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Promises to the Self
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I Self Promises and Promissory Obligations

Can we make promises to ourselves? This is a question that has not received much consideration in the large body of philosophical work on promising. And in what commentary there is, the answer is uniformly negative. I think this negativity is a mistake, and that the conventional view that we can’t make reflexive promises is wrong. I also think that this has some important implications for promissory theory in general. In what follows, I will attempt to argue for the first of these two claims, and to briefly outline my reasons for the second.

Historically the question of self promise has been addressed directly by Hobbes,2 and more recently by H.L.A. Hart3, R.S. Downie4 and P.S. Atiyah5. All of these discussions are very brief, and, with the exception of Downie, who in an aside calls self promises ‘dubious’ and then says no more about them, all of them either explicitly deny that self promises are possible, or (as in the case of Hart) assume this implicitly, in the service of another argument.6

I think this consensus is mistaken. I think that we can make binding (in the sense of morally obligatory) promises to ourselves. In what follows I offer a hypothetical case as an argument in favor of the reality of self promise. I then offer a rebuttal to two arguments offered against self promises and end with my reasons for thinking that the reality of self promises has bearing on the central questions of promissory theory.

Let me begin with a few prefatory remarks about promises and promissory obligations. Firstly, since I want to argue that certain instances of (apparent) self promise are in fact promises, and not metaphorical uses of the word, I should make plain what the difference between the two things is.

It is widely accepted that what crucially separates promises from nearby phenomena like expressions of firm intentions or notations of prior decisions is that promises produce obligations, where these other things do not. If I say to my neighbor, ‘I fully intend (or “I have decided”) to mow my lawn this weekend,’ I haven’t thereby given myself an obligation to do so. Whereas when I say to my neighbor, ‘I promise you that I will mow my lawn this weekend,’ I have made it obligatory for me to do so. This production of a promissory obligation, then, is what I must demonstrate my example shows on the part of a self promise.

Second, promissory obligations of the sort I’m after are traditionally (with some exceptions) taken to be moral obligations. Whether or not this is accurate is a question I won’t attempt to answer here. Nothing much in my argument turns on this point, and so for the first part of the essay I will speak only of moral obligations. I will briefly take up the implications of this claim in the third section, when I consider the counter-argument to my position.

Third, promissory obligations have three features that, taken together, set them apart from many other sorts of obligations. Promissory obligations are created by the promiser when she makes the promise, informed by the utterance or expression that constitutes the act of promising, and can be waived by the promisee. A promissory obligation isn’t a standing obligation, but rather one conjured into being by an act of promising. Once created, the promissory obligation is then grounded (at least prima facie) in that act of promising. So, if I have a promissory obligation to mow my lawn, I have an obligation to do so because I promised. Of course, promissory obligations can be co-extensive with other obligations. I can promise my neighbor to pay my taxes on time, and thus take on a promissory obligation to do something I already have an obligation to do.

What a promissory obligation is an obligation to do is a question also settled by the act of promising. To wit, a promissory obligation is an obligation to do what was promised in the act of promising.

And third, the recipient of a promise, the promisee, can...



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