Promises and Contracts

Promises and contracts and other types of explicit agreements provide the paradigm cases for the voluntaristic model of self-assumed moral obligations. Promissory obligations arise exclusively from voluntary acts of consent, as can be seen from the fact that coerced contracts are almost universally unenforceable (43). But, against the dominant view, Goodin argues that promises are nothing more than a way to coordinate behavior by reducing the uncertainty that would prevail in the realm of human action without them. Promises are made so as to allow others to make firm plans of their own by being able to anticipate what it is that a particular agent is going to do.

By making a promise the promisor allows the promisee to behave and plan accordingly; “What makes promises special is not so much that they represent a voluntary act of will on your part, but rather that the expectations about your behavior thereby engendered form crucial components in the plans of others” (44). By inducing such expectations, however, one also makes the other party vulnerable to betrayal. After the words “I promise” are uttered, the promisee is now depending on the promisor to do what has been promised, and when that expectation is not fulfilled he has been betrayed and his trust violated.

In other words, Goodin is arguing that the moral force of special obligations deriving from promises and contracts depends less on the volitional aspect of the act of promise-making than the vulnerability it engenders in the promisee by his reliance on the promisor’s intention to do what had been promised. As Goodin writes, “Special obligations do arise out of our voluntary [self-assumed] commitments. But what makes those obligations morally binding, I argue, is the vulnerabilities that those commitments engender; and those vulnerabilities are only one of many forms of vulnerability to which we should morally respond. Thus, the vulnerability model is a more general one, capable of subsuming and transcending the model of self-assumed obligations” (36).

Although volitional acts of promise-making are often the catalyst in generating such obligations, the vulnerability engendered in promises and contracts is far more important in terms of deriving the content and force of these obligations. Goodin argues for the primacy of the vulnerability concern in our conventional thinking about contracts by making reference to the legal notion of reliance. There can be obligations in the sphere of promises and contracts that are based merely upon one’s reliance (without an explicit contract or promise) upon another. Here Goodin notes that, “When one realizes that another is or may come under a misapprehension as to the authority of his agent or the ownership of his property - a misapprehension for which he is not at fault his duty to give information is a duty of care.”

That reasonable reliance on the intentions of another creates an implied obligation reinforces the idea that what is of primary importance concerning contracts and promises is the fact that an agent has rendered himself vulnerable to the actions of another by forming the conviction that that agent will make good on his expressed intentions.

Most often, this is the result of a specific promise or contract. But, it can also result from expressed intentions, intentions that induce others to act upon them where the agent has made no effort to qualify his intentions (i.e. asserting that it is very likely that he will not do what he has indicated in passing, etc.) We can see in such instances that the voluntaristic model cannot account for this common sense notion of moral responsibility, unless one relies on some notion like that of a tacit promise. Clearly, we generally ascribe a type of responsibility to a moral agent B who allows another moral agent A to believe and plan according to intentions that have been expressed by B. On the self-assumed voluntaristic model such considerations can be defended only with some difficulty due to the fact that there seems to have been no voluntarily assumed obligation on the agent’s part, yet B is responsible to A nonetheless because A is vulnerable and is depending on B to do that which he is relying on him to do.

The idea of contracts as fundamental elements of ethical and political theories should be familiar to most of us. The Enlightenment philosophers thought of government as being founded on a “social contract” and contractarianism is still an important feature of contemporary accounts of justice, such as that of John Rawls. Contracts are also regarded as the very foundation of business relationships, and some authors even think of corporations and other nonhuman social and economic agents as nothing more than an “nexus of contracts.”

But, Goodin argues that when we look beneath the surface we can see that there are a number of constraints placed upon contractual dealings that reveal that they depend upon the notion of vulnerability. For instance, in business relationships the legal codes that express duties of employers to employees reflects the relative vulnerability of employees in these relationships. We can see the same considerations within the law constraining the relationship between businesses and their customers. Although no explicit contractual obligations exist between business organizations and consumer, the law does place a heavy burden on business to protect certain interests of vulnerable stakeholders such as consumers. One such example is the special liability of a seller of products for the physical harm to users or customers. Sellers of goods to the public have special responsibilities towards consumers of their products to take reasonable steps to ensure that those products are safe and will not harm the health of their customers. Business enterprises, and those who work for them, have a variety of other kinds of social responsibilities which are not derived from contractual relationships nor imposed by legal requirements. This is a topic which we will explore in some detail when we discuss the notion of corporate social responsibility.

If Goodin's account of the moral force of promises and contracts is correct, or at least partly so, then it represents a major insight about the nature of moral responsibilities. It implies that many of the sorts of moral obligations which we normally understand to be based on contractual arrangements are in fact really based on the vulnerability-care relationship. If this is true, then the VCP begins to emerge as a plausible candidate for the status of a fundamental principle of normative ethics, one capable of bridging the private realm of the family and friends, with the public realm of social and political relationships among strangers.