The fascinating passage of Macbeth by William Shakespeare captures, in a few verses, the essential issues of the promise. According to the passage, to promise generates certain beliefs, from which can be established the hope of certain actions being accomplished. Further, in Ecclesiastes 5:5 it is stated, “It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it.” Just like these quotes suggest, I say “no” to the question; “Is it ever moral to break a promise?”
Why is promise-keeping morally important?
The moral importance of keeping a promise lies in not just avoiding to disappoint the person to whom the promise has been made but also in securing own credibility. To promise is to express the intention of doing for others a certain action. When a promise is made, the person to whom a promise has been made relies on the one making the promise to honor and as such may cease seeking other would-be solutions. Failure to keep the promise can gravely affect the person in instances where the promise is not honored. It would be unethical to, for instance, promise to buy someone supper, only to fail to honor it when the person had relied on you. Further, such a failure, albeit, not legally binding make people distrust the one that made the promise thereby putting to question his/her credibility.
Is it ever morally permissible to break a promise?
While some may argue the moral permissibility of breaking a promise is relative to circumstances, I say, “NO”, it is not morally permissible to break a promise. In this regard, I consider breaking a promise as a willing act in which circumstances do not influence that the person breaking the promise had alternatives that could have enabled him/her to keep the promise. As already mentioned, a promise elicits a corresponding reaction from the person to whom the promise has been made. Without the promise, the person would have acted differently. Consequently, no moral justification can permit breaking a promise.
If you answer “no” to #2, then explain why you believe it is never permissible. How would you handle difficult scenarios wherein someone has made a promise the keeping of which would have significant undesirable consequences?
It is always prudent and wise to take into consideration all possibilities before making a promise. This eliminates a scenario where keeping a promise would have significant undesirable consequences. Nevertheless, there is always room to reach out to the person to whom the promise was made and reconsider options rather than merely letting the promise go unattended to. In this manner, the promise can be fulfilled differently.
Is it ever morally obligatory to break a promise?
Yes, indeed. There are instances where it may be morally obligatory to break a promise. A case in point is a promise that was made based on false or incomplete information. For instance, your niece made you promise to give her $250 alleging she had a pressing problem to attend to. On pressing, she told you that she had a debt she wanted to repay. However, before honoring the promise, you realize that the money is intended to secure an abortion. In such a case, it may be morally obligatory to break your promise and reconsider your options.
If you answer “yes” to #5, what are the conditions that render promise-breaking morally obligatory?
Cases where it might be morally obligatory to break a promise include instances where promises are made based on false/incorrect information, circumstances relating to the promise have changed since the promise was made, where circumstances have changed for the one that made the promise. In the case defined in #5 above, honoring the promise might not only put your niece’s life at risk but also put you on a collision path with her parents and the law, in such a case, reconsideration is mandatory. However, rather than simply failing to honor the promise, it will be prudent to talk to her and reconsider the options to assist her to take the right path.
Macleod, Alistair. “Moral Permissibility Constraints on Voluntary Obligations.” Journal of Social Philosophy 43, no. 2 (2012): 125–39. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9833.2012.01555.x.
 Alistair, Macleod, “Moral Permissibility Constraints on Voluntary Obligations.” Journal of Social Philosophy 43, no. 2 (2012): 128
 Alistair, “Moral Permissibility Constraints on Voluntary Obligations,” 129