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176 HUME ON PROMISES AND THEIR OBLIGATION This discussion of Hume's account of promises pursues certain issues raised by William Vitek in his paper "The Humean Promise: Whence Comes Its Obligation?" The question I consider first is what, for Hume, it is for someone to make a promise. I then go on to consider Hume's view of promisekeeping as an artificial virtue and the distinction which Hume makes between two kinds of obligation in relation to promises: a natural and an artificial obligation. The issue with which I am principally concerned is how far Hume succeeds in explaining our recognition of the obligation to keep promises. The Humean Promise There is implicit in Hume's "Of the Obligation of Promises" an account of what it is for someone to make a promise, i.e., of the conditions which are at least necessary for this to occur. It is worthwhile making these conditions explicit in order to bring out points of similarity with the celebrated account of promises provided in recent 4 philosophy by John Searle. We find in both Hume and Searle a recognition that promising is a social institution which depends upon certain conventions, and that the conditions for promising reflect these conventions. Among the conditions which appear to be common to their different accounts are the following: 1.That a certain form of words is used (typically, of the form ' I promise ...'). 2.That these words are understood by the speaker. 177 3.That they predicate an act of the speaker which will be performed for the interest or advantage of another. 4.That the action is not one which the speaker would undertake in the normal course of events. 5.That the speaker's utterance expresses a serious intention or resolution. 6.That in making this utterance the speaker wills the obligation to act accordingly. Let me comment briefly on these conditions. 1.The condition that a certain form of words is used in effect acknowledges that promising involves a distinctive type of speech act: namely, one which can, in itself, bind the speaker to the performance of an action (T 522). Presumably, however, this does not necessarily require the actual use of the words · I promise' — the context may determine that a promise has been made, even without the use of these words. We should note that language itself is, for Hume, the product of a convention (T 490); so also, therefore, must be the institution of promisemaking and promise-keeping. 2.The condition that these words are understood by the speaker is implicit in Hume's comment that while "the expression makes on most occasions the whole of the promise," someone who makes use of the expression without understanding its meaning "wou'd not certainly be bound by it" (T 523). It is a condition which relates to what Searle describes as the normal 'input' and 'output' conditions, i.e., the conditions which govern "serious and literal linguistic communication." It is presupposed, for example, that the speaker (and perhaps also the hearer) knows how to speak 178 the language, that he is not play-acting or speaking in jest, and so on. 3.The condition that these words predicate an act of the speaker for the interest or advantage of another is obviously implicit, at least, in Hume's account of promise-keeping as an artificial virtue (of which I will say more later). But it should be emphasised that a promise is not simply an undertaking to act in a certain way towards another person: it is a matter of undertaking to do something for that person. 4.That the action is not one which the speaker would normally undertake, again, is a condition for which Hume caters: indeed, it is an essential part of his account that an action which a person promises to perform is not one which would occur in accordance with his natural passions or inclinations (T 519). There may, nevertheless, be possible exceptions to this, as where someone promises to do something which self-interest would incline him to do anyway. But in this kind of case promising has for Hume the special function of increasing the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 176-190
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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