Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

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

Is Divorce Promise-Breaking?

Article

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Marriage Divorce Promises Ethics Love 

Notes

Acknowledgements

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.

References

  1. Coontz S (2006) Marriage: a history. Penguin, LondonGoogle Scholar
  2. Deigh J (2002) Promises under fire. Ethics 112:483–506CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Habib A (unpublished) Are wedding vows promises to the self?Google Scholar
  4. Hegel GWF (1821) Elements of the philosophy of right, ed. Wood AW, trans. Nisbet HB, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, 1995Google Scholar
  5. Hobbes T (1651) The Leviathan, ed. Michael Oakeshott, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1962Google Scholar
  6. Jaggar A (1989) Love and knowledge: emotion in feminist epistemology. Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 32:151–176Google Scholar
  7. Kant I (1785) Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals, trans. Mary Gregor, in Practical Philosophy, ed. Mary Gregor, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Eng, 1996, pp 37–108Google Scholar
  8. Kant I (1797–1798) The metaphysics of morals, trans. Mary Gregor, in Practical Philosophy, ed. Mary Gregor, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Eng, 1996, pp 355–588Google Scholar
  9. Kekes J (1984) ‘Ought implies can’ and two kinds of morality. Philosophical Q 34(137):459–467CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Landau I (2004) An argument for marriage. Philosophy 79:475–481CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Mendus S (1984) Marital faithfulness. Philosophy 59:243–252CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Moller D (2003) An argument against marriage. Philosophy 78:79–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Moller D (2005) The marriage commitment—reply to Landau. Philosophy 80:279–284CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Nietzsche FW (1887) On the genealogy of morality: a polemic, trans. Maudemarie Clark, Alan Swensen, Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, 1998.Google Scholar
  15. Nussbaum M (1990) Love’s knowledge. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  16. Sartre Jean-Paul (1947) “The humanism of existentialism” in Essays in Existentialism, ed. Wade Baskin, Citadel Press, New York, 31–62.Google Scholar
  17. Scanlon T (1998) What we owe to each other. Belknap, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  18. Searle J (1979) Expression and meaning. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Stern R (2004) Does ‘ought’ imply ‘can’? And did Kant think it does? Utilitas 16(1):42–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Taylor G (1975–1976) Love. Proc Aristot Soc 76:147–164Google Scholar
  21. Tjaden P, Thoennes N (2000) “Extent, nature, and consequence of intimate partner violence,” Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey, published by the U. S. Department of Justice, NCJ 183781Google Scholar
  22. Williams B (1981) Moral luck. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  23. Wilson J (1989) Can one promise to love another? Philosophy 64:557–563CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentThe University of CalgaryCalgaryCanada

Personalised recommendations