Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Desirism and the Duty to Keep a Promise

One of the recent Philosophy Bites podcasts that I listened to interviewed David Owens on Duty..

Desirism has some specific things to day about duty. Namely, that duties have to do with aversions that people generally have many and strong reasons to create, using the tools of praise and condemnation. Specifically, the duty to keep promises means that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to breaking promises by praising those who keep promises and condemning - perhaps even punishing - those who break promises.

Near the beginning of the episode, Owens mentions the two dominant theories for the justification of duty. The first is the intrinsic value theory - it is "just wrong" to break a promise. The second is an instrumental account that holds that the institution of promise keeping provides certain benefits, and the benefits justify the institution.

I hold that there is no such thing as intrinsic value. I understand intrinsic value to imply intrinsic end-reasons for intentional action, and no such entity exists. Desires exist, and can be expressed in the form "agent desires that P". In this case, the desire gives the agent a reason to realize any state of affairs in which "P" is true. Those states of affairs have no intrinsic merit, they just happen to be something that the agent has come to value.

This leaves us with an instrumentalist account of promise keeping. However, we are not talking about the instrumental value of an institution. We are talking about the instrumental value of promoting a particular desire or aversion. In this case, it is an aversion to breaking promises.

We can see some of the importance of looking at desires and aversions rather than institutions by looking at objections that Owens raises to traditional defenses of the duty to keep promises.

First, Owens examines the idea that there is a duty to create promises because other people build expectations on our promises - they make plans expecting us to act in certain ways (keeping our promises). Consequently, when we break our promises, we harm others. Harming others is a bad thing to do. Consequently, breaking promises is a bad thing to do.

Against this argument, Owens brings up the fact that not all cases of promise keeping harm others. It may be the case that the other person has forgotten the promise and, consequently, has made no plans based on that expectation. Alternatively, it may be the case that the other person never believed that one would make good on the promise and made no plans on that account. This defense for promise keeping says that if others do not believe that one would keep a promise, then one has no obligation to keep a promise. This odd result raises flags for the "harm" argument.

Next, Owens mentions an argument that states that the institution of promise keeping produces good benefits. Thus, there are reasons to bind ourselves to and obey the requirements of this institution. Failure to keep a promise damages the institution - which, in turn, would deprive society of the benefits that the institution would otherwise bring about.

However, it is clearly not the case that every act of breaking a promise causes the institution of promise keeping to utterly collapse. Breaking a promise to meet somebody for lunch, for example, will not imply that every contract and agreement currently in force will become worthless.

Owens says that we should see promise keeping as good for its own sake - and not for its instrumental value. He also links the moral value of promise keeping to desire by saying that it is something we care about for its own sake. It matters to us that others keep their promises. Because we care about our duties, we have reason to care about controlling our duties. The institution of promise keeping gives us this control. We decide what duties we have by deciding what to promise and what not to promise. We decide what duties others have by deciding whether to keep others bound to a promise or to release them from their promise.

In linking the morality of promise keeping to "reasons to care", Owens says something that desirism would certainly agree with. What we are after is making people care about keeping their promise - promoting desires in people to keep their promises and aversions to breaking them.

Owens does not mention the fact that this interest in creating certain desires and aversions to others explains why we praise and, in extreme cases, reward those who keep their promises while we condemn and sometimes punish those who break promises. These rewards and punishments reinforce the desire to keep promises and the aversion to breaking promises respectively. They work not only on those rewarded or punished, but on the community generally - even where the story of the reward or punishment does not even describe a real event.

To say that people have an obligation to keep their promises - even where it would do no harm to the person who was given the promise, or to the institution of promise keeping - is to say that people have many and strong reasons to condemn those who break promises, even under these circumstances. They have many and strong reasons to condemn the breaking of promises because they have many and strong reasons to establish a general aversion to breaking promises - an aversion that will motivate agents to keep promises even when they have other reasons that would motivate them not to, and when they could get away with it.

However, people generally have no reason to motivate others to keep promises under conditions where changed circumstances or new information means that the person to whom the promise was made does not want it kept. That is to say, we want our aversion to breaking promises to dissipate when the promisee releases the promise. Owens is correct to argue that we have reason to seek this level of control. Consequently, we have reason to build it into the desires and aversions we create through praise and condemnation - refusing to condemn the person who fails to keep a promise that he was released from.

This, then, is how desirism handles the institution of promise keeping.

No comments: