Promising is a device for obligating oneself. In a culture in which promising is available, people have a normative power that they would lack in the absence of this institution. By exercising this power—standardly through the utterance of a linguistic formula—one can bring about changes in the expectations of others in ways that enhance one's ability to pursue their goals and that foster relations of familiarity and trust.
The existence of a normative power of this kind seems philosophically puzzling: How can the utterance of a linguistic formula cause a change in the normative relations that obtain in the world? In response to this question, it might help to situate promising within the general theory of speech acts, noting that it is one of a range of illocutionary acts that may be performed with words (to be set aside such acts as asserting or commanding). In addition, one might point to the conventional aspect of promising, observing that it is a contingent social practice, sustained by interlocking sets of human dispositions, expectations, and sanctions, which enables people to coordinate their behavior in ways that promote the common good. An analogy might be to the institution of contract in the law.
But there is a normative complexity to promises that these remarks fail to capture. Agents who make a promise incur a distinctively moral obligation, opening themselves to corresponding moral complaint if they should fail to do what they have promised. Moreover this moral dimension seems crucial to the ordinary operation of promises. Promises serve to assure the promisee that something the promisee values will in fact take place—this is one way in which they differ from threats. But they achieve this effect through the promiser's implicit acknowledgement of the moral obligation that is brought into existence by the act of promising itself. Promisers give promisees to understand that they have a distinctively moral reason to do what has been promised, a reason that is strong enough to lead to performance even in the absence of independent reasons for so acting. This in turn grounds the promisee's assurance that the promised performance will take place. What accounts for the moral obligation that thus figures at the center of promissory interactions?
One answer to this question stresses the value to the agent of the normative power involved in promising. The ability to obligate oneself is a great advantage when it comes to pursuing one's projects and developing interpersonal relationships of depth and commitment. One would potentially deprive oneself of this advantageous capacity if one failed to do what one had promised, insofar as people would be less inclined to take one's promissory acts seriously. It may be doubted, however, whether this approach provides a complete account of the moral obligations brought into existence through promising. One issue is the directionality of promissory obligations. The normative powers approach focuses on the moral importance to the promiser of the ability to obligate oneself in this way. But when one fails to do what they have promised, the moral objection to their conduct turns primarily on the effects of their behavior on others.
This dimension of promissory obligations is central to a second approach, the practice view. On this view, the moral wrong involved in promise-breaking derives from the nature of promising as a valuable convention. This basic idea might be developed in a variety of ways, depending on the more general moral theory one favors. Thus, utilitarians invoke the duty to promote the impartial good, arguing that it is a violation of that duty to act in ways that undermine a highly beneficial social practice such as promising. Other theorists appeal to the idea of fairness, contending that it would be unfair to fail to do one's part to sustain a beneficial practice that one has profited from oneself. The moral duty that promising brings into existence is thus traced to fundamental social duties, in accordance with moral principles of utility or fairness.
There are two potential problems with this approach, however. First, it still does not capture the specific directionality of the moral duty involved in promissory acts. On the practice view, everyone who potentially benefits from the useful convention of promising could equally be said to be wronged when a person breaks a promise. Intuitively, however, it appears that the promisee, in particular, has a privileged ground for moral complaint. Second, it would seem possible to wrong another person in precisely the same way without exploiting a social practice such as promising. Thus, even in the absence of a promise A might deliberately lead B to believe that A will do X, where X is something A knows B wants A to do. Under these circumstances, A's failure to do X would appear to wrong B in just the same way a broken promise would have done. Yet this wrong cannot be explained by appeal to more general duties to sustain beneficial practices.
A third approach, the fidelity view, holds that promissory obligations derive from more general duties not to disappoint the expectations one has deliberately raised in others. This approach accounts well for the specific directionality of promissory obligations, and it does so in a way that explains the similarities between breaking a promise and other cases of dashed expectations. But the fidelity view encounters a different problem. It holds that the moral duty to keep one's promise is in place only when the promisee has come to expect that the promiser will perform. But as was seen above, in the promising case this kind of expectation is supposed to derive from the promiser's acknowledgement of the moral obligation to perform. There is thus a potential circularity in the interpretation of promissory interactions that is suggested by the fidelity view.
Much of the philosophical interest of promises derives from their normative complexity. An account that is adequate to this complexity might need to draw on several of the strategies sketched above, in a kind of hybrid approach. For instance, the practice view might explain how the act of promising brings into existence an initial moral obligation that is independent of the promisee's expectations. Perhaps it is the promiser's acknowledgement of this practice-based obligation that generates a corresponding expectation in the promisee. Once such an expectation is in place, the fidelity view could explain why promisers incur a further and specifically directional obligation to perform. Finally, the normative powers approach illuminates the value of the social practice of promising, highlightin the advantages gained from having the ability to obligate oneself through promissory acts.
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R. Jay Wallace (2005)