Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 23–39 | Cite as

Is Divorce Promise-Breaking?



Wedding vows seem to be promises. So they go: “I promise to love, honour, and cherish ....” But this poses a problem. Divorce is not widely seen as a serious moral wrong, but breaking a promise is. I first consider, and defend against preliminary objections, a ‘hard-line’ response: divorce is indeed prima facie impermissible promise-breaking. I next consider the ‘hardship’ response—the hardship of failed marriages overrides the prima facie duty to keep promises. However, this would release promisors in far too many cases. I resolve the triad by considering the content of the vows. Vows concerning love are not promises at all. We cannot promise to do acts the performance of which is outside our control, and love involves states of mind outside our control. Vows concerning spousal roles are complicated by diverse social understandings of marriage and the centrality of emotion to the roles.


Marriage Divorce Promises Ethics Love 



Thanks to Scott Anderson, Ali Kazmi, Roderick Long, Mark Migotti, David Shoemaker, Richard Zach, and anonymous reviewers for this journal for helpful comments on this paper, and to Allen Habib for prompting me to think about the question in the first place. I am indebted to the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Murphy Institute Center for Ethics and Public Affairs at Tulane University for research support.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentThe University of CalgaryCalgaryCanada

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