The Philosopher's Eye

News and brain candy for the philosophy community

Politicians and Promises

120px-Jurvetson_-_Barack_Obama_on_the_Primary_(by)During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama made a promise to not raise taxes (of any kind) on families making less than $250,000 per year. On this past Sunday, however, President Obama’s top two economic advisers, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, went on multiple nationally televised talk shows and implied that the President would be willing to break his campaign promise if it were necessary to reign in the national deficit. Not surprisingly, political opponents and the White House Press Corps were quick to pounce on the apparent flip-flop. In response to growing questions and criticism, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs issued the following statement: “The president made a commitment in the campaign. He’s clear about that commitment, and he’s going to keep it.”

What is a responsible citizen to make of this situation? Putting aside questions of political sport, it seems that she should ask a variety of moral and philosophical questions inspired by the situation. For instance, what kind of a commitment is a promise? Is it categorical as Immanuel Kant would have it? Or are there circumstances in which it is permissible (if not required by duty) to break one’s promises? More to the point, are there circumstances in which duties associated with political offices — such as President — outweigh or trump promises made in the heat of a campaign? And if so, does it ever make sense for politicians to make categorical promises of the sort that the Obama Administration now finds itself renewing?

See here for a New York Times article with more details on the above situation.

See also the following related articles in Philosophy Compass.

Preempting Principles: Recent Debates in Moral Particularism
By Sean McKeever and Michael Ridge, Davidson College University of Edinburgh
(Vol. 3, November 2008)
Philosophy Compass

Kantian Virtue
By Anne Margaret Baxley , Washington University in St. Louis
(Vol. 2, April 2007)
Philosophy Compass

Consequentializing
By Douglas W. Portmore , Arizona State University
(Vol. 4, February 2009)
Philosophy Compass

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