Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Unreleasable promises would be useful

Alice promises Bob to impose on him some penalty should Bob do a certain wrong. Bob does the wrong, and points out to Alice that imposing the penalty is some trouble to Alice, and that Bob is happy to release Alice from the promise.

If the promisee can always release the promiser from a promise, then in a case like this Bob may be exactly right. Deterrence thus would sometimes work better if one can make a promise that the promisee cannot release one from.

Of course, the fact that a normative power would be useful does not mean that the normative power exists. I doubt one can make a promise to another that the other cannot release one from.

One might, however, be able to vow the deterrent penalty to God. Or maybe just promise it to a third party (society?) who has no incentive to release one from the promise.


James R said...

Could you go into more detail as to why such a promise would be (probably) impossible?

Suppose Alice is naïve, and believes such a promise is possible-- morally, conceptually, etc., and says "I promise X, and in addition, promise that I will neither acknowledge a lifting of promise X, nor any of the other promises within this sentence." (Is it redundant to say "or any promises implied by the same"? I'm not sure, we can add it in anyway.)

It's not *immediately* clear that she's put forth an impossible promise--and if the promise is an invalid one, it seems unintuitive that it does not bind her in *any* way, or does not bind her more than "I promise X".

Alexander R Pruss said...

BTW, another set of cases where unreleasable promises would be useful would be in the case of accountability partner arrangements.