Chapter 6 – Is it Reasonable to Break a Promise?

Chapter six introduces an ethical dilemma for Eleanor.  She has promised Michel to help find the cause of the glitches.  Since she is the glitch, then helping Michael is contrary to her self-interest.  Chidi provides Eleanor with moral guidance and Tim Scanlon’s book What We Owe to Each Other.  Scanlon labels his view contractualism, which is different from contractarianism.

Chidi explains constractualism by supposing that everyone gets together to create a list of rules that everyone is to follow.  Anyone can veto other people’s reasons.  For example, if someone were to propose a rule that it is acceptable to break a promise without any repercussions, then someone would veto that rule.  From this fact, Chidi concludes that Eleanor has to keep her promise.

Thus, Eleanor is torn between two bad outcomes.  If she breaks her promise, she is not a good person.  Therefore, she is not earning her spot in The Good Place.  If she does help, then she is sending herself to The Bad Place.  Eleanor’s solution is to help and not help at the same time; something that Chidi says is impossible.

This is one of the rare mistakes where writing for the story makes serious philosophical mistakes.  The first mistake is that it does not follow from the fact that people would reject a rule that it is acceptable to break a promise without any repercussions that Eleanor has to keep her promise.  At best, what this means is that there should be repercussions for her breaking a promise.

Now, suppose that someone were to propose the rule that one should keep their promises under situations where keeping that promise would bring great harm to the person who made the promise.  For example, I promised to help you move.  However, I need to have emergency surgery.  If I help you move, I will not have the surgery and die.  Under this situation, should I keep my promise?  Clearly, such a rule would be vetoed.  Given that if Eleanor were to keep her promise, then she would be tortured eternally, then it seems unreasonable for her to keep this promise.  Thus, there are situations where you can break a promise and it not be wrong.  (Scanlon himself carves out exceptions to promises.  While putting forth a probably unnecessarily convoluted explanation of the nature of a promise, Scanlon writes, “in the absence of some special justification, A must do x unless B consents to x’s not being done.”  Thus, the idea is that there are some special justifications that can be used to break commitments.  This is something that people already accept in our society.)

The premise of the episode is that Eleanor has to keep her promise no matter what.  The problem is that constractualism cannot get you that strong of a principle.  It is good for humor and perhaps was the best choice to put Eleanor in such a predicament.  However, for the numerous vaults of contractualism, forcing one to keep a promise even if it sends you to The Bad Place does not seem to be one of them.  Thomas Nagel provides a better reason for rejecting contractualism – it would be impossible to come up with a set of rules where one could not find a reasonable reason for rejecting a proposed rule.