“Natural Rights and Two Conceptions of Promising”

Chicago-Kent Law Review 81 (9):9-19 (2006)

Peter Vallentyne
University of Missouri, Columbia
Does one have an obligation to keep one’s promises? I answer this question by distinguishing between two broad conceptions of promising. On the normativized conception of promising, a promise is made when an agent validly offers to undertake an obligation to the promisee to perform some act (i.e., give up a liberty-right in relation to her) and the promisee validly accepts the offer. Keeping such promises is morally obligatory by definition. On the non- normativized conception, the nature of promising does not conceptually entail any connection with the obligation to keep promises. A promise might be understood, for example, as an assertion that one will do something along with special assurance that one will do so and an invitation to rely on that assurance. A particularly attractive and relevant non-normativized account of promising takes promising simply to be giving one’s word concerning one’s future conduct. So understood, it is plausible—as a substantive matter—that one has an obligation to (1) alert the promisee, if one realizes that he will not perform the promised action, (2) apologize and compensate the promisee, if one does not perform the action, but one has no obligation to perform the promised action.
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