Sunday, 1 May 2016

On Promise keeping and Lying

About Promise keeping , Robert Frost has written the  following  famous verse:
"Woods are lovely, dark and deep , 
But I have promises to keep , 
And miles to go , before I sleep".
Are promises made to be kept , or can we review them  unilaterally and not keep them , on some ground.? In Indian epic Ram Charit  Manas , it has been said  the promise once made has to be kept even at the cost of our lives.(Raghukul reet sada chali aayee, Pran jaaye , par vachan na jaayee".)Things and circumstances may change ,persons and their relationships may change.But  do we have to keep our promises once made  at all costs?What are the ethics of not keeping a promise?Does not keeping a promise  speak about the shallow character of the person who made a promise and then backed out , on some ground or the other?
              The ethics of promise  keeping and promise   breaking have been discussed at length in literature.The utilitarianism  justifies the breaking of a promise if it results in overall happiness of maximum number of people.The philosopher Kant was an absolutist who said that on ethical grounds ,  a breach of promise is completely immoral and unethical .David Ross(1877-1971) in his best known work on ethics , The Right and the Good(1930) dealt  extensively  with this issue of promise keeping and lying.Ross rejected Moore's consequentialist ethics.According to cosequentialist theories, what people ought to do is determined only by whether their actions will bring about the most good.By contrast , Ross argues that maximising the good is only one of several Prima Facie duties (prima facie obligations) which play a role in determining  what a person ought to do in a given case.Ross proposes a list of eight prima facie duties in The Right and the Good. He does not claim ‘‘completeness or finality’’ for his list.
Ross’s list is as follows:
1. The duty to keep promises. The act of making promise creates duties that would otherwise not exist. Ross writes ‘‘To make a promise is to put oneself in a relation to one person in particular, a relation which creates a specificifically new prima facie obligation to him”.
2. The duty not to lie. According to Ross, the duty not to lie is a special case of
the duty to keep promises. He claims that one makes an implicit promise not to lie whenever one uses language to communicate with another person. Ross construes the duty not to lie as a negative duty. According to Ross, there is a duty to refrain from lying, but no duty to tell the truth or reveal information. [Ross does not say that there is a prima facie duty not to deceive others. On his view, it is possible to deceive someone without violating any prima facie duties.]
3.The duty to make reparations to people one has harmed.
4. The duty of gratitude. If someone has done something that helped you ,then you have a special obligation to help him/her
5. The duty to distribute happiness according to merit. Whenever the actual distribution of happiness in the world is not according to merit (moral goodness), ‘‘there arises a duty to upset or prevent such a distribution.’’ If good people are unhappy and bad people are happy, then the distribution of happiness is not according to merit and we have a prima facie duty to upset this distribution.
6. The duty to do things that benefit others. (According to Ross, there are three ways in which I can benefit another person: I can give him pleasure, give him knowledge, or improve his moral character.)
7. The duty to improve one’s own intellect and moral character.
8. The duty not to harm others.
Ross holds that there is a strong but overrideable moral presumption against telling lies and breaking promises on account of direct and indirect bad consequences of those actions.
Ross’s theory is closest to most people’s common sense moral beliefs and constitutes a reasonable middle ground in ethics , as compared to Utilitarianism on one extreme and Kant’s absolutism on the other extreme .
         Though it can  lead to a  very complicated  debate , yet   what  the above analysis indicates is that we should be very serious, honest  and careful in making any promise , big or small .Prima facie, our first duty in ethics is to keep promises that we make.That is what  good character means .The tendency to review a promise  long after making it , indicates a serious flaw in character of the promisor, which should get his or her serious  and urgent attention