Joseph Raz on promises
In his paper ‘Promises and Obligations’, Raz contrasts two conceptions of a promise, supporting the second over the first.
The Intention Conception
According to the intention conception, to promise to perform an action is to communicate a firm intention to perform that action.
The intention conception is associated with following principle:
(PI) In normal circumstances, if you communicate a firm intention to perform an action to someone else and you are aware that they might rely on you, you ought to perform the action and the person you address has a right that you do so (unless they release you from the requirement to perform the action).
‘Normal circumstances’ is my term, used here so that certain cases are excluded. Raz’s examples of such cases are promises to do something intrinsically immoral and promises made under duress.
What I am calling the first criticism is an intricate argument, which is not easy to assess. Raz presents a challenging example to the intention conception, then introduces a response in defence of the intention conception, then introduces an alternative response that rejects this conception altogether and then argues in favour of this alternative response.
The intention conception: to promise to perform an action is to communicate a firm intention to perform that action.
Raz’s challenging example. One person tells another that he firmly intends to do X, but also that he does not promise to do X.
A defence of the intention conception: this person is conceptually confused.
Raz’s alternative response to the example: ‘the intention conception fails to distinguish adequately between promises and other phenomena.’ (1977: 217)
Raz argues for his alternative response like so: (1) the (PI) principle associated with the intention conception is based on certain considerations; (2) these considerations entail that promises and various other things provide identical reasons for action; (3) but promises and these other things do not provide identical reasons for action; (4) given that this is so, the alternative response is more persuasive than the defence.
Regarding (1), Raz identifies two considerations in favour of the (PI) principle:
(i) others who count on us acting in accordance with our expressed intentions may be disadvantaged or harmed if we do not then act on them;
(ii) we benefit from a reputation of reliability by acting in accordance with our expressed intentions.
In support of (2) and (3), Raz gives examples of where these considerations fail to register differences between promises and other things. I shall present one of these examples. One person, A, promises another, B, that he will perform a certain action. A third person, C, is present and A is aware that C may rely on A performing this action in making his own plans. Not only may C rely on A, he may also think A unreliable if A does not perform the action. So, in support of (2), the considerations in favour of the (PI) principle entail that A has a reason to perform the action that is the same as if A had promised C that he would perform the action. In support of (3), it does not seem that the fact that C may rely on A and the fact that he may think A unreliable if A does not perform the action produce a reason for A that is identical to a reason from a promise.
The second criticism that Raz makes is that the intention conception cannot do justice to three features of promises: they impose obligations; these obligations are voluntary; and the reasons that result from them are based on rules. I will focus on the first of these features: a reason for doing X that results from a promise to do X is based on rules (or a rule).
Raz’s argument regarding rules and the intention conception is as follows:
(1) The intention conception can only do justice to the fact that the reason from a promise is based on rules if the (PI) principle is a rule.
(2) If, whenever this principle applies, it applies because the considerations in favour of the principle affect the balance of reasons, so that on balance one should abide by the principle, then the (PI) principle is not a rule.
(3) Whenever the principle applies, it applies because the considerations in favour of the (PI) principle affect the balance of reasons, so that on balance one should abide by the principle.
From (2) and (3):
(4) The (PI) principle is not a rule.
From (1) and (4):
(5) The intention conception cannot do justice to the fact that the reason from a promise is based on rules.
To understand this argument better, consider a person who has made a promise to do something but now has a reason not to do it, for instance because it is inconvenient for them. The two considerations in favour of the (PI) principle mentioned in the previous section weigh against this reason of inconvenience: the other person will be counting on them; they may lose the benefits of a reputation for reliability. If these considerations are weighty enough, they will outweigh the reason of inconvenience, so that the balance of reasons points towards them keeping the promise. But rules, according to Raz, do not work like this. Rules are based on certain considerations but they are independent reasons for action, rather than simply those considerations shifting the balance of reasons in a certain direction.
Rules as Exclusionary Reasons
As Raz conceives of rules, a valid rule that one ought to do action X has two aspects to it:
(i) it is a reason to do X
(ii) if there are reasons for not doing X, the rule is a reason for not acting on these reasons.
The rule must be based on considerations for doing X. It is a reason to do X because of these background considerations for doing X. Another word for ‘considerations’ here is ‘reasons’. Raz says that the rule, as a reason to do X, ‘relays the force of the reasons for doing X’ on which it is based (1977: 221).
But how then is it a reason of its own and not just these considerations in favour of doing X, these background reasons? If a rule only had the first aspect, it would not have independent force as a reason. The second aspect, according to Raz, explains how it has independent force. A rule is not meant to function by the background considerations in favour of it affecting the balance of reasons, so that on balance one should do X. The second aspect of a rule means that, if valid, it functions as a reason against acting on any reasons for not doing X – an exclusionary reason, in Raz’s terminology.
The simplest way of making sense of an exclusionary reason is as follows. If there is a valid rule that one ought to do X, one should not decide whether to do X by evaluating whether the background considerations upon which the rule is based outweigh any reasons for not doing X. One should think, ‘I have a reason to bypass this weighing-up process and ignore any reasons for not doing X in evaluating whether to do X.’ Note: it seems as if Raz is onto something, in saying that rules are not meant to function by affecting the balance of reasons, but there is debate over how to interpret his idea of an exclusionary reason and also over whether we can make sense of his thinking in a defensible way.
The Obligation Conception
According to the obligation conception, a promise is an expression of an intention to undertake an obligation.
The obligation conception is associated with the following principle:
(PO) In normal circumstances, if you communicate an intention to, by this very act of communication, take on an obligation to perform a certain action and to give whoever you are addressing a right that the action be performed, then you ought to perform the action and the addressee has a right that you do so.
The (PO) principle is a rule. When you promise, the combination of your particular promise and this general rule together produce a reason for you to perform the action specified in the promise. Each is a partial reason; together they are a complete reason (1977: 219).
Justifying the (PO) Principle
A valid rule has considerations justifying it, or at least one consideration. What are the considerations justifying the (PO) principle?
The way in which promises work, by exclusionary reasons, creates a special kind of relationship between the person who promised (the promisor) and the person addressed (the promisee). The promisor must honour the promise to the promisee, and cannot escape it merely by appealing to strong reasons that weigh against keeping the promise – that would be to regard the reason for keeping the promise as affecting the balance of reasons rather than functioning as a reason to bypass such a weighing-up process in evaluating what to do. (What they need to justify breaking the promise, it seems, is first an even stronger reason against bypassing this process.) Raz thinks that one must appeal to the value of creating such special relationships to justify the (PO) principle, but he says that it is beyond the scope of his paper to attempt this justification. There may well be a defence elsewhere in his writings.
Raz, J. 1977. Promises and Obligations. In P.M.S. Hacker and J. Raz (eds.), Law, Morality, and Society. Oxford: Clarendon Press.