Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Is Promise-Breaking Lying?

Eric brought this question up to me. I tend to think promise-breaking is lying. Here's the form a promise to someone takes: "I promise that I will do x." In effect, this is a guarantee that you will do x. And since 'I will do x' is equivalent to 'it is true I will do x', it follows 'I promise that I will do x' is equivalent to 'I promise that it is true I will do x'. To intentionally break a promise then is a form of lying; for you are guaranteeing something is true when you know it is not. In fact it may be an even worse form of lying, since you are not only saying intentionally what is false, but by promising it to the other person you are guaranteeing to someone that it is true. This is probably why people are even more disappointed when someone breaks a promise than when they tell a lie without a guarantee of its truth.

Of course, unintentionally, something may hinder you from fulfilling your promise. But then you are not morally culpable for failing to fulfill the promise. This is just a more specific case of telling someone something you believe to be true but, through no fault of your own, you don't know the details and it actually turns out to be false. When you promise something to someone you don't know that, while you are on your way to fulfill your promise, a large set of goons determined to stop people from fulfilling promises will pop up out of the corner. So it's not your fault for not being able to fulfill the promise.

These sorts of cases show that lying should be construed more subtly as intentionally telling a false-hood. And promise-breaking should be construed as intentionally failing to fulfill a promise. With this in mind it is plausible to think of promise-breaking as a more specific form of lying.


davidus said...

I've wondered about this as well!

What about the man M, who on the day of his wedding makes his vows with all the desire to remain faithful, but (alas) 5 years later finds himself adulterously breaking them anyway?

So I'd want to say that M broke his covenant/vow/promise... But I wouldn't want to construe what M did as being a lie...

Think of the above case as a specific form of sinning after making a promise NOT to sin (in a particular way). This example could then be applied to every act of contrition, where one commits to NOT sinning ever again.

How do you distinguish promise breaking from acts of contrition/vows of this sort?

awatkins69 said...

Good point! So in this case the moral responsibility would seem to be alleviated from the man at the time of his vows, since he did not know he would be failing to fulfill his promise. So the man is not responsible for a lie. But he is still sinning for breaking his promise, even though he is not sinning for telling a lie. Thus, it seems that promise-breaking is not lying.

That's a good point and I think you're right; so it appears promise-breaking is not a type of lying. I should have thought that through a little more! Though I suppose we could still say making a promise when you know you won't fulfill it is a lie.

davidus said...

Hey, I only just saw your follow up post, just another thought, it still seems there could be worries for the weak conclusion that making a promise you *know* you won't fulfil is a lie. It seems that the repentant (but compulsive) sinner who promises not to sin again, is not *lying*—even if the sinner at the same time has inferred that he/she will sin again in the future based on their past habits and broken promises. (Depending on their intentions, it will be either a good or a bad act of contrition, but surely not a lie). Likewise, the substance addict who 'promises' to keep clean. Depending on circumstance I might say to this person: "don't make promises you can't keep." Or even, "you don't really mean that." Or, in an extreme case: "that's an empty promise, in fact it's not even a promise at all." But I don't want to say: "you're a liar".

woodplay said...

Making a false promise and lying are both being deceitful. A promise only lives in the future and a lie is past based.
It is not deceitful to have a promise be unfulfilled and acknowledge that.
I appreciate this conversation to distinguish two distinct language phenomena.