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Moral Moments

Simon Says: Do the Right Thing!

by Joel Marks

I remember reading not too long ago about an American major-league coach who suddenly switched to a different team. The move was not entirely unexpected by the sports community, which had been skeptical just the week before when said coach had proclaimed that he would not do what he then proceeded to do forthwith. Subsequently questioned by a (no doubt bored) reporter about the discrepancy between what he did and what he had said he would not do, the coach replied, “I meant it at the time.”

The ‘real world’ does not bat an eyelash. The moralist – c’est moi – reels. That’s because I believe that the expression of an intention typically carries the same obligation as a promise, and hence a failure to follow through is equivalent to breaking a promise. Were the coach’s remark a valid excuse, wouldn’t promises cease to be promises?

A promise is the making of a commitment to behave in the future consistently with a declaration to behave in suchand- such a way. But instead, the coach’s comment makes promising nothing more than a declaration to behave in such-and-such a way, but with no attendant commitment to behave in that way!

It follows that his original assertion – say, “I won’t be switching teams” – would have to be understood as a description of his mental state: “The way I feel about it right now is that I have no intention of switching to another team in the near future.” Maybe it includes a prediction as well: “So far as I can read my own mind and foresee events, I would say there is no likelihood that I will be switching teams.” But it would not imply that he was putting himself under any obligation to refrain from switching, should circumstances or his feelings on the matter happen to change!

Of course, my argument that the coach’s view is cockeyed presumes that he was not simply lying when he said he would not switch teams. Since I am using this example to make a point about promises, let us accept the coach’s truthfulness. (Note also, then, that I am putting aside the question of whether the coach might even have had some justification to lie, given the known conventions or ‘customs’ of labor negotiations.) But, then, on what grounds do I insist that the coach’s assertion did fit my definition of promising?

Indeed, what if the coach argues that he did not make a promise, precisely because he did not use the word ‘promise’ in his original statement? Isn’t this why we have such words: to distinguish the making of a mere assertion from the making of a promise? It seems analogous to the practice in American law courts of having a witness agree to “solemnly swear to tell the truth, so help me God,” when, on my account, “to tell the truth” would do as well. In fact, the bald testimony should warrant itself.

Well, that is the difference between the coach (and the courts) and me: I don’t believe that making a promise is like the game of “Simon Says”! One need not invoke the word ‘promise’ in order to make a promise. Given the appropriate context (e.g., one is not playacting), tone of voice (e.g., not mocking), and so on, “I will (not) do X” can be equivalent to “I promise that I will (not) do X.” Thus, my thesis here is analogous to that of my previous column, where I argued that deceptions that are not explicit lies carry the same moral weight as would their counterpart lies. (See also Sissela Bok’s classic treatise, Lying, Random House 1989).

The situation is similar to the way “I believe the Earth is round” is equivalent to “I am truthfully asserting that I believe it is true that the Earth is round.” An assertion of belief brings with it certain implications that need not be explicitly stated. Just so, an assertion of intention implies that one is putting oneself under an obligation, not only to make one’s words conform to one’s present intention, but also to make one’s future behavior conform to one’s words.

Suppose the coach objects that all sorts of things could legitimately prevent one from following through with one’s declared intention. “I’ll meet you at 7 o’clock tomorrow” – but you encounter unexpected traffic, or get a flat tire, or suffer a stroke! I reply: Red herrings all. These same things can happen with an unequivocal promise. Admittedly, interesting issues are raised, such as whether you have broken your promise if something inadvertent intervened with your sincere attempt to keep it. But nothing about this distinguishes promises from stated intentions. Nor, certainly, do I mean to suggest that one can never be justified to break a promise.

At the same time, I cannot deny the empirical reality that the standard I am defending is ever more widely honored in the breach. People have become increasingly inured to hearing words used without any implication for further action based on them, and in truth, explicit promises often fare no better. Ultimately it is not only morality that goes down the tubes, but our ability to communicate; for nothing means anything in a world where the force of an intention cannot survive its own initial utterance.

© Joel Marks 2000

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A.

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