Monday, November 16, 2015

"Even if" clauses in promises

If I promise to visit you for dinner, but then it turns out that I have a nasty case of the flu, I don't need to come, and indeed shouldn't come. But I could also promise to meet you for dinner even if I have a nasty case of the flu, then if the promise is valid, I need to come even if I have the flu. I suspect, however, that typically such a promise would be immoral: I should not spread disease. But one can imagine cases where it would be valid, maybe say if you really would like to get the flu for a serious medical experiment on yourself.

In my previous post, I gave a case where it would be beneficial to have a promise that binds even when fulfilling it costs multiple lives. Thus, there is some reason to think that one could have promises with pretty drastic "even if" clauses such as "even if a terrorist kills ten people as a result of this." But clearly not every "even if" clause is valid. For instance, if I say I promise to visit you for dinner even if I have to endanger many lives by driving unsafely fast, my "only if" clause is not valid under normal circumstances (if we know that my coming to dinner would save lives, though, then it might be).

One can try to handle the question of distinguishing valid from invalid "only if" clauses by saying that the invalid case is where it is impermissible to do the promised thing under the indicated conditions. The difficulty, however, is that whether doing the promised thing is or is not permissible can depend on whether one has promised it. Again, the example from my previous post could apply, but there are more humdrum cases where one would have an on balance moral reason to spend the evening with one's family had one not promised to visit a friend.

Maybe this is akin to laws. In order to be valid, a law has to have a minimal rationality considered as an ordinance for the common good. In order to be valid, maybe a promise has to have a minimal rationality considered as an ordinance for the common human good with a special focus on the promisee? To promise to come to an ordinary dinner even if it costs lives does not have satisfy that condition, while to promise to bring someone out of general anesthesia even if a terrorist kills people as a result could satisfy it under some circumstances. It would be nice to be able to say more, but maybe that can't be done.


Heath White said...

Here is a small point, which does not address all the issues. It is not always wrong to break promises, and sometimes required. But surely it is wrong to make a promise when one can reasonably foresee, or already knows, that either (i) the conditions making promise-breaking obligatory (are likely to) obtain, or (ii) the conditions making promise-breaking permissible (are likely to) obtain, and in that case the promiser would break the promise. So if the terrorist threat would make it obligatory, or attractively permissible, for the anesthesiologist to let Fred die, the anesthesiologist cannot permissibly promise Fred that he will not let him die.

Promises can be strengthened (i.e. defeaters to them can be eliminated) by adding “even if” clauses. E.g. “I will bring you out of anesthesia even if it costs ten lives” is a stronger promise than “I will bring you out of anesthesia.” Probably some “even if” clauses are invalid; “I will bring you out of anesthesia even if it costs the life of everyone on the planet” is probably one. In such cases, one can (trivially) foresee the circumstances that would make the promise permissible (or even obligatory) to break: namely, if it really would cost the lives of everyone on the planet. Those promises are impermissible to make at all.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I really like the suggestion in the first paragraph.

I agree with your second paragraph, assuming the patient is on the planet. But if the patient is not one of those whose lives would be lost, I could see a case where it would be reasonable to make such a promise. For instance, suppose that everyone but the patient is going to die if the patient lives. I assume a strong deontic constraint: even so, it's wrong to kill the patient. So I am resigned to the patient being the sole survivor. But I could make the patient's lonely life a lot better by fixing some medical problems he has, and that requires surgery. So I promise to bring him out of anesthesia even though this will kill everyone else. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to ethically engage in the surgery, and as a result the same numbers of people would die, AND the sole survivor would have to live with medical problems.

Heath White said...

Your case is one where in fact the “even if” clause is okay and makes sense. In the second paragraph I was just trying to apply the point of the first paragraph to “even if” promises. In the case where the antecedent obtaining would itself nullify the promise somehow (“I promise to come to dinner even if God himself tells me not to”) I think it is always impermissible to make that promise.

My larger view in the background is that promising exists because it is a means of coordinating collective action. “I promise that P” induces an expectation that P and then the promisee can rationally plan action that he otherwise could not rationally undertake. (Classic example: “I promise not to spill the beans even if we are arrested and made Prisoner’s Dilemma-type offers by the cops” enables thieves to coordinate their criminal behavior.) It is wrong to make promises that will induce expectations/planning on the part of the promisee that one can foresee would not be a good idea for the promisee. E.g. it is wrong to make promises that might induce Fred to go under anesthesia if a fuller understanding of the circumstances (i.e. your understanding) would mean that he would find it irrational to go under anesthesia.