Promise You’ll Read This


Hallie Liberto is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut who has attended every Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress but one (and she had a good excuse that year).  At this year’s RoME, Professor Liberto gave a talk entitled “Promises and the Backward Reach of Uptake.”  The paper examined the extent to which promissory obligations are constrained by conditions relating to the receipt or acceptance of the promise on the part of the promisee, a question of clear importance to a number of issues in applied normative philosophy.  What follows is a short blog entry that Professor Liberto produced specifically for What’s Wrong?                           (image: promise)

What Happens Between the Launching and the Landing of a Promise?

Consider this utterance, “I promise that I will drive you home from the reception.” If I said this to you, it would change the world in a particular way – it would generate a moral obligation. Imagine that you respond to the utterance immediately by saying, “No thanks, I don’t need a ride.” It seems clear that I am now under no promissory obligation to you. In fact, most theorists of promising say that no promissory obligation ever existed in this scenario; In order for such an obligation to arise, you would have had to accept my promise. In fact, the “promise” that got launched never landed; it was never completed. This is important for a variety of reasons. For instance, promisors should not have obligations to do what promisees don’t even want them to do.

An “uptake criterion,” for the purposes of this brief discussion, amounts to any conditions on promissory obligation pertaining to the receipt or acceptance of a promise. For some theorists, this condition on promissory obligation is an act of communication from the promisee (e.g. taking on the arbitration of a claim-right). For others, it is combined with a mental response (e.g. trust) on the part of the promisee.  In the paper I recently gave at RoME, I presented a variety of cases that pose a problem for the uptake criterion.  For this blog post, I’m just going to give one.

Adam: I just got your wonderful letter! Thank you so much. I knew our relationship was ready for this step – even if we’re living apart for the semester.

Bertha: I knew how much it meant to you that I promised to be monogamous. I’m sorry that I didn’t commit to this before you left. I just had to think it over a little.

Adam: When did you decide? What made you change your mind?

Bertha: Well, right before I wrote the letter. I woke up thinking about you on Monday. It was such a strong feeling. I thought a letter would be the most meaningful way to make you that promise. I sent it right away.

Adam: Well. Thank you. It means the world to me, obviously.

Bertha: You just got it today though, right?

Adam: Right.

Bertha: Oh good. I was a little worried that it would get to you early.

Adam: Why?

Bertha: Well, I had one last romp with Willis, my ex, last night. You see, I was confident that the letter wouldn’t get to you until today.

Adam: Wait, what?

Bertha: That’s all.

Adam: You spent a night with Willis after writing that solemn promise to me, and sending it to me? What sort of promise is that?

Bertha: Well, I didn’t plan to see Willis when I wrote you the letter. But when I ran into him, it occurred to me that you hadn’t gotten the letter yet. The promise is solemn. It started this morning, when you got the letter, or maybe just now, when you told me you were glad.

Adam: (sarcastically) Is that why a letter seemed like “the most meaningful way to make the promise…?”

Now, as reasonable as Adam’s complaint might seem to be, the existing theories of uptake come out in Bertha’s favor. The promise had been launched perhaps. However, it had not been completed. It had not been fully performed such that promissory obligation was generated. For instance, if Bertha had run to the post office an hour after sending the letter, and intercepted its delivery into Adam’s hands, then we would not be concerned that she had made and then broken a promise.

Despite this application, Adam appears to have a legitimate complaint. Something about the nature of promises suggests that Bertha should not have written the promise solemnly, sent it, knowing it would be received and accepted, and then acted out of accordance with her word.

This complaint can’t be explained away by Adam’s general hurt feelings. After all, he might have still been hurt if Bertha had admitted to a romp with Willis the night before she wrote the solemn letter to Adam. But he could not have complained that she was being unfaithful to her promise. Somehow, when she launches the promise matters.

There are many promises of this kind. Sometimes we make promises to children that they don’t yet fully understand – but that give us obligations before those children grow and uptake the promises. Sometimes we make promises to people de dicto (e.g. I promise fresh cookies to whomever arrives first at the store – that I will have them ready when that person arrives. That promise might not be uptaken until someone actually arrives – in fact, there is no promisee until that moment. But surely I was under promissory obligation this morning to be baking fresh cookies, before anyone arrived.)

Presenting this problem is as far as I want to go in this blog post – and is the heart of the paper from which this post is drawn.  In my paper, I suggest a strategy for resolving the problems associated with uptake – what I call, the backward reach of uptake. I conclude that many theories of promising involve the resources to allow that promissory obligation begins before a promise is complete. Though I do not champion any particular theory of promising, I argue that being able to handle the backward reach of uptake is a necessary component of the right theory, whatever it might be.


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