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Volume 51 • Number 3

July 2014



A Plethora of Promises—or None at All

by Michael Cholbi

Critics often charge that utilitarianism cannot adequately account for our obligation to keep our promises. Because utilitarians have replied to this objection many times over, my immediate purpose here is not to assess its force or the plausibility of utilitarians' replies to it. Rather, my aim is to demonstrate that utilitarianism is subject to a broader dilemma concerning the morality of promising. On the most plausible utilitarian account of the moral obligation to keep one's promises, promises contribute to overall well-being by providing assurance that an individual will do what it is otherwise desirable to do or what conduces to maximal overall well-being. However, this same account implies that individuals are obligated to make promises whenever doing so generates a promise the keeping of which would maximize overall well-being. But because we are rarely, if ever, obligated to incur promissory obligations, utilitarianism is subject to a dilemma: Either their view must deny that there is even a prima facie general duty to keep promises, or affirm that there is such a duty, but only at the cost of maintaining that there is a very extensive duty to make promises. Utilitarianism must therefore require a plethora of promises or none at all.

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ISSN: 2152-1123