Illicit promises–like a promise to obstruct justice or Shylock’s pound-of-flesh pact in The Merchant of Venice or the usurious loan agreement at the center of the Buckeye Check Cashing case or the other examples in our previous post–pose a contradiction or moral paradox. The paradox is this: If bare promises are morally binding, a position subscribed to by most, but not all, moral philosophers, then an immoral or illegal promise poses a potential “moral antinomy” (see image below): the moral obligation to perform an immoral or illegal action.
The contradiction that occurs in the domain of illicit promises thus consists of the moral dilemma between moral duty D (the general moral obligation to keep one’s promises) and duty D’ (the general moral obligation not to harm others or commit wrongful acts). How do moral philosophers solve this dilemma? We shall see two possible philosophical solutions in my next post. Spoiler alert: both of these philosophical solutions are going to be unsatisfactory.