Monday, March 11, 2024

The Laws of Promising

On a conventionalist theory of promises, there is a social institution of promising, somewhat akin to a game, and a promise is a kind of communicative action that falls under the rules of that institution. But what makes a communicative action fall under the rules of the promissory institution? Well, one of the generally agreed on necessary conditions is that it must be intentional. So now it seems that a part of what makes something a promise is that it be intended to fall under the rules of the promissory institution. And this itself is a rule of the promissory institution.

Thus, the promissory institution needs to make reference to itself in its rules. Is this a vicious circularity?

Maybe not. The Laws of Badminton govern players of badminton. Indeed, the Definitions in the Laws start with: “Player: Any person playing Badminton”. Badminton is nothing but the game governed by these rules, and yet the rules constantly make reference to badminton via the concept of a player (and occasionally make explicit self-reference, as in law 17.6.1 that an umpire shall “uphold and enforce the Laws of Badminton”). Is this a vicious circularity? Here is a reason to think it is not. People can coherently decide to play the game defined by a set of rules referred to under some description such as “The rules posted on” or “The rules customarily in use in this club” or “The Laws of Badminton” or “The rules adopted by the Badminton World Federation” that in fact refers to the same set of rules. The rules can refer to themselves under some of these descriptions as well. We can then suppose that a player is someone who is achieving some measure of minimal success in intentionally following the rules under some such description.

The way to avoid vicious circularity here is that one needs some way of gaining reference to the rules from within the rules, and one can do so by means of an appropriate expression typically having to do with a physical embodiment of the rules, say in an inscription or in a customary practice.

Can make the same move with regard to promises? We could image a group of early humans sitting around and making up “the Laws of Promising” prior to any promises being made, with the Laws of Promising referencing themselves under some description like “The Laws promulgated in the Cave of the Lone Bear on the third full moon since the melting of the snow in the fourth year of the chiefdom of Jas the Bald.” And then the laws could cover communicative actions intended to fall under the Laws of Promising under some relevant description or other. But while we can imagine this, it is highly implausible as a historical claim.

I want to offer a weird alternative to the institutional theory of promises. Let’s first imagine that in your head there is a literal “book of promises” (made of waterproof paper, etc.), and that you can inscribe text in that book using a little pen that moves around in your head. But suppose that moving the pen is not a basic action. The only way to write p in the book of promises is to intentionally communicate to another person that you are inscribing p in the book. Such intentional communication causes, by some weird law of nature, the inscription of p into the book of promises. And then we suppose that it is a fundamental moral law that anything inscribed in the book of promises is to be done, subject to various nuances.

On this account, promising p is inscribing p into the book by intentionally communicating that you are inscribing p into the book. But note that you are not intending to promise: you are intending to inscribe into the book, which is different. So there is no circularity. (Compare here a mind-reading machine which serves you lunch if you press a button with the intention of getting lunch from the machine. There is no circularity.)

Is there such a book? A tempting simple thought is that there is: it is our memory. But that’s not right. Promises are normatively binding even if they are not remembered, though if they innocently forgotten one is typically not culpable for breaking them.

A dualist can suppose that the soul really does contain something like a book of promises, which is not directly available to introspection. When you make a promise, the content is “inscribed” into the “promise book”, and remembered as being inscribed. There is no other way to put things into the soul’s “promise book”, though if there is a God, he could miraculously inscribe things in the book. (Would we then be required to fulfill them? Well, it depends on what the moral rule is. If it says that one must do everything in the book, then we would be required to fulfill what God wrote in the book. But if it only says that one must do everything that one inscribed in the book, then what God inscribed in it may not need to be done.)

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