Contract: Not promise

In order to form a contract at least one of the parties to the bargain must give an undertaking or commitment of the appropriate kind to the other; that is, she must perform a commissive speech act of the right kind. It is widely assumed that the speech act in question is a promise. Indeed it is standard textbook fare that a contract is a promise (or an exchange of promises) that the law will enforce. This assumption underlies the venerable tradition in contract theory of arguing that the morality of promise-keeping bears or ought to bear importantly on the content of the law of contract. In this paper I argue that this assumption is false. By way of a critical examination of Seana Shiffrin's impressive recent contribution to this theoretical tradition, I argue that the commissive speech act by means of which a contract is formed is not the same speech act as that by means of which we voluntarily undertake moral obligations to others.
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