Say and do

Why do we make promises? And once done, what makes us hold them?? Are there good reasons to break commitments?? The promise, the foundation of our social relations, is a riddle. V. Boyer's book helps us see things more clearly.

David, The Oath of the Horaces

Why do we keep our promises? The question is, indeed, puzzling: whether we honor them for any reason other than the fact to have promisedfor example out of interest, their category is over, and they only involve those who believe in them, according to the famous formula; but if our reason for acting is that we must accomplish what we have promised to accomplish, why then must we? How could one justify acting out of duty because it is duty?? Such is the riddle of the motivation of a categorical obligation such as that of the promise, knowing that the general case of fidelity reasonable commitments made are accompanied by rarer, but indisputable, cases of justified transgression (missing an appointment to save a life) Andthe opposite, of questionable discipline (incurring major danger, handing over money to anyone who misuses it).

A theoretical and practical investigation

Fragonard, The Marriage Promise

It is to this question that Vincent Boyer devotes an investigative work, oriented first of all towards a scrupulous analysis of the great moral theories which have taken up the question of the category of promises (utilitarianism, Humean skepticism, the Kantian theory of duty), before consider the very practice of promising (what do we do by promising? what obligation arises from the promise?) in a final moment of analysis of linguistic and institutional facts, but also natural at stake in this practice as it is and as it allows its most common implementation. It's a moment non-Aristotlebased on the contributions of Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Michael Thompson, Vincent Descombes, which leads the proposal to combine, against intuition, but not without good reasons, a moral naturalism (according to which promises serve a human good) with the need for institutions in in which such a language game takes on meaning and can be taught to young people through the use of verbs, giving their freedom of action its limits.

Is the obligation of promises relative, artificial or unconditional??

The author rightly notes that the sequel to Henry Sidgwick's book, The Methods of Ethics (1874), a number of works in moral philosophy have adopted a comparative strategy classification and evaluation of ethical theories in order to justify one of them. His work, however, escapes this criticism, on the one hand insofar as it devotes itself to the precise question of the category of promises and therefore does not compare from a broader point of view the theories studied to contest their principle, but collects their contribution and their limits within the framework of the investigation carried out, on the other hand because one of the interests, and not the least, of this philosophical work is, in the same spirit, the questioning of the dichotomies and classifications which would oppose utilitarianism to any ontology, which would not recognize any teleological dimension to Kantianism or would force the Humean text to bring it into contemporary distinctions between three major types of normative ethics (according to which they are centered on the agent, the act or the consequences of the act).

Frank Borzage, The Supreme Hour (Seventh Heaven)1927. Chico's Promise

Utilitarianism certainly asserted a plausible motive for a large proportion of transgressions, justifiable by the pursuit of a greater good.; However, the duty to aim for the best effects in each situation destroys, for a utilitarianism of the act, any obligatory dimension of a given word. For a utilitarianism of the rule, as we know, the good consequences of respecting certain imperatives (for example the obligation of promises) outweigh their disadvantages. However, such an orientation can present itself as a rule fetish and, if it is more flexible and admits exceptions, it is no longer distinguishable from act utilitarianism. For its part, Hume's theory of artificial virtues differentiates them from natural virtues in that the latter directly produce a good (thus benevolence) while the former, more complex, are only effective through their overall system (thus the justice).

David Hume by Allan Ramsay (1754)

David Hume therefore proposes what Vincent Boyer rightly calls a genesis of the category (p. 113). The Scottish philosopher will thus have highlighted the unintelligibility of promises before any convention and therefore distinguished, for any future investigation, the question of the nature of a promise from that of its obligation. But, held by his undoubted maxim (p. 132) that every action is the sign of a motive and therefore that an action cannot be called virtuous without this prior motive, Hume cannot find any other motive for just acts than interest, which leads him to base the category of promises (necessary social life) on a fiction (p. 164) useful, a to want (feign) obligation (p. 172) associated with the words spoken, which makes us forget the true reason for a promise and ignore its intrinsic value. It is true that a philosophy of duty, such as we find in Kant, ultimately restores duty to its right (so to speak), and particularly when it comes to promises: for such a position, the motive of duty is not a fiction. , neither a fortiori a motive for help when virtue is insufficient. But this has a certain cost: the difficulty of explaining why this motive of duty must prevail over any other, the correlative devaluation of benevolence, the exclusive attribution of a moral content (p. 260) certain actions only. All in all, the philosophies which have taken up the question of promise and which are the subject either of defenses or of criticism in the contemporary community (largely present in the work) have contributed to the elucidation of a problem which they have not really been able to resolve. Thus, Vincent Boyer's book presents a broad and precise analysis of these three theoretical perspectives taken in their actuality, which determines the pure form of the question, treated in a fourth and final chapter which constitutes the author's proposal.

The conditions of a practice: promising and fulfilling

The proposition, of Wittgensteinian inspiration, is then constituted by adopting an approach opposite to the previous one: the study of what moral theories of broad scope do with the practice of promising is replaced by the project of constituting a theory from the practice itself.; this does not make the work accomplished by the author in vain, since the terms of the problem arise from it, and in particular the order of the questions, which we owe Hume: what is a promise?? how does she force us?

It is then a question not only of thinking about the immunity of promises to changes in circumstances, their first-rate category, but also of fidelity as a virtue and the promise as a duty of virtue: for this, Vincent Boyer finds a resource in the philosophy of action of Elizabeth Anscombe and the moral thought of Philippa Foot, essentially and in three successive stages.

1) Hume considered that promises were naturally unintelligible (p. 296), and precisely that no private will could explain it, since obliging oneself does not oblige anything as long as it does not take on a social dimension. According to Hume, interest leads Act like; but the Anscombian theory of intention allows us to think of the knowledge of what we do and the will to do it, together constituting the intention to act, as essential to the promise, which returns objective conditions: we promise what we can promise, this that one has reasons to promise, what the recipient has reasons to accept, etc.: but all this constitutes a game, a language game (title of the last chapter): to think that one promises, and to do so, is to respect certain rules of the promise as such, the terms of which pronounced could be modified without modifying the rule.

2) That said, there are many other language games and the question of the necessitating nature of promises is not resolved by this: how then do certain signs, certainly agreed upon, generate an obligation?? We know Hume's response: certain words are valid for, allow one to pretend, the will to oblige; but this is not sufficient, for the reasons given above and the classification of promises into sorts of hypothetical imperatives which they are not. in concreto. Leaving the semantic field, Anscombe suggests that we learn to oblige ourselves thanks to the educational training of children to the prohibitions (of stopping modals : modal verbs to stop) without explanation, a sort of restrictive learning of the rules of the game, an idea certainly less original than others from the pen of Wittgenstein's disciple, which suggests, here, the learning of taboos, rules of politeness and good manners, practices of non-violence and negotiation studied by philosophers of education, including classical ones, and by modern and contemporary anthropology.

3) More classic, in fact, is the final distinction of the work between absolute necessity (logical, physical) and moral (Philippa Foot) or practical (Vincent Descombes). Because necessity (not to be confused, since Spinoza, with constraint) can be drive, that is to say, attaches a good which it makes accessible, without absolutely obliging: a necessity which can be undone, as soon as the good sought is already achieved or it is degraded to a lower plane. Is it really necessary to read the Prolgomnes once read first Critical ? Is this trip still as necessary from now on?? In all cases, a necessity of this type can be neglected, but then we are deprived, as Vincent Descombes writes, of a good, of a certain good, important, very important, more or less important. It is in this sense that Vincent Boyer, based on the text by Philippa Foot, The natural good (now available in French translation), which he nicely calls a little dash of non-Foucauldian social philosophy (p. 345), treats promises as instruments of a specifically human good, which allows one and the other to oblige one another, to make others do certain things within an egalitarian framework, that of conventions which are neither based on inequality of power nor on threats or rewards. This is the reason why the agent who does not keep his promises must give the reasons for his defection: not because the promises are absolutely obligatory by nature, not because they are always suspended from an estimate of their probable result, but because fidelity, and the confidence that accompanies it, have their place in an order of goods which obliges us without constraining us, since this is also the property of human virtues and their arrangement constantly brought into play. Vincent Boyer will thus have analyzed, in a very convincing way, the contextual and social conditions of the promise as a language game, those of its learning, the link of promises to a human good, which sometimes resides only in fidelity. This alliance of conventionalism Hume and a Aristotle's naturalism (p. 368) is the original and courageous proposal, patiently constituted at the end of a work that is both very rich in references, quotations and examples, which makes it very accessible and of great educational quality, and very rigorous, precise, demanding in its argumentation, which makes it useful to the progress of moral philosophy.