H.A. Prichard on promising
Prichard presents a paradox regarding promises:
(i) If you promise another that you will do an action, then you bring into existence an obligation on you to do that action.
(ii) It is impossible to bring into existence an obligation.
Prichard does not explain why we should hold (ii), beyond comparing the fact that there is a certain obligation to a mathematical fact. But there are certain properties which one might plausibly attribute to an obligation to do X that make it puzzling how one could bring into existence such a thing:
Objectivity – an obligation to do X objectively exists;
Normativity – an obligation to do X is something that ought to be fulfilled;
Non-mentality – an obligation to do X is not a mental entity;
Non-physicality – an obligation to do X is not a physical entity.
Regarding objectivity, if the obligation is felt to exist, objective existence means that it does not merely feel as if it exists. It really does exist. Regarding non-mentality, the obligation is not a mind or a feature of a mind. One might think that there could still be an obligation even if it is not felt or believed in, in which case there seems no reason to think of it as a feature of a mind. (Objectivity and non-mentality may sound much the same, but they are not.)
The General Shape of a Solution
Prichard thinks that on reflection, we will accept something like (ii). We will accept the following commitment:
(ii*) It is impossible to directly bring into existence an obligation.
The notion of directly, as opposed to indirectly, bringing about the existence of something needs clarification. Prichard does not define it, but he does give some helpful examples of indirectly bringing about an obligation. Here are two.
Example 1. You have wrongly hurt someone’s feelings. By directly bringing about this state of affairs, you indirectly bring into existence an obligation: to try to make them feel better.
Example 2. You become a parent. By directly bringing about this state of affairs, you indirectly bring into existence an obligation on you to care for your child.
(In both cases, it seems that the obligation arises not just because of your action but also because of some prior conditional, e.g. if you are a parent, you must care for your child.)
According to Prichard, we must think of promising to do X as directly bringing about the existence of something and by bringing into existence this thing, indirectly bringing into existence the obligation to do X. Presumably, whatever the direct thing is, it should be highly counterintuitive to deny that we can bring into existence this thing, unlike with obligations.
The Expectation Account
The basic idea behind the expectation account is that when you promise me to do X, you directly bring into existence an expectation in me that you will do X. This gives rise to an obligation on you to do X.
Prichard gives some examples to challenge this basic idea. He also completely rejects expectation accounts, whatever qualifications one might add to the basic idea. Prichard’s argument is not formulated with enough clarity, I think. What follows is an argument that his text suggested to me, though it is hard to tell how close it is to what he had in mind.
An advocate of the expectation account cannot reasonably say that an expectation brought into existence by promising gives rise to an obligation unless the expectation is justified. There are no obligations from unjustified expectations, e.g. irrational ones. We can therefore represent what the expectation account requires as follows:
Promise made by you to do Xà Justified expectation in the addressee that you will do X à Obligation on you to do X as a consequence
Prichard thinks that the person addressed by the promise can only justify expecting you to do what you promised by appealing to the premise that you are under an obligation. But how can they support this premise? How can they support thinking that you are under an obligation? If they must appeal to the premise that they have a justified expectation to explain why you are under an obligation, as the expectation account insists, then they will be assuming the existence of what they are trying to establish: a justified expectation.
The General Promise Account
According to this account, when one makes a specific promise, what one does is bring into existence certain sounds in connection to a specified action, e.g. the sounds you make when you say ‘I promise’ followed by specifying a course of action. The reason why making these sounds results in an obligation to do the action specified is because of a general promise which you earlier made: to never make these sounds to another person, followed by specifying a course of action, unless you go on to pursue that course of action.
A puzzle that Prichard raises about the general promise is how it can happen within language, given that the person who makes the promise has not previously agreed to only utter certain sounds in connection with a course of action if they go on to pursue that course of action.
Nevertheless, Prichard thinks that there must be something like a general promise, even if it is not a promise and even if it is not something in language, which explains why our specific promises obligate. In other words, the process of initiation into promising language involves something like making a promise to keep one’s promises. He acknowledges that this end to his paper is not a final solution, rather a point from which to engage in further inquiry.
Prichard, H.A. 2002. The Obligation to Keep a Promise. In H.A. Prichard and J. MacAdam, Moral Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Link.