Better Call Saul and the paradox of illicit promises

Note: this is the first post in a multi-part series.

The proposition that “promises ought to be kept” is quite possibly one of the most important normative ideals or value judgements in daily life. [1] But what about illegal or immoral promises?

Philosophically speaking, what is the moral status of such illicit agreements, i.e. promises that are wrongful in some legal or moral sense? What moral obligations, if any, do illicit promises generate? As it happens, these philosophical questions are posed time and time again in the hit TV show Better Call Saul, beginning with the episode “Uno”–the series premiere–when our hero Jimmy McGill (pictured below, right), with the help of two teenage accomplices, orchestrates a phony vehicle-pedestrian accident in order for Jimmy, a small-time struggling Albuquerque attorney, to lure a prospective client.

In brief, Jimmy’s accomplices agree to help him stage a car accident in exchange for $2000. The moral dilemma, however, is this: Had this elaborate but illicit scheme worked according to plan (spoiler alert: it did not!), wouldn’t Jimmy have been morally obligated to keep his promise to pay the twins the promised $2000? After all, we have a general moral obligation to keep our promises, but at the same time, Jimmy’s promise was part of an illicit scheme; his promise to pay off his accomplices was an immoral one. So, how can one have a moral obligation to perform an immoral action?

Moreover, in many ways Jimmy’s entire persona–beginning with his conman’s past in Cicero, Illinois–is a living embodiment of this moral paradox. Back in Cicero, for example, Jimmy’s closest friend was Marco Pasternak (pictured below, left), a fellow con artist. Together, they would run an elaborate con in which they duped unsuspecting marks into buying fake Rolex watches. [See, for example, “Hero” (Season 1, Episode 3) and “Marco” (Season 1, Episode 10).] The mark thinks he is buying a genuine Rolex, but he must also know that what he is doing is wrong; after all, he is buying a dead man’s Rolex with the dead man’s own money! So, is the mark morally entitled to get “his” money back? And if so, do Jimmy or Marco have a moral obligation to provide such a refund?

Either way, it is no exaggeration to say that all the relationships in “Better Call Saul” are explicitly premised on illicit promises! To see how, I will identify several such ongoing “illicit agreements” in my next few blog posts.

[1] See, for example, David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, Book 3, Part 2, §5 (David Fate Norton & Mary J. Norton, eds.) (Oxford Univ. Press, 2000). See alsoAllen Habib, Promises, in Edward N. Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2018). Cf. Mary Midgley, “The Game Game”, Philosophy Vol. 49, (1974), p. 235: “[P]romising is everywhere a kingpin of human culture.”

CLASSIC: Mel Rodriguez (Marco Pasternak - Better Call Saul)

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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