More on commitments and explicit qualifiers
June 16, 2013 § 12 Comments
A number of practical things follow from the fact that all explicit commitments, by logical necessity, have implicit qualifiers: that, more specifically, it is logically impossible to make a good-faith promise to do evil.
Promises made in good faith literally cannot bind us morally when circumstances obtain such that (superficially) keeping the promise involves doing evil. The positivistic attitude about things like confidentiality agreements asserts something like “don’t commit to confidentiality unless you are willing to keep the secrets no matter what“. But positivism is false: it is literally nonsensical to propose that one has a moral obligation to do something immoral, and in some circumstances it is immoral to keep secrets. No human commitment to something like confidentiality can be understood to be morally binding in all conceivable circumstances: because positivism is false it is literally impossible to make a morally binding commitment in a prudential matter which completely covers all possible circumstances.
(Positivism, remember, involves a simultaneous insistence on consistency and completeness in some finite text; and positivism, while intuitively appealing to moderns, is literally and even provably irrational. Completeness and consistency in meaning are like momentum and position in quantum mechanics: the more you insist on one, the less you get of the other).
And that’s why, no matter what confidentiality agreements that institutions and leaders require people to sign, the moral burden remains on the institutions and leaders to avoid asking people to do evil. If you are asking someone to do evil he can refuse with a perfectly clean conscience, no matter what ostensible agreements have been signed. It is possible that it may have been morally wrong for him to sign an agreement in the first place, of course, depending on the actual agreement; but two wrongs don’t make a right, and he faces no moral dilemma whatsoever when you ask him to do evil.
Someone who refuses to do evil – either by omission or commission – has not violated any morally binding agreement, by definition. One never does moral wrong by refusing to do evil under the rubric of some ostensible explicit agreement. It is the sovereign or other authority who abuses a good faith agreement when he attempts to coerce someone to do evil.
 Usually it is fine to sign an agreement which does not make all possible exceptions explicit; because that is true of pretty much all written or verbal agreements in a non-positivistic world, which is to say, in reality. Every single explicit agreement in actual reality – reality with the non-positivistic nature of our reality – has implicit qualifiers.