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Is it okay to break a promise?

A scenario for you. You and a close friend, known by the nickname Moonlight, have made a promise. This promise is serious and both of you fully understand the consequences of it and mutually agree to honour the promise. This promise has a slight but noticable negative impact on both of your lives, but by both keeping it you believe it does more good than bad. Moonlight was the one to suggest the promise.

Many years pass and the friendship between you and Moonlight crumbles and vanishes. You no longer talk to Moonlight and haven't for many years. You have no means to contact them anymore and they have no way to contact you. There is no potential for you and Moonlight to ever get back in touch.

You think about Moonlight a lot and their actions when you were friends and one night you suddenly come to a shocking conclusion. You have strong reason to believe that Moonlight made the promise with malicious intent! You toy with your new thought, analyse it carefully, and finally conclude that you are 90% sure the promise was created with malicious intent by Moonlight.

Is it now acceptable to terminate your promise?

The promise was a vow of silence on a particular sensitive matter. If you break the promise, it would have serious consequences for Moonlight - even though you do not have contact with them, your choice will massively influence their life. You think to yourself: what if I'm wrong? What if it is that 10% and the promise was made in good heart?

Would you break the promise?

If you choose to break the promise you will still have no way to get in contact with Moonlight. Their life will be changed forever and you will have no way to explain your actions to them or find out how their life has changed. In effect, Moonlight is nothing more than a stranger to you now, but they are a stranger who once trusted you deeply. You do not wish to hurt them if they are a good person, but you are finding it hard to maintain the promise because of the continous drain on you over a long time period - it has lowered your quality of life but only by a little, yet significant amount and will continue to affect you for the rest of your days if you do not take action now.

Is it acceptable to end the promise? Would you? Does the 90% chance of malicious intent change anything? What if you were 99% sure? 50% sure? 100% certain? Does that change your answer?

Other things:

  1. You have no reason to suspect Moonlight has broken their end of the promise.
  2. You are reasonably young and in general good health. (basically you are going to live with this for many more decades at a minimum if the promise is kept.)
  3. Despite the effect on your life, you continue to live a more or less normal life.
  • If you were 100% sure, I'd say the contract (promise) was made under fraudulent pretenses ("by both keeping it you believe it does more good than bad"), so it would be invalid. When you say "malicious intent", who exactly would be harmed? You? A stranger? – barrycarter Oct 30 '14 at 18:52
  • Malicious intent to harm you (Moonlight's friend). If you were 100% sure, the promise would indeed be invalid, but does that justify causing serious harm to the other party just to improve your life a bit? – HKF Oct 30 '14 at 19:25
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    I don't think it's possible to analyze this scenario without knowing what the expected impact is outside of the you-Moonlight duo. It seems implausible that anything that would so drastically impact Moonlight's life wouldn't have any other impacts on anyone. Many (not all) systems of morality will rate avoiding negative consequences to third parties higher than keeping a promise. – Rex Kerr Oct 30 '14 at 20:25
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    This sounds like a variant on the Russian nobleman problem. But really without some indication of what moral framework we should use, this becomes merely opinion based. – virmaior Oct 30 '14 at 23:39
  • I agree with virmaior that there is not enough information, both about what moral codes are in place (e.g. "keeping oaths is extremely important" vs. "an oath made in false confidence is invalid"), in combination with all of the absent details, such as what sort of effect breaking the oath with have on other people, what it involved, and what else you might not know or have been deceived about. Is it ever ok to break a promise? Yes, but in this case, the information given isn't enough to say, and it's subjective anyway unless you surrender to some fixed code. – Dronz Oct 31 '14 at 5:38
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One possible loophole is if you divulged this information about Moonlight to your spouse (if you have one) or someone of similar trust. This would give you the ability to keep your promise (since spouses are often considered single entities when it comes to secrets) and also give you someone with which you can talk with about it in detail and trust that the secret is still kept.

In the least this option would give you opportunity to get things off your chest and lesson the burden of keeping a secret while still keeping it to what might be considered an acceptable degree.

Otherwise, I would have to say that a promise is a promise and without proof that the other person is someone with which you cannot form a loyal bond with, you must remain true to your word.

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    Equally you could tell your medical doctor or your lawyer, because that's still "in confidence". – ChrisW Nov 4 '14 at 20:30
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    This is clear and the best answer in my opinion. I'll accept it. Thanks everyone for the help! – HKF Nov 7 '14 at 19:07
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One obvious specific scenario that comes to mind is that the "sensitive matter" is a sexual liason and that when it occurred, Moonlight was an adult and you were a child. You made the promise because you were emotionally manipulated not because it was an appropriate thing to do. In this scenario, you should definitely break the promise, especially if the statute of limitations has not yet expired.

If the liason were merely taboo and not illegal, some experimentation that you both decided not to pursue but don't regret, and yet would be tremendously embarassing for Moonlight now, then it would probably be best to keep quiet.

  • I wish it was as easy as this. – HKF Nov 4 '14 at 17:52
  • It seems like you are referring to a specific real situation you are in. If so, I recommend speaking to a counselor: priest/rabbi/imam/therapist. Revealing a secret to such a person would be confidential and would not be breaking the promise. In general, if continuing to keep the promise causes or gives potential to cause someone significant harm, you should not keep it. Even if the only harm is that it's driving you crazy. If the impact is minimal, keep the promise. – user3294068 Nov 4 '14 at 23:12
  • This is a good point. I can 'break' the promise without harm or risk coming to Moonlight (or even myself). Thanks! – HKF Nov 7 '14 at 19:02
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I would say that you're on the right track with the percentages. Obviously, if you're 100 % sure that the promise was made maliciously, you should break it. I think that under that, since you can't know the exact value of the damage done to Moonlight, you'll just have to make some kind of educated guess, and factor in the cost to your quality of life. So, 10 %? Probably not. 75%? Probably. It's the kind of question we face every day, since we rarely have enough of the facts and/or the math skills to figure out the full consequences of our actions. So it really comes down to a balance between how important it is to you to keep promises, how much damage breaking the promise will do to Moonlight, exactly how sure you are that the promise was made maliciously, and what the benefit is to you regardless (in terms of quality of life). You may also place a certain value on punishing Moonlight for tricking you (if indeed they did), in which case you would also have to factor in how much we gain by having punished Moonlight by breaking the promise.

  • Unlike many others, you do consider the percentages to be important. However, as others have pointed out, how accurate are the percentages? How much can I trust my memory and interpretation of what happened? – HKF Nov 7 '14 at 19:04
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This is a very great story. I read it in the same way I'd read a gripping thriller - the same sort of anticipatory attention. At any rate, it was fun.

Bad news.

There are almost never absolutes in life. There are always conditions where it is necessary or at least considerably saner to break a promise.

However the trouble with your situation may reside more in where it arises from. It's comforting to think our memory delivers an accurate recounting of events - after the passage of time you are able to better reflect on what transpired and view the issue newly with the analytical prowess of an adult (or of a wiser person;etc). However there are numerous biases associated with memory that skew the way we interpret our memories. It is just as likely that your brain conjured up evidence to support the way you want to see things.

Since you are a person for whom integrity is at least somewhat important, the negative impact of keeping this promise is something - at least on the surface of your awareness - that you are willing to endure. Because it is not okay for you to break a promise, there must be a very good "reason" to justify breaking one - maliciousness by one of the parties involved is one of the best justifications that there is. This allows you to maintain a positive image of your own integrity while at the same time doing what you want.

Now - everything I just said might be horsesh*t - I don't know; I just made it up. But, it illuminates something about the nature of promises. Imagine what justifications there were for Jackie Robinson to break his promise not to fight back; for Ghandi to break his promise of non-violence; etc. It is a matter of choice - what is more important? Or said another way - what will you choose to honor? Will you honor the conjurings of your mind - or will you honor your word?

Still, with all that beind said - I don't know the answer; and any absolutes about situational ethics received from someone who doesn't know the whole story and found out about your situation from an internet forum should be taken with a grain of salt. I do know this: You already know the answer. You will find something in these posts to justify or support what you were already going to do.

  • Fascinating story, dear chap. I'm aware of memory biases, and they are the main reason behind the doubts, especially given the timespans involved. But equally, if my brain was to conjur up a false reality, wouldn't it have done it sooner? Within the first year perhaps? – HKF Nov 7 '14 at 19:01
  • Two things: a. Why? Why would a bias form quickly rather than slowly? – dgo Nov 8 '14 at 20:15
  • And b. studies have shown (I'm sorry, I can't provide a reference) that the more we remember something; the longer it is in our mind and conjured up; the less accurate the memory becomes. In other words; the longer you think about it; the further away from reality you. Get. – dgo Nov 8 '14 at 20:17
  • So it is a purely linear diversion? Or is it more rapid initially and slows with time? – HKF Nov 9 '14 at 8:03
  • I still can't find the reference - but the studies showed that each time a memory is recalled, it is either modified, or grows more and more susceptible to modification. – dgo Nov 9 '14 at 18:37
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Just because you think there was malicious intent, on the part of Moonlight, does not make it so! Therefore, unless you have proof that there was malicious intent, you must keep your promise. Your "perceived" certainty can not have any influence on this.

  • People make moral decisions under uncertainty all of the time; requiring proof is too stringent of a standard. – Dave Nov 4 '14 at 20:47
  • Indeed, proving something is impossible in some situations. Yes, proof would be best, but it isn't always there. – HKF Nov 7 '14 at 19:06

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