Moral philosophy is generally in pursuit of the “ought.” More specifically, a common goal is to create some sort of rubric for evaluating specific situations, and in the face of a decision, revealing what “ought to be done.” A very important and consequently complicated “ought” is that which dictates if one should keep a promise. This topic is so vast that is seems it would take a great deal of effort to make progress towards an answer, and in fact, there have been volumes of philosophy written about this very subject matter. Two 18th-century moral philosophers who tackled this mammoth rather successfully are Immanuel Kant and David Hume.
The backbone of Kant’s moral philosophy is what he calls the “categorical imperative.” In the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant uses the preface and the first section to introduce and develop the idea, and then in the second section finally states it for the first time: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, pg30)1. The “maxim” Kant speaks of is simply the motive behind the act, and a “universal law” is one that is a priori, namely, “a [law] of thought in general without regard to difference of its objects.” (Grounding, pg1). The categorical imperative states that an act should only be preformed if the motive driving the action could become a universal law, and therefore could be applied always regardless of the specifics of a situation. It should seem obvious now that the categorical imperative is directly related to the question of whether one should or should not keep a promise. In...
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...ames. W. Ellington translation. The page
citations follow the pages in that edition (see Sources).
2 This quote, and all other quotes from David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature comes from
the second edition of the Oxford text. The page citations follow the pages in that
edition (see Sources).
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin Books, 1995.
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.
Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik
der Sitten). Translated by James W. Ellington. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993.
Kant, Immanuel. “On the Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns”
(“Uber ein vermeintes Recht aus Menschenliebe zu lugen”). Translated by James W. Ellington. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993.
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