperable difficulties to be faced in discovering compelling arguments which might be raised against an individual who chooses to maintain the view that all morality, including the making of promises, is reducible to a matter of self-interest and the prudent attempt to disguise egoism. As philosophers have found, this is a difficult position to refute. It is, for example, as difficult either to accept or deny the view of Plato and Aristotle that we should follow the traditionally good and virtuous path of life because this will prove to be the happiest and most fulfilling, as it is to accept or deny Russell's view [Religion and Science (1935)] that so-called differences of value are, in fact, no more than differences of taste.

In the case of Plato and Aristotle, what seems initially to be clear is that a promise is kept because the keeper of the promise will feel himself to be a happier, more just or virtuous individual as a result of honouring his commitment. There are problems with this interpretation, however, since if altruistic behaviour is justified by reference to the happiness of, in this case, the promise-keeper, then it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what is being discussed is rather a matter of enlightened self-interest than moral goodness. It is also likely to be the case that the force of Plato's and Aristotle's argument is not universally felt and that some individuals will always take the view that their own interests will be better served by promise breaking.

Russell's ethical subjectivism, on the other hand, would seem to be arguing that the aspect of conflicting promises which might be taken to reflect deep and serious moral disagreement, in fact represents no more than a difference in taste. If, as moral subjectivists, we display hostility towards individuals who break promises in an attempt to make clear our sense of their failure to meet their moral obligations, we are saying no more than that our support for this sense of obligation rests upon our belief in the existence of objective moral laws.

Likewise, the emotivism of Ayer, Stevenson and others, which developed out of Russell's position, would seem to suggest that a promise is made because the promise-maker wishes to express a certain personal and emotive response to the situation or event that has provoked the promise and that he hopes or intends to induce others to feet similarly and so to wish to promise as he has done. One's intuitive sense of the need to reject these positions in order to preserve important moral corner-stones ["A promise is a promise, you know."; "I've given my word, I can't go back on it now."] is forced to do battle with the important elements of truth apparent in alternative positions.

These instances are by no means alone in demonstrating the extent to which the morally complex nature of promising may be shown. Kant, for example, in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Ethics (1785), argues, in Section 1, that an action has moral worth only if it is carried out from a sense of duty. If undertaken as a result of inclination, it will have no moral worth because it will have required no effort of will to achieve. Superficially, this might be argued to seem plausible, in that, for example, a promise given because one enjoys doing what one has promised to do, seems clearly less morally commendable than a promise that will cause one to suffer some hardship, deprivation of leisure, or self-denial of some other kind.

Subsequently, in the course of his discussion of universalizability, Kant develops his famous example of borrowed money and false promises. His purpose is twofold: to demonstrate that it is not justifiable to accept as a universal principle or maxim, propositions which are self-evidently inconsistent and to make clear that it is not rational for individuals to behave in a way that commits them to such behaviour in all relevantly

similar circumstances. As Norman makes clear [pp 106-108] in his account of this point, Kant is seeking to create more than simply a principle of consistency, wanting in addition "what we might call a principle of the impersonality of reasons ". Kant, Norman asserts, is arguing that if one individual justifies his actions by reference to particular reasons, then those same reasons must validate the actions of all other individuals acting in the same way in similar circumstances. "Reasons", Norman says, " are reasons for anyone".

There is, of course, a great deal more to be said about this. What is clear, however, is that it is by means of an examination of the moral complexity inherent in the nature of a promise that Kant is able to develop this important aspect of his analysis. In contrast to Kant's deontological position, the teleological position of Utilitarianism requires that the extent to which it may or may not be right to keep a promise be defined in terms of the consequences of so doing. Mill's theory is driven by the necessity of the relationship between his principle of utility and the notion of the greatest happiness. In defining his Greatest Happiness principle, Mill asserts that actions are right insofar as they tend to produce happiness and wrong insofar as they tend to produce its opposite. He defines happiness as pleasure or the absence of pain and unhappiness as pain and the absence of pleasure. Thus, it becomes inevitably wrong to keep a promise if, by so doing, the balance of pleasure and pain is tipped unfavourably towards the latter.

The inevitable result of Mill's position, then, is to require that the necessity of making or keeping promises be seen as being concerned solely with the issue of consequences. An individual should make or keep a promise only if, by so doing, he is able to achieve a more advantageous balance of pleasure over pain, a greater degree of general happiness. There are, of course, a number of difficulties inherent in this position, not the least of which concerns the problem of how such a calculation may be achieved. Additionally, there is the plain fact that a promise has been made. Critics of the Utilitarian position argue that, although it may very well be the case that in specific situations a promise should be broken ["I shan't be able to partner you at golf tomorrow as promised, my wife has had a miscarriage."], this cannot be forgotten. Whether or not subsequent outcomes may demonstrate that an individual was or was not right to insist upon his duty to keep a promise, the fact that he has such a duty is inescapable. This position is problematic for Utilitarians and makes clear the unsatisfactory nature of their view that if the duty either to make or to keep a promise prevents or limits any possible improvement in the pleasure/pain ratio, then it is a self-evidently wrong course of action.

As W. D. Ross points out [p. I9] in the course of his discussion of Utilitarianism, the moral complexities inherent in the notion of promising are intricate and far-reaching, extending, finally, perhaps, beyond the reach of philosophical analysis:

"It says, in effect, that the only morally significant relation in which my neighbours stand to me is that of being possible beneficiaries by my action. They do stand in this relation to me, and this relation is morally significant. But they may also stand to me in the relation of promisee to promiser, of creditor to debtor, of wife to husband, of child to parent, of friend to friend, of fellow countryman to fellow countryman, and the like; and each of these relations is the foundation of a prima facie duty, which is more or less incumbent on me according to the circumstances of the case."


Foot, Philippa (ed.) Theories of Ethics Oxford University Press, 1990

Honderich, Ted (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy Oxford University Press, 1995

Mackie, J. L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong Penguin, 1977

Norman, Richard The Moral Philosophers Oxford University Press, 1983

Ross, W. D. The Right and the Good London, 1930.