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On The Obligation To Keep One’s Promises

1508 words - 6 pages

On the Obligation to Keep One’s Promises

Moral philosophy is generally in pursuit of the “ought.” More specifically, a common goal is to create some sort of rubric for evaluating specific situations, and in the face of a decision, revealing what “ought to be done.” A very important and consequently complicated “ought” is that which dictates if one should keep a promise. This topic is so vast that is seems it would take a great deal of effort to make progress towards an answer, and in fact, there have been volumes of philosophy written about this very subject matter. Two 18th-century moral philosophers who tackled this mammoth rather successfully are Immanuel Kant and David Hume.

The backbone of Kant’s moral philosophy is what he calls the “categorical imperative.” In the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant uses the preface and the first section to introduce and develop the idea, and then in the second section finally states it for the first time: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, pg30)1. The “maxim” Kant speaks of is simply the motive behind the act, and a “universal law” is one that is a priori, namely, “a [law] of thought in general without regard to difference of its objects.” (Grounding, pg1). The categorical imperative states that an act should only be preformed if the motive driving the action could become a universal law, and therefore could be applied always regardless of the specifics of a situation. It should seem obvious now that the categorical imperative is directly related to the question of whether one should or should not keep a promise. In fact, it takes Kant less than a paragraph to introduce that exact point. Kant poses the question, “When I am in distress, may I make a promise with the intention of not keeping it?” (Grounding, pg14). Not only does Kant begin immediately to discuss the difficult topic of a promise, but also he cuts right to the most important part. If it is assumed that all things being equal, it is better to keep a promise than not, what happens in the situations when all things are not equal? What is the morally correct choice when keeping a promise would most definitely do more damage than not keeping it? Kant discusses the predicament, and after applying the categorical imperative as expected, finds the argument cleared up. “The most direct and infallible way…to answer the question…is to ask myself whether I would really be content if my maxim were to hold as a universal law.” Kant sees the following conclusion as obvious: “Then I immediately become aware that I can indeed will the lie but can not at all will the universal law to lie.” (Grounding, pg15). While discussing a different example later, Kant clarifies his reasoning on the matter. “For the universality of a law which says that anyone believing himself to be in...

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