Promises and Agreements: Philosophical Essays

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No cover image. Read preview. Synopsis Promises and agreements are everywhere; we make, receive, keep, and break them on a daily basis. The moral problem concerns the normative significance of promising: what is the nature and basis of the obligations and rights to which promises typically give rise? The conceptual problem is to say what a promise is: what is involved in making a promise?

Promising Against the Evidence #3 - Ethics - PHILOSOPHY

In this paper I defend three controversial claims about promising. One is about the moral problem of promising, one is about the conceptual problem, and the last one is about the relationship between my conceptual claim and my moral claim. My conceptual claim is that a speaker makes a promise only if he communicates an intention to undertake an obligation to the hearer.

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What is Conventionalism about Moral Rights and Duties?

Michael G. Pratt Search for more papers by this author. Tools Request permission Export citation Add to favorites Track citation. Share Give access Share full text access. Share full text access. Please review our Terms and Conditions of Use and check box below to share full-text version of article. Another category of work on promises concerns what we might call promissory phenomena, that is, particular types or parts of promises and promissory arrangements that present their own puzzles.

Some Features of Promises and their Obligations

Driver's essay concerns promises that are impossible to fulfill, and she seeks to distinguish incompatible promises, that is, promises made by one agent that are mutually incompossible, from other impossible promises. She invokes the distinction between pro tanto obligations, which are obligations that retain their normative force even when they are overridden by other considerations, and prima facie obligations, which are obligations that disappear if they are in tension with a more powerful normative force.

Related books and articles

Promises produce pro tanto obligations, argues Driver, and thus they retain their normative force even when they are made impossible to perform. This allows Driver to hold people accountable for promises they make that are in tension with one another, the paradigm example of which are the incompatible promises made by politicians in attempts to appease conflicting interest groups. Chwang paper, "On Coerced Promises", takes up an issue that goes back to at least Hobbes.

Hobbes' original sally, that such promises were in fact binding, sparked a debate that continues today. Some notable contributions to this debate e. Rosati argues in her essay, "The Importance of Self-Promises", that, contrary to the traditional view, promises made to oneself aren't improper or degenerate cases of promises, but rather central and paradigmatic ones.

Rosati counters what she takes to be the central problem with self-promises, that as the promisee, the agent who promises something to herself can release herself from the obligation, which flies in the face of our typical intuitions regarding the binding nature of promises. Rosati argues that the traditional 'promisee release condition', wherein a promisee can release a promiser from her obligation by simple fiat, isn't as simple as it seems, and that a closer examination of the phenomenon reveals that even in interpersonal cases it behooves us to say that promissory obligation is unarguably vitiated only when the promissory obligation is not independently grounded and either the obligation is trivial in import or, failing that, the promiser is released for a good reason.

Rosati goes on to argue positively that self-promise is vindicated by our interest in exercising personal autonomy. In a twist on Owens's novel theory of promissory obligation, Rosati offers that it is our interests in being effective authorities over ourselves as opposed to the promisee's interest in authority over the promiser that grounds promises, both inter- and intra-personal.

Markovitz, in his "Promise as an Arm's-Length Relation", argues against what he calls the 'relational' view of promising, where the paradigm promise is embedded in an intimate relationship between promiser and promisee.

Instead, Markovitz proposes that promises are inherently distancing, casting the promisee in Kantian-like terms of neutral personhood, with the obligation owed out of proper respect for such. Markovitz argues that this feature makes contracts between relatively distant parties the paradigm of promising, rather than, say, arrangements between friends.

Essay On the Obligation to Keep One’s Promises - Words | Bartleby

Rounding out the collection are two pieces more explicitly about 'agreements': Yitzhak Benbaji's "Contractarianism and Emergency", a piece on just war theory that argues for a consequentialist account of the rules of war, and Sheinman's "Agreement as Joint Promise", which offers a theory of agreements that makes them out to be a 'joint action', but one composed of two simpler actions, namely, promises on the part of the agree-ants.

As a snapshot of the state of the art in research on promising, the text comes off very well.

It mixes contemporary contributions to many traditional debates practice and trust views, utilitarianism and promising, etc. I'm thinking here in particular of the pieces by Husi, Markovitz and Rosati. Their essays are refreshingly new and they offer the possibility of new paths of fruitful exploration. Rosati's piece I think is the most interesting, although I am a partisan of the view and cited in the text , so that opinion may need some salt.

As a pedagogical text, the collection is also quite good, although it lacks explicit representatives of some of the standard views. It would serve well as a companion or further reading text for undergraduate courses, and as a primary text for graduate seminars. In particular, it has an outstanding collection of cutting-edge writing on consequentialism and promises, easily the best collection of such anywhere to date, so those teaching seminars in consequentialism and utilitarianism will also find it valuable.

If there's anything to complain about, it's the lack of certain topics and authors.


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Strangely, there are no pieces explicitly about promises and contracts. Although, to be fair, many pieces do have something to say about the relation. And of course I would have liked to have seen contributions from other important contemporary figures Scanlon and Thomson, to name just two.