Promises schmomises

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In this piece, I argue that promises need not be kept just because they were made. This is not to say, however, that unwise, unhappy, and unfortunate promises do not generate obligations. When broken promises will result either in wrongful gains to promisors or wrongful losses to promisees, obligations of corrective justice will demand that such promises be kept if their breach cannot be fully repaired. Thus, when a broken promise will constitute a deliberate loss transfer for personal gain, the duty not to exact unjust enrichment (a wrongful gain) will require a promisor either to honor her promise or craft a means of ensuring that the promisee’s impoverishment is not traded for her enrichment. And when a broken promise will constitute the culpable imposition of a reliancebased injury on a nonculpable promisee (a wrongful loss), the duty to make others whole when one has purposefully, knowingly, or recklessly injured them will require one either to keep one’s promise or to fashion a remedy for its breach that ensures that the promisee is left no worse off than he would be had the promise not been made. This account explicitly parts ways with normative powers theories of promising. It places no weight at all on the raw fact that a promise has been made. Instead, it locates the gravamen of a promissory violation in the harm that is caused to a promisee who nonculpably relies upon and changes her position in anticipation of the prediction about the promisor’s future conduct that is embedded in his promise. Absent any adverse reliance on the part of a promisee, there is nothing that gives rise to an obligation of performance or repair on the part of the promisor. But this account is also to be distinguished from utilitarian theories that take promises to be instruments of wealth maximization that properly give way whenever the reason for honoring them speaks in favor of violating them. On my account, the balance of reasons for action that determines the morality of performance includes deontological rights and duties, agent-relative permissions, and Hohfeldian liberties. As I shall argue, even if one rightly concludes that one has no duty either to keep a promise or to craft a remedy for its breach, one must nevertheless remember that virtue requires one to be or become the kind of person who often goes beyond the call of duty. But the fact that virtue often requires us to do what we have no duty to do should not cause us to confuse its conditions with the conditions of right and wrong action. We have a duty to keep promises or to otherwise protect the reliance interests that they generate only when failing to do so will lead either to our own unjust enrichment or to others’ unjust injury. And this means that we have a duty to keep promises in far fewer circumstances than is commonly believed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)279-343
Number of pages65
JournalLaw and Philosophy
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Law


Dive into the research topics of 'Promises schmomises'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this