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Bill Gates and the Ethics of Personal Pledges

black and white image of Bill Gates

A few days ago, Bill Gates, worth $113 billion, made headlines by pledging to donate “virtually all” of his wealth and to “move off the list of the world’s richest people.” You may think that billionaires shouldn’t exist, or that they wouldn’t exist in a just economic system. You may think Gates is simply meeting his moral duty, and not doing anything morally praiseworthy. Or, you may think that, while Gates will never be poor, it is still laudable to pledge almost all of one’s wealth to a philanthropic cause. His wealth will surely save more lives and alleviate more suffering for having been donated. Furthermore, billionaires don’t generally live up to the Gates standard. You may not be able to take it with you, but the fact is that most billionaires die billionaires.

But the moral problem on which I want to focus is not the moral status of Gates’ pledge, whether it is morally required, or “supererogatory” (beyond the call of moral duty), but its moral bindingness.

If Gates, for whatever reason, decided to reverse his decision in ten years, to stop the yearly donations he plans, would he have the moral right to do so, given his earlier pledge?

It might seem obvious that Gates would have the moral right to revoke his pledge, if he had a change of heart. After all, personal pledges are not promises to other people where we would need their consent to let us off the hook and void the promise. Personal pledges are just statements of personal intention or commitment that our future selves will act in a certain way. And we can revoke such commitments as easily as we can make them. I can pledge to wake up at six tomorrow morning, but I can also revoke my pledge when I find myself awake at midnight tonight and realize I wouldn’t get enough sleep.

Things are not always this simple, though. The philosopher Derek Parfit provides a thought experiment in which a Russian nobleman, a young socialist, decides to commit the vast estates he will one day inherit to the peasants. He knows his preferences could change over time, especially after receiving a sizeable fortune. So he writes a legally binding contract that will automatically donate his estates. He also adds a clause stating that his pledge cannot be revoked without his wife’s consent, even if he has new reasons for wishing to revoke the pledge. He then tells his wife not to provide this consent, using her as a mechanism to force his current will onto his future self. If the nobleman does change his mind, he tells his wife, “he” will no longer exist, and the man seeking to revoke the pledge will have no right to do so. I think Bill Gates is doing something similar. He is making this pledge very publicly as a way of creating pressure on his future self to comply with the wishes of his current self.

In Parfit’s thought experiment, later in life, the nobleman does change his mind. His wife is forced to choose to honor the will of her current husband, wishing to revoke the pledge, or the earlier version of her husband. What would be morally right to do?

It seems morally acceptable for the wife to refuse to revoke the document, and honor the wishes of her younger husband. But if the husband is the same person who made the pledge, why shouldn’t he have the right to revoke it? Implicitly, the wife’s decision to uphold the document would suggest that she views the older husband as an imposter of some kind, as someone who lacks the moral authority to revoke a pledge made by another person. Perhaps something like the psychological distance between the younger and older versions of the husband means that the older husband isn’t in a position to revoke the pledge made by the younger husband.

But it also isn’t obvious that the wife has a moral duty to uphold the pledge. The older husband was the younger husband. He knows why he made the pledge earlier in his life, and he presumably knows a lot more besides that his younger self didn’t. And given all this, he wishes to revoke his pledge. It is his wealth, after all, and it isn’t clear who could possibly have the right to force him to give it away, if he now wishes to keep it.

Can the younger self really hold such a moral claim over the behavior of the older self? It is difficult to say.

More broadly, the promises, pledges, and commitments we make at particular points in our lives can bind both ourselves and others, often for a long time and sometimes even beyond death. Most college endowments, for example, are so-called “restricted endowments.” When they are made, requirements are placed on how the assets can be used. As such, endowments often express the (peculiar) wills of people who have long been dead and whose interests and values are often different to those which are common today. The Dudley Professorship of Railroad Engineering at Yale, for example, gifted in 1923 by Plimmon H. Dudley, can only be used for “work in connection with the development and improvement of designs of rails, roadbeds, and crossties.” Yale’s president, Richard C. Levin, admitted to The New York Times that, “I was kind of stumped as to what to do with the chair.” The professorship sat vacant for more than seventy years. My own college, the University of Edinburgh, is not unique in having an endowment-funded Parapsychology Unit, funded by a believer in the parapsychic. (The unit has expanded their research into the “pseudo-psi” – what’s not psychic but looks like it).

Such restrictions on the use of endowments are, for better or worse, legally binding. Whether the personal commitments and pledges made by our past selves are also morally binding on our future selves is a much more difficult question — one that Bill Gates may soon face.

Sworn to Secrecy: The Ethics of Confidentiality Agreements

close-up photograph of contract with pen laying on "signature" section

On August 31st, President Trump revealed that he is currently “suing various people for violating their confidentiality agreements.” This kind of behavior from the President is unremarkable because it has happens so often. In the highest profile case, President Trump had Stormy Daniels, a woman with whom he was having an adulterous affair, sign a non-disclosure agreement, promising that she would not speak about the nature of their relationship. 

Non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements are common. Employees and members of various organizations are often expected to sign them. One major concern about these kinds of agreements is that they make the moral dimensions of the making and keeping of promises seem as black and white as the writing on the page. Careful reflection on these matters makes it clear that this is not so.

There are some morally defensible reasons for the use of confidentiality agreements. If an employee works in research and development, an employer might have genuine concerns about intellectual theft—an employee could take the ideas developed by one business and bring them to another. Confidentiality agreements may also be important in cases in which employees work in defense and security. Revealing security secrets could threaten many people’s lives. There is also, within limits, some reason to think it is important for members of an organization to be able to have conversations with one another under the assumption that they can speak freely without fear that what they are saying will be reported outside of the group.

There are also many reasons to be quite skeptical about the morality of confidentiality agreements. In practice, it may well be the case that almost all such agreements are coercive. People must make money in order to pay their bills and stay alive, and often signing a confidentiality agreement is a condition of employment. Even in conditions in which employment is not at stake, those who are in a position to sign are often in a vulnerable, subordinate position, which limits the extent to which they behave autonomously when they sign. Promises are not binding if they are coerced.

Moreover, in order for a promise to be binding, at least some degree of informed consent must exist. Morally defensible promises are entered into in good faith. At the point at which they are made, both parties must trust that the other is not omitting important information from the agreement that might change the willingness to sign the document. If it becomes clear that the nature of the relationship is not what it originally appeared to be, that impacts the degree to which the person that signed it is morally obligated to follow it.

The existence of a confidentiality agreement may be morally relevant to the evaluation of what should be done in any particular case, but it is not morally dispositive. For example, the fact that a person signed an agreement provides them, on the face of it (if the decision was un-coerced), with some reason for compliance. Depending on the circumstances of the case, however, it may not provide them with an all things considered reason for compliance. Other moral considerations might easily and often outweigh the obligation to comply with a confidentiality agreement. A person might come to realize that the values of the institution or individual involved are not commensurate with their own values and dedication to upright moral character. The promises a person makes in a confidentiality agreement may turn out, in the fullness of time, to be inconsistent with other important commitments they have made. Or it may be the case that the harms being caused by the institution or individual are so severe that speaking out becomes obligatory, even if that requires violating a confidentiality agreement.

Under certain conditions, signing one of these agreements makes the person who signed it vulnerable to lawsuits if they violate it. This isn’t a moral fact; it’s a legal fact. Often, lawsuits against people who have violated confidentiality agreements add insult to injury, especially if the violation was a form of whistleblowing. 

These agreements may also lead to a diminished sense of personal responsibility, at least in cases in which neither security nor research and development are involved. If you think that it would be bad for you if others find out the things say or do, perhaps you should put a little more care into what you say and do. For example, President Trump’s personal assistant, Madeleine Westerhout tendered her resignation after revealing to a reporter that the president doesn’t like to have pictures taken with his daughter Tiffany because he perceives her as overweight. The president tweeted that Westerhout “has a fully enforceable confidentiality agreement.” We can’t confirm or disconfirm whether what Westerhout said was true. If it is true, then perhaps the problem isn’t the violation of confidentiality; perhaps it is criticizing your own daughter’s body in front of your subordinate employees. Confidentiality agreements often create hotbeds of abusive and otherwise unethical behavior. It is allowed to go on unchecked because people are scared to speak up out of fear of being sued. 

One of the most significant problems with confidentiality agreements is that they encourage the confusion of ethics with compliance. It is possible, and even common, to be very well-versed in exactly what constitutes compliance for a given organization, but to know little to nothing about ethics. Compliance masquerading as ethics substitutes a shallow proceduralism in the place of substantive moral reflection. After all, rules shouldn’t be followed if the rules themselves are unethical.

New Year’s Resolutions and The Problem of Self-Promising

Photograph of an open notebook with a pen on it; written on the notebook is "New Years Resolutions"

For many people, early January provides an opportunity to reflect on the successes and failures of the previous year with an aim to set goals for improving one’s character going forward. Though difficult to trace, the practice of setting ‘New Year’s resolutions’ may have its roots in ancient religious celebrations thanking various gods for their favor and promising continued faithfulness throughout the coming year. Of the many who christen a new calendar with some hopeful ambition, it is estimated that fewer than 10% actually succeed in setting new habits or breaking old ones. I take it for granted that most readers will, in general, agree that promises should be kept – what, then should we think about breaking resolutions? As we look forward to 2019, should we be worried that we might be setting ourselves up for additional moral failures if we similarly neglect the gym, the savings plan, the sleep schedule, or the nicotine patch? In short, is it wrong to break a promise to yourself?

Thomas Hobbes, the English political philosopher (and eponymic inspiration for a certain cartoon stuffed tiger), certainly thought not; in Book II, Chapter 26 of his magisterial 1651 work Leviathan, Hobbes writes, “Nor is it possible for any person to be bound to himselfe [sic]; because he that can bind, can release; and therefore he that is bound to himselfe onely [sic], is not bound.” Because any promise requires both a promise-maker and a promise-receiver – where, in virtue of the promise, the former is bound to act in a particular way with respect to the latter – a case of self-promising is, at best, odd. A promise-receiver is always able to release a promise-maker from their obligation to fulfill the promise, so if the receiver and the maker are one and the same, then promising something to yourself — as in the case of a New Year’s resolution — could never actually be binding. If you (as the maker) no longer wish to fulfill the promise, then you (as the receiver) can automatically release yourself from the obligation.

Consider a promise that Calvin has made to Susie about repaying a debt of two dollars; as the promise-maker, Calvin can only be released from his commitment if Susie, the promise-receiver, chooses to free him. Such is, Hobbes thinks, the function of a promise: it guarantees future action even if the agent desires to do otherwise. If Calvin fails to return the two dollars, then he has committed a moral violation — that is to say, he has done something wrong. But what if Calvin has only made a promise to himself? Say, for example, that Calvin has made a New Year’s resolution to eat a healthy breakfast every day, but finds himself tempted to instead eat a bowl of chocolate cereal sometime during the first week of January. As the promise-receiver, Calvin could simply release himself (as the promise-maker) from the obligation to eat a healthy breakfast and continue on without a moral care. Consequently, the lack of their binding obligation led Hobbes to think that self-promises were simply impossible.

However, several contemporary philosophers aren’t so sure: Derek Parfit has argued that a past version of yourself and a future version of yourself are not exactly the same thing as the present version of yourself, so it is not quite right to say that you are simultaneously promise-maker and promise-receiver — to break a resolution, on this view, is to break a promise made to a historical version of yourself. Connie Rosati contends that self-promises serve as a validation of our sense of personal authority, so to break a resolution is to undermine that which gives us confidence in our general ability to make decisions and exercise our autonomy. Rather than see self-promises as impossible, these views present them as gauges of our sense of self over time.

Most interestingly, in arguing against Hobbes, Allen Habib thinks that the power to release yourself from a reflexive promise actually serves as evidence for the normative power behind promises in general, saying “the possibility of promisee release adds flexibility and power to the practice of promising, and this in turn makes the sorts of arrangements that can be made with promises more subtle and useful.” That is to say: Habib rejects Hobbes’ implicit idea that obligations are only truly obligatory if they are unavoidably binding. What happens if a promise somehow becomes impossible to fulfill (Habib uses the example of a casino burning down on Tuesday after I promise to drive you there on Wednesday)? In such a case, whether the promise-receiver intentionally releases the promise-maker or not, the promise itself has become “orphaned” and, thereby, is no longer binding.

In general, Habib argues that it is actually beneficial to maintain this more flexible view about the contextual features of promises writ large, including in the case of self-promises. So, concerning Calvin’s resolution about healthy breakfasts, his obligation to honor his self-promise might be justifiably jettisoned if the context he finds himself in changes sufficiently (say, if he finds himself trapped inside a chocolate cereal factory with nothing else to eat), but might not justifiably change simply on a whim (at least not without Calvin being guilty of shirking the obligation just as much as he would be guilty towards any other promise-receiver).

So, as we look ahead to 2019, if you are the sort of person who is inclined to commit to a project of self-betterment, then know that you have some philosophical heads supporting you in your quest. And if your resolution involves looking for a few new philosophers to read, then any of the names mentioned in this article would be a good place to start.