I believe it would be wrong, in normal circumstances, to break a promise made to

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I believe it would be wrong, in normal circumstances, to break a promise made to someone who died meanwhile, even if no one will benefit from the keeping of the promise. I also believe that, if keeping the promise would cause great damage to someone (to the promisor or to somebody else), it would be right not to keep it (it could even be wrong to keep it). Now, where should we draw the line between the two kinds of circumstances? If the promisee were alive, we could compare his damage to the damage of somebody else, but, since he/she is dead, to what should we compare the damage caused by keeping the promise?

In deciding whether or not to keep a promise made to someone who has died, I would ask the following question: Would that person have wanted you to keep the promise even after he or she died? Some promises are specifically about what one is to do after a death ("Promise me that you will send money to my daughter") while others are clearly irrelevant after a death ("Promise me that you will come to the beach this weekend"). With other promises ("Promise that you won't loan her any money"), the answer to this question is not so clear cut, but IF the promisee would have wanted you to keep the promise, that should count as a reason to keep the promise.

As you say, there are cases where the costs of keeping a promise outweigh one's obligation to keep that promise. These could be thought of as cases of competing duties (to uphold a promise versus to save a life, for example) or they could be thought of as qualifications implicit to the promise itself (as understood by both the promiser and the promisee). In neither case, though, should the death of the promisee change these calculations.

Breaking a promise to someone who has died does not need to be thought of as damaging that person -- though it may be possible to damage a person after death. Breaking a promise -- especially under circumstances in which there is no longer anyone to hold one to one's promises -- can also be thought of as damaging the larger social fabric that depends on trust .

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