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Chapter 7: Equal Dignity, Communication, Interpersonal Relationships, and Resitution

Question C: What Are One’s Responsibilities with Respect to Promises and Secrets?

It takes more than communication to form and maintain communion among persons. The bonds of communion are determined and developed by promises and their fulfillment, while the boundaries of various communities are marked by appropriate confidentiality. Promises and secrets are important instruments which love uses to form and articulate interpersonal communion in a multiplicity of communities.

1. There Is a Defeasible Responsibility to Keep Promises

A promise is a deliberate and free expression both of an intention to fulfill another’s hope and of the acceptance of the added responsibility which follows from expressing an intention to do so.41 Promises can be unilateral, but many promises, such as those involved in most legal contracts, are bilateral or even multilateral.

Promises enable two or more persons to will together over some stretch of time; such union of wills is necessary for dependable cooperation, which, in turn, is necessary for effective community of every sort. Love requires Christians to build up community, and so it requires them to make and keep promises.

a) To make a binding promise, certain conditions must be met. Since a promise is a deliberate and free act, only those capable of such acts can make binding promises. For this reason, children who do not yet have the use of reason cannot make promises, while immature or unsophisticated people cannot make binding promises about matters beyond their competence. Coercion, including psychological pressure, invalidates any promise made due to it, because in limiting the options available for free choice coercion excludes the free self-giving required to form or build up community.

If someone makes a promise which would not have been made except for deception or fraud, those who deceived or defrauded have no right that the promise be kept. The duty to keep it is nullified by a requirement of fairness: people may not by wrongdoing acquire claims upon those they wrong.

Since a promise expresses the intention to fulfill another’s hope, nobody can make a promise to which no hope corresponds. Sometimes the hope comes first: one party desires something, asks another for it, and receives a promise in response. For example, an employee asks his or her employers for a salary increase, and the employers say they will give it if certain conditions are met. Sometimes the offer of a promise arouses a hope that completes and validates the promise: one party proposes a promise of something to another, that proposal arouses a response of hope, and communicating that response (sometimes by a merely tacit consent) consummates the promise. For example, a mother tells her children she will take them to the zoo Sunday afternoon if they finish all their homework by then, and as a result the children count on her for the enjoyable excursion.

Since a promise also expresses a responsibility to fulfill its corresponding hope, a binding promise cannot be made while simultaneously implying there is no responsibility to keep it, for example, by saying it would be wrong to do so.

b) In making promises, one should be truthful. Since a promise is a communication, making promises plainly involves the same responsibility to be truthful that holds for every communication. But since a special responsibility is accepted in making a promise, there also is a special responsibility to be truthful, for deception in making promises involves a will which is inconsistent with the will to keep them.

c) In making promises, relevant conventions should be observed. Since a promise is a communicative expression, it often is impossible to make a promise without more or less carefully observing relevant conventions. Some may be informal, for example, languages provide various expressions suitable for making promises. Others are formal: legal systems establish conditions for making many promises, especially bilateral ones that constitute contracts.

When relevant conventions must be observed in order to make binding promises, they plainly should be observed, and deliberate failure to do so is deception in simulating a promise. But even when a binding promise can be made without observing relevant conventions, they should be observed unless there is a reason to set them aside; for this makes the promise more effective, by making it clearer that a promise is made and defining more precisely what may be hoped for and what must be done to fulfill that hope.

d) Promises sometimes lose their obligatory force. Many promises, especially bilateral ones, are made subject to expressed conditions; and, since a promise expresses an intention, its obligatory force is limited by such expressed conditions. Therefore, promises lose their obligatory force if the conditions are not met.

Since no one ever is obliged to do what is impossible or morally wrong, this happens if one discovers that a promise simply cannot be kept or can be kept only by doing something morally wrong. And, since a hope corresponds to a promise, it also happens if the person or persons who would benefit from the keeping of the promise both are competent judges of their own interests and make it clear that they do not care whether the promise is kept. Similarly, those who would benefit from the fulfillment of promises can freely choose to accept something else in place of what was promised or even entirely to concede their claim to it.

Very often, those who make promises would not do so if they then knew something of which they are ignorant—especially, but not only, if they foresaw changes in circumstances which make carrying out the promise more onerous than expected. Someone might argue that, since ignorance takes away freedom, promises that would not be made except for ignorance necessarily lack obligatory force. In making promises, however, people are aware that they may be ignorant of some facts and do not completely foresee the future; yet within some limits of error and ignorance, they express their intention nevertheless to do what they promise. In the nature of the case, the limits cannot be specified in advance; instead, when the problem arises they are determined by what is fair, all things considered. Thus, a promise does not lack obligatory force merely because it would not have been made except for ignorance, but it does lose obligatory force if unforeseen conditions render keeping the promise unfairly burdensome.

Sometimes those concerned, after being fully informed, agree in judging what are fair limits to unforeseen burdens, or at least agree to accept a mediator’s judgment. In any case, a conscientious promiser begins with the presumption that fair limits have not been passed and the promise should be kept, and considers the obligation extinguished only when morally certain that it has been.

e) Breaking a promise sometimes but not always is a grave matter. Provided a promise retains its obligatory force, its breaking or neglect is inherently wrong. But how wrong? No general answer is possible, since many factors have a bearing on the extent to which people want and expect those who have made promises to be held to them; these factors include the character of the relationship between the parties as well as the magnitude of disappointment, loss, and/or harm which will result from breaking the promise. However, it is clear that breaking a promise sometimes is light matter. Indeed, since promises often lose their obligatory force, a culpable failure with little adverse impact seldom seems worth distinguishing from a reasonable judgment that the promise was not binding. Still, if significant loss or harm will result, failure to keep a promise surely is a grave matter.

2. There Is a Limited Responsibility with Respect to Secrets

Secret does not refer here to everything any individual or society wishes to hide, but only to something that someone or some group has some morally acceptable reason for hiding. Concealment to facilitate wrongdoing is not in question here.

a) Secrecy can be good insofar as community is rightly limited. Since communication builds up community, it is clear that sincerity, openness, and generosity in communicating generally are good. The goodness of secrecy, which presupposes outsiders—those to whom what is hidden is not communicated—is not so clear. However, secrecy obviously is important for intimate communion, such as that between spouses, by enabling the partners to reveal themselves more fully than they would or rightly could to others. And, in general, secrecy is important for building community, for it allows those voluntarily entering or participating in it to exercise freedom in revealing themselves, as they must do in order to give themselves to others. Moreover, all communities except that of the new covenant are rightly limited in various ways, and secrecy protects indi~viduals’ and communities’ identities, by restricting access to themselves and to what is their own.

In the fallen world, secrecy often is necessary for additional reasons. It facilitates the doing of good acts without mixed motives, which is why Jesus urges that prayer, fasting, and almsgiving be done in private (see Mt 6.1–6). Again, it is a necessary condition for communities to pursue or protect various goods: it protects plans, ideas, and strategies against those who might use them unfairly; it protects things such as deliberations or preparatory drafts that might be misunderstood or maliciously used; it protects property that might be unjustly taken. Hence, individuals sometimes rightly keep secret what they share in any particular community, and communities sometimes rightly keep secret what they share with one another.

b) The responsibility regarding secrets can have different bases. Since secret here refers to something an individual or group has a morally acceptable reason for keeping hidden, the first and general basis for the responsibility with respect to any secret is the good directly at stake and the requirement of fairness: one wants to keep one’s own secrets and so should protect and respect others’.

A second basis for responsibility with respect to certain secrets is that valuable interpersonal relationships depend on trust that those secrets will be kept. On this basis, there is a special duty with regard to the secrets of sacramental confession (see 4.C.5.k), intimate communication between husband and wife or between friends, professional secrets, secrets children confide to parents, and so on.

These basic duties often are reinforced by a promise, whether unilateral or contractual, by a law or other social norm, or by both a promise and a social norm.

c) Secrecy often is qualified and cannot be presumed. The responsibility to keep a secret often is qualified, so that its basis is satisfied and it is not violated if the secret is divulged within certain limits. For instance, someone troubled in conscience about a matter involving some secret generally could discuss the matter in confidence with a confessor or moral adviser without violating secrecy. Again, professional colleagues who can fulfill their professional responsibilities only by collaboration usually do not violate professional secrecy by sharing secrets and the responsibility to keep them.42 Again, spouses and intimate friends often can share in confidence secrets which pertain to other relationships, without endangering any relevant good or violating the real meaning of any reinforcing promise or norm.

Also, when a group of people engages in private in some common deliberation or action, no member should presume that other members will consider the action secret. Some may have good reasons for concealing the action and others for revealing it. If the latter have not promised confidentiality and the group as such does not have a norm requiring secrecy, those who desire it should not presume it.

d) This responsibility can be violated in diverse ways. Plainly, the responsibility to keep secrets can be violated both by purposely or carelessly divulging a secret in one’s possession and by failing to take appropriate precautions to protect it. But the responsibility with respect to secrets has another dimension: the duty to respect others’ secrets and not seek access to them. It can be violated in many ways, for example, asking prying questions, eavesdropping, covertly using electronic listening devices, peeping, opening and reading others’ letters, searching through others’ personal papers and effects, and extorting information by drugs or torture.

e) The responsibility to protect and respect secrets is limited. Leaving aside the secrecy of sacramental confession (see 4.C.5.k), under certain conditions a person should divulge or seek access to secrets.

Of course, secrecy has some generally recognized limits. The good and acceptable reason for hiding something usually only obtains within limits, and beyond these, the trust required for valuable relationships is not undermined if a secret is revealed. Moreover, when something formerly secret has been divulged, it is no longer secret; when persons or groups are willing that their secrets be divulged, others no longer need keep them; and when concealment becomes a means of wrongdoing or its morally acceptable reason otherwise ceases, the moral responsibility with respect to secrets also ceases.

Even when some persons or groups continue to have a good and morally acceptable reason for wishing to conceal something, others sometimes can have a good and morally binding reason to reveal or investigate it. For different agents’ responsibilities can differ, both because of their different roles and duties, and because of differences in what they know or believe as a basis for acting.

Thus, citizens who know that some of their leaders are preparing secretly to wage war and believe them to be acting rightly must protect the secret, while other citizens convinced the leaders are acting illegally and wrongly could be obliged to communicate what they know to other leaders or even the public at large. People who know they are innocent can have good reason to protect certain secrets, but authorities (parents, superiors, managers, police, and so on) who must deal with wrongdoing can have an obligation to seek access to those secrets in order to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent. Victims of a deadly disease which in most circumstances is not contagious can have good reasons—such as fear of others’ irrational reactions—to keep their condition a secret from most people, but physicians and others with public health responsibilities can have an obligation to divulge the secret, if that is necessary to stop the spread of the disease.43

f) The Golden Rule should be used in judging secrecy’s limits. Still, the responsibility to protect and respect secrets should be presumed to remain unless it is overridden by some clear responsibility to the contrary. Judging oneself to have a duty that cannot be fulfilled without divulging or seeking access to some secret, one should consider the basis of the responsibility to keep or to respect the secret, including any relevant promise, law, or other social norm, and the various goods at stake. In doing so, it is important not to overlook indirect effects, for example, the effect which setting aside secrecy in some instances may have upon a whole set of professional relationships. Having considered all these things, one should ask oneself which is in accord with the Golden Rule, respecting the secret or fulfilling the other duty. One should divulge or seek access to the secret in order to fulfill the other duty if, and only if, one judges that doing so is in accord with the Golden Rule.

g) Even beyond the limits, one must take care to act justly. Even when one should seek access to some secret, one may not be indiscriminate in the means used. Of course, means evil in themselves may not be used, for example, lying or torture. But even a means not intrinsically evil may be unfair because unnecessarily invasive or otherwise repugnant to those affected. Moreover, the information legitimately acquired may not be divulged or used unfairly. Again, even when some secret should be divulged, a reasonable effort should be made to mitigate harm. The secret may be divulged only to the extent necessary, and a person doing so should be considerate in the method and circumstances. Furthermore, in most cases when one should seek access to or divulge some secret, one should regret having to do so, and the regret should be communicated.

h) The responsibility of secrecy is in itself a grave matter. If the right of secrecy obtains, its wrongful violation always is an injustice and often has ill effects for valuable interpersonal relationships. If the violation is chosen out of hatred or as a means to some grave evil, or if it is likely to cause significant harm, the matter is grave. Still, the violation can be light matter, since secrecy sometimes serves rather insignificant goods or serves more important goods in marginal ways. For example, family members and intimate friends sometimes keep gifts and pleasant news secret from one another for a time in order to enhance enjoyment or celebrate a particular occasion. Such secrets serve an important good, the love among friends and family members, but only in a small way; and so it is not grave matter to violate secrecy in such matters, for example, for an older child to reveal plans the parents are making for a surprise party on a younger child’s birthday.

i) Secret information unjustly exposed may not be unfairly used. People often unjustly seek access to or divulge secrets as a means to some further injustice, and then it is obvious that the information may not be used to accomplish that unjust end. Again, the point of secrecy often is to block potential injustices, and these obviously remain injustices for anyone whom the secret’s exposure enables to commit them.

Nevertheless, once secret information is unjustly exposed, it sometimes can be used fairly, especially by third parties. For instance, if someone wrongly reveals plans for a surprise party, others can rightly change their own plans for a celebration on the same occasion. Still, unjustly exposed information sometimes cannot be fairly used, even by a third party, although it could be fairly used if justly obtained. For example, in a contest to solve a problem, no competitor can fairly use information gained from anyone’s wrongful violation of another competitor’s secrets, although the same information could be fairly used had it become available in some other way. Thus, whenever secret information is unjustly exposed, one should consider whether a prospective use of it is fair, taking into account how it became available.

41. The intention to make a promise should carry with it the acceptance of the obligation to keep it, but the intention to promise does not create that obligation out of nothing. The obligation flows from the goods at stake, including friendship and/or justice, and the requirement of fairness: see John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 298–308. Whenever in expressing his or her intentions a person knows that doing so will arouse others’ hopes, that person has some responsibility in fairness not to disappoint those hopes. In making a promise (whether or not one uses the words I promise), one intentionally arouses or nurtures another’s hope and explicitly accepts the obligation not to disappoint it. Thus, in promising, by focusing attention on the consciousness of responsibility not to disappoint another’s hope, a person greatly increases the extent to which friendship or justice is at stake, and so also intentionally increases the responsibility to fulfill the promise. Because of this deliberate increasing of responsibility through explicit reflection on it, one obligates oneself in promising in a sense quite different from that in which a responsibility not to disappoint others is assumed when, without making a promise, one raises their hopes merely by declaring one’s intentions.

42. The seal of confession is not an exception, because the confessor never need violate it to fulfill his professional responsibilities. If he needs help to deal with a difficult question, he can obtain it without revealing the penitent’s identity; if the penitent’s identity must be revealed to deal with a canonical problem, the confessor may not proceed without the penitent’s full and free consent.

43. See, for example, Gene Antonio, The AIDS Cover-Up? The Real and Alarming Facts about AIDS, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 141–51, 177–78.