The Sensible Knave

"I do not see that we are further along today than where Hume left us. The Humean predicament is the human predicament." - W.V.O. Quine

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Searle and the fact/value gap

In the Ethics course I taught this past spring, I finally had the opportunity to discuss John Searle's famous essay "How to Derive 'Ought' from 'Is'" (The Philosophical Review, Jan. 1964). Revisiting this work after many years allowed me to take a fresh look, and I finally noticed a flaw in the Searle's derivation. These five statements comprise the derivation:

(1) Jones uttered the words "I hereby promise to pay you, Smith, five dollars."

(2) Jones promised to pay Smith five dollars.

(3) Jones placed himself under (undertook) an obligation to pay Smith five dollars.

(4) Jones is under an obligation to pay Smith five dollars.

(5) Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars.

The fallacious move in this derivation, it seems, is between (2) and (3). Searle connects the statements with

(2a) All promises are acts of placing oneself under (undertaking) an obligation to do the thing promised.

One might object at this point that (2a) is a normative statement. The derivation doesn't achieve its intended goal of deriving a normative statement from purely descriptive ones if a supporting normative premise is involved. But Searle will have none of that:

I take it that promising is, by definition, an act of placing oneself under an obligation. No analysis of the concept of promising will be complete which does not include the feature of the promiser placing himself under or undertaking or accepting or recognizing an obligation to the promisee, to peform some future course of action, normally for the benefit of the promisee. (Page 44)

This "definition" is not at all obvious to me. Sure, people who utter promises ought to keep them. Yet, there is no reason to think that the act of promising is, by definition, an act of undertaking an obligation. There is no contradiction inherent to the statement "Jones promised to pay Smith five dollars, but he is not obligated to do so." The statement sounds incongruous, but is it false by definition? One could argue that Jones is obligated to pay the five dollars simply because one ought to keep one's promises. We would be relying on a moral truism, but not analytic necessity. But what evidence would settle this matter? So-called conceptual analysis doesn't get us very far. Did Searle read "Two Dogmas of Empiricism"?

But let's allow for the sake of further argument that we can make some sense of the nature of a promise. Searle says that promises are, strictly speaking, acts of undertaking particular obligations. However, I think there's a plausible case for characterizing promises as speech acts used to announce future actions and induce expectations through assurance. Searle tries to nip this approach in the bud:
One may be tempted to think that promising can be analyzed in terms of creating expectations in one’s hearers, or some such, but a little reflection will show that the crucial distinction between statements of intention on the one hand and promises on the other lies in the nature and degree of commitment or obligation undertaken in promising. (p. 44, 46)

OK, I've reflected a little. There is indeed a distinction as Searle describes, but it is hardly relevant. No one can plausibly argue that promises are mere statements of intention. Breaking a promise is, at the very least, insincere. But Jones could have been completely sincere, at all times, if he told Smith that he intends to give him five dollars and never gives Smith the money. As long as he really intended to give Smith the money when he made the statement, his statement was true. That Jones later changed his mind doesn't change the truth-value of the earlier statement, which merely reported a present mental state.

But a promise could be more this, without being tantamount to the undertaking of an obligation. What if Jones had said "you can rest assured that I will give you five dollars"? It seems that Jones has a prima facie obligation to make good on the assurance. Failing to make good constitutes a harm, in light of the expection Jones created. That's why it's (usually) wrong to break promises. It's not a matter of definition, and that is why we can reject the tautological status of (2a) , and accept it as a sound moral judgment.