Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences
Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences

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5.11 Promises

Having tried various devices to persuade Ned, Ros resorts to her other ‘technical’ approach. She reminds him of his employment contract, which requires him to do his best to exploit his work. A contract, of course, is a form of promise you endorse when you sign it. Signing the contract is performative, it changes the relationships. In this case, it clearly is a promise, it is a promise to do his ‘best’, and that is clearly an ethical matter. This move obviously has a strong influence on Ned because he now agrees to sign away his IP. It is a bit strange at first because he sees the honouring of a promise as a ‘good’ thing (and dishonouring of a promise as ‘bad’), but this does not seem to be an adequate explanation as to why Ned reverses his previously very strongly-held position. He has now agreed to play ball. He does not go quite as far as Ros would like, but he's saying, yes, he will sign.

Activity 24

Take a few moments to think about promises: is keeping a promise a matter of ethics, that is, is it a matter of ‘good’ or ‘bad’?



The short answer here is ‘not always’. Keeping a promise is not always a matter of ethics because a promise does not have to be something that brings benefits. A promise can be a threat too. It could signal a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ outcome. Either way, a promise involves others. Also, a promise is inevitably about some future action and outcome, so you might expect those who will benefit or suffer when the promise is fulfilled to recognise the promise and to build their plans around the promise. So a failure to keep the promise will disrupt their plans.

This, however, is not an indication as to whether the outcome will be better or worse. All it says is that the promisee, the person receiving the promise, lacks control over the outcome. The reliance on a promise introduces uncertainty over any benefits that the promisee might receive. But the promise-maker can keep or renege on the promise and, so, affect the outcome. In this way the promise-maker effectively gains control when the promise is taken seriously, as the play illustrates. It cannot be said, however, that keeping or breaking a promise in itself has ‘good’ or ‘bad’ consequences; you have to know what the promise is before you can assess that.

Promises themselves, perhaps, are pretty neutral when it comes to ethics, unless you know what the promise is about. But, of course, if you consistently keep a promise or keep your promises, then what this behaviour can do is to build trust, and that provides a greater degree of security in the relationships where the promises are made. This can be beneficial because it will reduce the anxiety of those who are in that relationship. Promise is a bit like ‘duty’, you can't really say whether these are ethical matters unless you know the content of the promise or the content of the ‘duty’.

Ned seems to be very much persuaded by talk of the contract, and the contract is a bit more than a promise. There is more to a contract than just a promise. The signing of the contract is ceremonial and will involve others as witnesses. If you renege on the promise, then other people will probably know about it if it is a contract. And, of course, contracts contain reciprocal promises. Reneging on a contract can bring to bear punitive action, often backed by the law. When Ned reverses his position, perhaps he is being realistic about the politically-debilitating actions that his contract might trigger. Perhaps he responds because he knows, if he goes against his contract, his power will be diminished and he will not get his political way with his ideas.

So now we've got contracts, promises, rights, duties and responsibilities; all kinds of social bonds that can influence conduct. They are all performative in that they are actions that can bring about a change in behaviour which can have material or psychological consequences. But in themselves, contracts, promises, rights, duties and responsibilities cannot be said to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without further knowledge of their demands and context. To say that somebody has broken a contract or broken a promise does not necessarily give them a black mark; you have to know what they promised.

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