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Promises & Morality, Essay Example

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Essay

Shiffrin takes the position that  “the power to make binding promises, as well as to forge a variety of other related forms of commitment, is an integral part of the ability to engage in special relationships in a morally good way, under conditions of equal respect” (485).   What Shiffrin means by power can be identified in the act of promising. The author feels promises can be a puzzling notion because they establish standard moral obligations through the expectation for a particular individual to react a certain way to events and instances that may have moral value or importance but are still brought on and imposed onto the individual by the outside world. The reason Shiffrin argues the power to create this binding moral contract is a core part of of engaging in relationships in a morally good way is because the process establishes conditions of equal respect between the parties involved (485). An example Shiffrin uses is the concept of fidelity as a duty. When individuals pledge their willingness to be faithful to one another they are expressing an intimate desire to be bound to a promise of fidelity. Shiffrin does point out that “promises between intimates are common.” The fact that promises are a common aspect of relations ships, specifically intimate relationships reinforces Shiffrin’s belief that promises are all driven by moral incentives. Personally, I disagree with this argument and the following will take a deeper look at some of Shiffrrin’s main points and why her argument is substantially flawed.

Shiffrin suggests that promises seem puzzling to people at times because standards of moral obligation evolve from the necessity to to respond to events that have moral significance. Shiffrin does acknowledge an alternative position to the idea that promises result in morally good relationships. She refers to this alternative position as conventionism and identifies it as social conventions that make it customary to keep promises as apposed to being a part of some complex moral dilemma or ethical obligation. She notes that, “I will use ‘convention’ or ‘social convention’ broadly and interchangeably to refer to a social practice or custom. I take the conventionalist position to involve two components: first, the conventionalist endorses the view that the moral force of promises is not morally fundamental and does not, in fact, derive directly from the expression of an individual’s will to be bound” (Shiffrin: 482). Here Shiffrin notes that conventionalist do not perceive promises as being inherently moral, and she further reinforces this idea with examples proving that in some cases the promissee does not even have to believe the promisor, and she also demonstrates examples where it could be considered the ethical or good practice not to keep the promise. The main position Shiffrin takes in opposition to conventionalism is to discredit it as an alternative argument to believing morally based promises represent the sole driving factor behind all promises.

Shiffrin does a good job of reaffirming her position by breaking down different forms of promises to differing levels and assessing them for their real value. She reveals that even when conventionalist try to insert alternative meaning behind why a particular promise or vow is created, that in all cases there is some moral drive. She uses two examples. One example she is demonstrated through the interaction that occurs between Harold and Hedda., where Harold has a deep secret that Hedda knows but he doesn’t want her to reveal. Shiffrin points out how whether Hedda knows Harold doesn’t want the secret revealed or not has no impact on the moral factor at stake within the obligation. Shiffrin goes on to demonstrate that in the case where Hedda knows if she reveals Harold’s secret it would actually do Harold more good than harm, morality still plays a major role in this scenario as well, whether Hedda reveals the secret or not. The second example Shiffrin presents is the Pal and Lender example. Shiffrin notes that, “Pal borrows money from Lender and sincerely promises to pay it back. Lender has been burned by Pal before and does notbelieve Pal will repay him though he takes Pal’s promise to be sincere. I submit that Pal owes the money simply because he has promised repayment. On the expectation-based view, however, Pal is not bound in light of the promise because Lender has developed no expectations of repayment” (Shiffrin: 488). The conflict that arises with this example as Shifrin points out is that Scanlon argues Pal is not bound by duty or moral obligation to pay the money back. Scanlon argues the only possible grounds Pal would have to pay the money back would be to receive gratitude. This disregards Shiffrin’s perspective that there is a moral obligation integral within every promise. Shiffrin clearly refutes Scanlon’s positions but does so by stating feelings of gratitude would not be applicable to the Harold Hedda case so it doesn’t serve as a good incentive for binding promises overall. I feel this is a very weak argument to support Shriffrin’s main view which is that all promises have some moral origin.

An alternative perspective to Shiffrin’s view can be seen in Scanlon’s Circularity Objection. This is a premise in which one party promises to do something based on something being done in return. Scanlon refers to Principal F as the factor which creates obligation. Scanlon believes that promises entail a wider range of duties which deal with expectations, specifically in regards to what one intends to do or what actions they intend to take. Scanlon’s main argument is that when Scanlon’s Circularity Objection is factored in, promising enables one to gain cooperation in situations where gratitude, or honor would not bee enough to create obligation or achieve cooperation. The key thing to notice here is that Scanlon’s method removes morality from the equation.

I disagree with Shiffrin’s view that promises play a substantial role in our ability to engage in special relationships in a morally good way, due to conventionalism, the very concept she presents in her work and tries to discredit. If I put the conventionalist view in practice against Shiffrin’s view in an example, the complexity of the conflict becomes more clear. For example, when President Bill Clinton publicly lied about having an affair with an intern in the Oval Office of the White House, the conventionalist train of thought would say he was driven by fear of losing his job, wife, or power due to breaking his vows of fidelity and the pledge he made verbally to be ethical for his constituents. Shiffrin would argue he felt a moral obligation to maintain the persona he had established as President and felt a moral obligation to reinforce that persona by vowing his innocence, despite knowing he was guilty and knowing it would be discovered he was guilty.  Essentially, Shiffrin’s argument is that all promises have a moral drive at the core of them. This view discards any alternative incentives as the primary factor driving one to make a promise. She says, “for many serious promises, there is often a strong moral reason to make them in the first place. One’s obligations of kindness, gratitude, or beneficence will typically be engaged as well. If the appeal to gratitude in the Profligate Pal case is effective, the underlying strategy threatens to be overinclusive” (Shiffrin: 488). This would also most likely be the main counter-argument Shiffrin would make in response to my position that there are some conventional reasons for making promises that don’t always have moral undertones. The problem I have with Shiffrin’s main view and her counter-position is that they seem to generalize all promises to be inclusive within one model of understanding. Shiffrin is taking the position that if one make s a promise with the intention of breaking it, the decision is driven by a moral purpose, and all promises made are tied to morality as a whole. Shiffrin could actually be correct in this notion, but probability works against her; as objectively speaking, it is more likely to find at least one alternative case. It’s less likely her model would be absolutely applicable across all cases.

In sum, I find it hard to believe that all promises, specifically those made in the form of contracts, or political dealings constitute morally backed promises. Shiffrin specifically emphasizes the fact promises as a driving factor of social engagement provide for individuals to have special relationships that function in a morally good way, but she makes no reference to the morally bad interactions that may occur. When an Athlete sings with a particular sports agents and promises that agent a commission, but then after using the agent’s training resources and connections, they renege on their promise and acquire another agent, this scenario would constitute a relationship that functions in a morally bad way due to broken promises. It does not complete reject Shiffrin’s notion that all promises have a moral undertone, but it does dispel the idea that moral goodness is the sole byproduct and driving factor of making a promise. There is also the circumstance where one makes a promise with the intention to deceive another implicitly, where there is absolutely no moral intention present good or bad just raw deception. It is very difficult for me to believe Shiffrin would argue this type of interaction or engagement entails a relationship functioning in a morally good way.

Work Cited

Shiffrin, Seana Valentine. “Promising, intimate relationships, and conventionalism.” Philosophical Review 117.4 (2008): 481-524.

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