The problem with promising

David Owens
King's College London
Why have philosophers since Hume regarded promising as problematic? I distinguish two problems raised by Hume. The problem of the bare wrong is the problem of how it can make sense to avoid a wrong when the wrong does not affect any intelligible human interest. The problem of normative power is the problem of how something can be a wrong simply because it has been declared to be a wrong. I argue that the problem of the bare wrong is more basic. I then examine the attempts of practice theorists like Hume and Rawls to overcome the problem of the bare wrong by arguing that whenever breach of promise seems like a bare wrong, in fact human interests are adversely affected because a socially valuable practice is damaged. I argue that their various explanations cannot cover all the cases. I then formulate an assumption which is shared by all practice theorists (and others) namely the assumption that we take promises seriously because they serve our interest in social co-ordination. I argue that if this assumption were true, there need be no practice of promise-keeping for promises to bind. Furthermore, were this assumption true, promising would be a social tool that we could largely do without. And so long as promising intelligibility is in doubt (because of the problem of the bare wrong) an adherent of the social co-ordination hypothesis should assume that we largely do do without it. So anyone who gives promising a key role in human social life must reject the social co-ordination hypothesis.
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