Friday, March 6, 2020

Sincerity and promises

It seems that for a promise to be sincere, you have to intend to keep it.

But this is false. Suppose you offer to lend me a microscope upon my promise to return it to you when you ask. I know that if I make the promise, then as soon as you ask me for the microscope’s return, your request will remind me of the promise, and I will fulfill it. So, I make the promise. Given that I know I will keep it, I am being sincere. But I don’t need to clutter my mind by forming any intention to keep the promise or to return the microscope.

So perhaps for a promise to be sincere, you need to believe you will keep it.

But this, too, is false. Suppose you’re my accountability partner and I promise to stop drinking, and suppose this is a promise I have broken so many times that I believe that I won’t keep it. But I intend to keep it. And you know my track record, so there is no deception. Again, I think there is no sincerity.

But if sincerity in promising needs neither the intention to keep the promise nor the belief that one will do so, what does it need? Perhaps the disjunction: I need to believe or intend (or, best, both). But normally I prefer to avoid disjunctive accounts.

Let’s think some more and go back to the accountability partner case. If you know my track record, you won’t count on my not drinking. For instance, you aren’t going to vouch for my sobriety to others, you won’t trust me around your liquor cabinet, etc. But suppose you didn’t know my track record. You just heard my promise and counted on it, vouching for me to others, etc. In that case, if I drink, you have two grounds for resentment: that I broke my promise and that I deceived you, leading you to count on good behavior I did not actually expect.

Here is what I think is going on. Normally, when I make you a promise, I do two things:

  1. I obligate myself to you to perform the action, and

  2. I testify to you that I will perform the action.

And I can betray you in either or both respects: I can break my obligation and I can testify falsely.

In the accountability partner case, in the presence of shared knowledge of my track record, the testimony about future behavior that normally comes along with a promise is canceled. In that case, all I do is I obligate myself to you. I expect to break that obligation, but I have good reason to undertake the obligation, namely that the probability that I will stay sober increases (though not enough to justify belief) because I will have an additional reason—my promise to you—to do so. (I think one needs the Principle of Double Effect here. My intended effect is an increased chance of staying sober. The unintended—indeed, counterintended—but foreseen effect is my breaking a promise to you.)

That still doesn’t answer the question of what the sincerity conditions are.

Here is one suggestion. Sincerity only concerns (2), the testimony aspect. In cases where the testimony is canceled, whether explicitly or implicitly (say, in light of shared knowledge), there is no sincerity condition on promising at all. There is only the creation of an obligation.

That doesn’t sound quite right. It seems that if I make a promise to an accountability partner who knows the dismal track record of such promises, I am still being insincere if I don’t intend to keep the promise. But what if the case is really weird, so that I am more likely to keep the promise if I don’t intend to do so when making it? (E.g., maybe I know that there is a neuroscientist who is going to observe my brain and if she detects that I am intending to keep the promise at the moment of making it, she will erase my memory of the promise, while if I don’t intend to keep it, the promise will still come to mind in my moments of temptation and make it less unlikely that I will stay sober.)

Maybe what is going on is this. When the testimony to future performance is canceled, it is normally replaced by an implicit testimony to the intention of future performance (or perhaps an implicature of such an intention?). So in the special case of promises to accountability partners who expect failure, one is deceiving the other party if one lacks the intention to keep the promise. And in the contrived cases where the intention would make it less likely that one would keep the promise, one should take the further step of informing the other party that one is not even intending to keep the promise.

I like the way that this story makes the accountability partner case be different from the standard case of a promise. I also like the modularity on this story. Promises normally have two ingredients, the exercise of a normative power to create an obligation, and testimony to future actions. We already knew that the second ingredient can occur without the first—mere predictions of one’s future actions are like that. It’s rather nice, then, that the first ingredient can also occur without the second.

I don’t know if the above story can be reconciled with the promise account of assertion. If not, so much the worse for the promise account of assertion.


Martin Cooke said...

Interesting argument, Alex, but I think that you went wrong right at the start, when you said: "I know that if I make the promise, then as soon as you ask me for the microscope’s return, your request will remind me of the promise, and I will fulfill it. So, I make the promise. Given that I know I will keep it, I am being sincere. But I don’t need to clutter my mind by forming any intention to keep the promise or to return the microscope."

Surely you do not have to form an intention because you already have such an intention. Your stated knowledge is only relevant because of that intention. Why does it matter that you know that you will fulfill it? Because you intend to keep it. You know that you will be reminded of the promise, but why should that matter? Because you intend to keep it. You know that you will be wanting to keep the promise.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Here is what I was thinking: I *expect* that I will return it. But an expectation is not an intention. My reason for making the promise is that I *expect* to keep it, not that I *intend* to do so.

There are two kinds of intentions: There are the kinds of intentions that are a disposition to future action, which involves a state of mind whereby I monitor for the triggering condition and am disposed to act on it. For instance, my intention to leave for the university in within the next half hour is like that: I am monitoring the time and I am disposed to leave when the time runs out. But the point of my story is that I do not bother to set up such a dispositional state.

The second type of intention is the kind that constitutes the content of an action, as when I wave to attract your attention. If I intend something in this way, I intend it either as an end or as a means. I don't intend the return as an end in my making the promise, since the end of making the promise is my obtaining the microscope. Nor do I intend the return as a means. For the return is not a means to my obtaining the microscope.

But perhaps what I intend is a *completed* honest transaction, which does require the return. Maybe, but why need I intend that? I may intend just to be honest here and now.

Martin Cooke said...

I see your point more clearly now, thanks. But still, a promise seems to me to require an intention. I expect that I will be alive next week, and a dependent might be worried about that, with the pandemic panicking her, so I assure her that I will (very probably) be. Can I make a promise? Can I promise her that my heart will still be beating? I can promise to be careful, but can I promise things that I expect but have no control over?