Monday, August 14, 2017

Difficult questions about promises and duress

It is widely accepted that you cannot force someone to make a valid promise. If a robber after finding that I have no valuables with me puts a gun to my head and says: “I will shoot you unless you promise to go home and bring me all of the jewelry there”, and I say “I promise”, my promise seems to be null and void.

But suppose I am a cavalry officer captured by an enemy officer. The enemy officer is in a hurry to complete a mission, and it is crucial to his military ends that I not ride straight back to my headquarters and report what I saw him doing. He does not, however, have the time to tie me up, and hence he prepares to kill me. I yell: “I give you my word of honor as an officer that I will stay in this location for 24 hours.” He trusts me and rides on his way. (The setting for this is more than a hundred years ago.)

However, if promises made under duress are invalid, then the enemy officer should not trust me. One can only trust someone to do something when in some way a good feature of the person impels them to do that thing. (I can predict that a thief will steal my money if I leave it unprotected, but I don’t trust the thief to do that.) But there is no virtue in keeping void promises, since such promises do not generate moral reasons. In fact, if the promise is void, then I might even have a moral duty to ride back and report what I have seen. One shouldn’t trust someone to do something contrary to moral duty.

Perhaps, though, there is a relevant difference between the case of an officer giving parole to another, and the case of the robber. The enemy officer is not compelling me to make the promise. It’s my own idea to make the promise. Of course, if I don’t make the promise, I will die. But that fact doesn’t make for promise-canceling duress. Say, I am dying of thirst, and the only drink available is the diet gingerale that a greedy merchant is selling and which she would never give away for free. So I say: “I promise to pay you back tomorrow as I don’t have any cash with me.” I have made the promise in order to save my life. If the merchant gives me the gingerale, the promise is surely valid, and I must pay the merchant back tomorrow.

Is the relevant difference, perhaps, that I originate the idea of the promise in the officer case, but not in the robber case? But in the merchant case, I would be no less obligated to pay the merchant back if we had a little dialogue: “Could you give me a drink, as I’m dying of thirst and I don’t have any cash?” – “Only if you promise to pay me back tomorrow.”

Likewise, in the officer case, it really shouldn’t matter who originates the idea. Imagine that it never occurred to me to make the promise, but a bystander suggests it. Surely that doesn’t affect the binding force of the promise. But suppose that the bystander makes the suggestion in a language I don’t understand, and I ask the enemy officer what the bystander says, and he says: “The bystander suggests you give your word of honor as an officer to stay put for 24 hours.” Surely it also makes no moral difference that the enemy officer acts as an interpreter, and hence is the proximate origin of the idea. Would it make a difference if there were no helpful bystander and the enemy officer said of his own accord: “In these circumstances, officers often make promises on their honor to stay put”? I don’t think so.

I think that there is still a difference between the robber case and that of the enemy officer who helpfully suggests that one make the promise. But I have a really hard time pinning down the difference. Note that the enemy officer might be engaged in an unjust war, much as the robber is engaged in unjust robbery. So neither has a moral right to demand things of me.

There is a subtle difference between the robber and officer cases. The robber is threatening your life in order to get you to make the promise. The promise is something that the robber is pursuing as the means to her end, namely the obtaining of jewelry. My being killed will not achieve the robber’s purpose at all. If the robber knew that I wouldn’t make the promise, she wouldn’t kill me, at least as far as the ends involved in the promise (namely, the obtaining of my valuables) go. But the enemy officer’s end, namely the safety of his mission, would be even more effectively achieved by killing me. The enemy officer’s suggestion that I make my promise is a mercy. The robber’s suggestion that I make my promise isn’t a mercy.

Does this matter? Maybe it does, and for at least two reasons. First, the robber is threatening my life primarily in order to force a promise. The enemy officer isn’t threatening my life primarily in order to force a promise: the threat would be there even if I were unable to make promises (or were untrustworthy, etc.). So there is a sense in which the robber is more fully forcing a promise out of me.

Second, it is good for human beings to have a practice of giving and keeping promises in the officer types of circumstances, since such a practice saves lives. But a practice of giving and keeping promises in the robber types of circumstances, since such a practice only encourages robbers to force promises out of people. Perhaps the fact that one kind of practice is beneficial and the other is harmful is evidence that the one kind of practice is normative to human beings and the other is not. (This will likely be the case given natural law, divine command, rule-utilitarianism, and maybe some other moral theories.)

Third, the case of the officer is much more like the case of the merchant. There is a circumstance in both cases that threaten my life independently of any considerations of promises—dehydration and an enemy officer whom I’ve seen on his secret mission. In both cases, it turns out that the making of a promise can get me out of these circumstances, but the circumstances weren’t engineered in order to get me to make the promise. But the case of the robber is very different from that of the merchant. (Interesting test case: the merchant drained the oases in the desert so as to sell drinks to dehydrated travelers. This seems to me to be rather closer to the robber case, but I am not completely sure.)

Maybe, though, I’m wrong about the robber case. I have to say that I am uncomfortable with voidly promising the robber that I will get the valuables when I don’t expect to do so—there seems to be a lie involved, and lying is wrong even to save one’s life. Or at least a kind of dishonesty. But this suggests that if I were planning on bringing the valuables, I would be acting more honestly in saying it. And that makes the situation resemble a valid promise. Maybe not, though. Maybe it’s wrong to say “I will bring the valuables” when one isn’t planning on doing so, but once one says it, one has no obligation to bring them. I don’t know. (This is related to this sort of a case. Suppose I don’t expect that there will be any yellow car parked on your street tonight, but I assert dishonestly in the morning that there will be a yellow car parked on your street in the evening. In the early afternoon, I am filled with contrition for my dishonesty to you. Normally, I should try to undo the effect of dishonesty by coming clean to the person I was dishonest to. But suppose I cannot get in touch with you. However, what I can do is go to the car rental place, rent a yellow car and park it on your street. Do I have any moral reason to do so? I don’t know. Not in general, I think. But if you were depending on the presence of the yellow car—maybe you made a large bet about it wit a neighbor—then maybe I should do it.)

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