Consequentialism and Promises

In Douglas Portmore (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Consequentialism. pp. 289 - 309 (2020)
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I explore the debate about whether consequentialist theories can adequately accommodate the moral force of promissory obligation. I outline a straightforward act consequentialist account grounded in the value of satisfying expectations, and raise and assess three objections to this account: that it counterintuitively predicts that certain promises should be broken when commonsense morality insists that they should be kept, that the account is circular, and Michael Cholbi’s argument that this account problematically implies that promise-making is frequently obligatory. I then discuss alternative act consequentialist accounts, including Philip Pettit’s suggestion that promise-keeping is an intrinsic good and Michael Smith’s agent-relative account. I outline Brad Hooker’s rule consequentialist account of promissory obligation and raise a challenge for it. I conclude that appeals to intuitions about cases will not settle the dispute, and that consequentialists and their critics must instead engage in substantive debate about the nature and stringency of promissory obligation.



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Alida Liberman
Southern Methodist University

Citations of this work

Promises.Allen Habib - 2009 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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References found in this work

What we owe to each other.Thomas Scanlon - 1998 - Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Two concepts of rules.John Rawls - 1955 - Philosophical Review 64 (1):3-32.
The Methods of Ethics.Henry Sidgwick - 1874 - Bristol, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. Edited by Emily Elizabeth Constance Jones.
Shaping the Normative Landscape.David Owens - 2012 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.

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