The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland


Veracity in Respect to the Future

THE future is, within some conditions, subject to our power. We may, therefore, place ourselves under moral obligations to act, within those conditions, in a particular manner. When we make a promise, we voluntarily place ourselves under such a moral obligation. The law of veracity obliges us to fulfill it.

This part of the subject includes promises and contract.


In every promise, two things are to be considered: the intention and the obligation.

1. The intention. The law of veracity, in this respect, demands that we convey to the promisee the intention as it exists in our own minds. When we inform another that we intend to do a service for him tomorrow, we have no more right to lie about this intention than about any other matter.

2. The obligation. The law of veracity obliges us to fulfil the intention just as we made it known. In other words, we are under obligation to satisfy, precisely, the expectation which we voluntarily excited. The rule of Dr. Paley is as follows: “A promise is binding in the sense in which the promiser supposed the promisee to receive it.”

The modes in which promises may be violated, and the reasons for believing the obligation to fulfil promises to be enforced by the law of God, are so similar to those mentioned in the preceding chapter, that I will not repeat them.

I therefore proceed to consider in what eases promises are not binding. The following are, I think, among the most important:

Promises are not binding,—

1. When the performance is impossible. We cannot be under obligation to do what is plainly out of our power. The moral character of such a promise, will, however, vary with the circumstances under which the promise was made. If I knew nothing of the impossibility, and honestly expressed an intention which I designed to fulfil, I am, at the bar of conscience, acquitted. The providence of God has interfered with my intention, and I am not to blame. If, on the other hand, I knew of the impossibility, I have violated the law of veracity. I expressed an intention which I did not mean to fulfil. I am bound to make good to the other party all the loss which he may have sustained by my crime.

2. When the promise is unlawful. No man can be under obligation to violate obligation; for this would be to suppose a man to be guilty for not being guilty. Much less, can he be under obligation to violate his obligations to God. Hence, promises to lie, to steal, or in any manner to violate the laws of society, are not binding. And the duty of every man, who has placed himself under any such obligation, is, at once, to confess his fault, to declare himself free from his engagement, and to endeavor to persuade others to do the same. Here, as in the former instance, there are two cases. Where the unlawfulness was not known, the promiser is under no other obligation than that of informing the promisee of the facts as soon as possible. Where the unlawfulness was known to the promiser, and not to the promisee, I think that the former is bound to make good the loss to the latter, if any occur. When it is known to both parties, either is at liberty to disengage himself, and neither is under any obligation to make any restitution; for the fault is common to both, and each should bear his own share of the inconvenience.

3. Promises are not binding where no expectation is voluntarily excited by the promiser. He is bound only to fulfil the expectation which he voluntarily excites; and if he have excited none, he has made no promise. If A tell B that lie shall give a horse to C, and B, without A’s knowledge or consent, inform C of it, A is not bound. But, if he directed B to give the information, he is as much bound as though he informed C himself.

4. Promises are not binding when they are known by both parties to proceed upon a condition, which condition is subsequently, by the promiser, found not to exist. As, if A promise to give a beggar money on the faith of his story, and the story be subsequently found to be a fabrication. A, in such a case, is manifestly not bound.

5. As the very conception of a promise implies an obligation entered into between two intelligent moral agents, I think there can be no such obligation entered into where one of the parties is not a moral agent. I do not think we can properly be said to make a promise to a brute, nor to violate it. I think the same is true of a madman. Nevertheless, expediency has, even in such cases, always taught the importance of fulfilling expectation which we voluntarily excite. I think, however, that it stands on the ground of expediency, and not of obligation. I do not suppose that any one would feel guilty for deceiving a madman, in order to lead him to a madhouse.

These seem to me to be the most common cases in which promises are not binding. The mere inconvenience to which we may be exposed by fulfilling a promise, is not a release. We are at liberty, beforehand, to enter into the obligation, or not. No man need promise unless he please but, having once promised, he is holden until he be morally liberated. Hence, as, after the obligation is formed, it cannot be recalled, prudence would teach us to be extremely cautious in making promises. Except in cases where we are, from long experience, fully acquainted with all the ordinary contingencies of an event, we ought never to make a promise without sufficient opportunity for reflection. It is a good rule, to enter into no important engagement on the same day in which it is first presented to our notice. And I believe that it will be generally found, that those who are most careful in promising, are the most conscientious in performing; and that, on the contrary, those who are willing, on all occasions, to pledge themselves on the instant, have very little difficulty in violating their engagements with correspondent thoughtlessness.


The peculiarity of a contract is, that it is a mutual promise: that is, we promise to do one thing, on the condition that another person does another.

The rule of interpretation, the reasons for its obligatoriness, and the cases of exception to the obligatoriness, are the same as in the preceding cases, except that it has a specific condition annexed, by which the obligation is limited.

Hence, after a contract is made, while the other party performs his part, we are under obligation to perform out part; but, if either party fail, the other is, by the failure of the condition essential to the contract, liberated.

But this is not all. Not only is the one party liberated, by the failure of the other party to perform his part of the contract; the first has, moreover, upon the second, a claim for damages to the amount of what he may have suffered by such failure.

Here, however, it is to be observed, that a distinction is to be made between a simple contract, that is, a contract to do a particular act, and a contract by which we enter upon a relation established by our Creator. Of the first kind, are ordinary mercantile contracts to sell or deliver merchandise at a particular place, for a specified sum, to be paid at a particular time. Here, if the price be not paid, we are under no obligation to deliver the goods; and, if the goods be not delivered, we are under no obligation to pay the price. Of the second kind, are the contract of civil society, and the marriage contract. These, being appointed by the constitution under which God has placed us, may be dissolved only for such reasons as he has appointed. Thus, society and the individual enter mutually into certain obligations with respect to each other; but it does not follow, that either party is liberated by every failure of the other. The case is the same with the marriage contract. In these instances, each party is bound to fulfill its part of the contract, notwithstanding the failure of the other.

It is here proper to remark, that the obligation to veracity is precisely the same, under what relations soever it may be formed. It is as binding between individuals and society, on both parts, and upon societies and societies, as it is between individuals. There is no more excuse for a society, when it violates its obligation to an individual, or for an individual when he violates his obligations to a society, than in any other case of deliberate falsehood. By how much more are societies or communities bound to fidelity, in their engagements with each other, since the faith of treaties is the only barrier which interposes to shield nations from the appeal to bloodshed in every case of collision of interests! And the obligation is the same, under what circumstances soever nations may treat with each other. A civilized people has no right to violate its solemn obligations, because the other party is uncivilized. A strong nation has no right to lie to a weak nation. The simple fact, that two communities of moral agents have entered into engagements, binds both of them equally in the sight of their common Creator. And He, who is the Judge of all, in His holy habitation, will assuredly avenge, with most solemn retributions, that violation of faith, in which the peculiar blessings bestowed upon one party are made a reason for inflicting misery upon the other party, with whom he has dealt less bountifully. Shortly before the death of the Duke of Burgundy, the pupil of Fenelon, a cabinet council was held, at which he was present, to take into consideration the expediency of violating a treaty; which it was supposed could be done with manifest advantage to France. The treaty was read; and the ministers explained in what respects it operated unfavorably, and how great an accession of territory might be made to France, by acting in defiance of its solemn obligations. Reasons of state were, of course, offered in abundance, to justify the deed of perfidy. The Duke of Burgundy heard them all in silence. When they had finished, he closed the conference by laying his hand upon the instrument, and saying, with emphasis, “Gentlemen, there is a treaty.” This single sentiment is a more glorious monument to his fame, than a column inscribed with the record of an hundred victories.

lt is frequently said, partly by way of explanation, and partly by way of excuse, for the violation of contracts by communities, that corporate bodies have no conscience. In what sense this is true, it is not necessary here to inquire. It is sufficient to know that every one of the corporators has a conscience, and is responsible to God for obedience to its dictates. Men may mystify before each other, and they may stupify the monitor in their own bosoms, by throwing the blame of perfidy upon each other; but it is yet worthy to be remembered, that they act in the presence of a Being with whom the night shineth as the day, and that they must appear before a tribunal where there will be “no shuffling.” For beings acting under these conditions, there surely can be no wiser or better course, than that of simply unsophisticated verity, under what relations soever they may be called upon to act.