Moral Complexity in the Making and Keeping of Promises Essay examples

Moral Complexity in the Making and Keeping of Promises Essay examples

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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, s...

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... 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.

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