09 July 2013

Promising Morality

Long ago among other posts I commented here, here, and here on the morality of promise receiving. We are habituated to think of the morality of promisors--they should keep their promises--but not so much on the other half of the promissory exchange. I concluded that both halves were equally "moral" and that more attention need to be paid to the duties of promisees.

Go here on Jack Balkin's blog to read an example of questionable promissory morality from the receiving end. In short, employers and even prospective employers are generating promissory non-compete obligations from folks whose jobs are fungible in today's economy. Even being able to drop off an application at a job fair is sufficient consideration for some prospective employers to assert that they have the power to bar job seekers from applying for a job elsewhere. (I'll leave aside the provability of damages in such a situation. It seems clear to me that no such prospective employer would actually sue and collect but the in terrorem effect remains.)

The morality of obtaining such a promise runs squarely against the 8th Commandment (in the standard Protestant numbering): You shall not steal. As Question & Answer 141 of the Westminster Larger Catechism puts it: "The duties required in the eighth commandment are ... a lawful calling, and diligence in it ..." For the ecumenically-minded see paragraph 2428 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community."

Use of the device of contract to deprive a promisor of the ability to carry out her divine duties strikes me as clearly wrong. To be sure, one can agree to be paid for doing nothing when the economic benefits to a former employer are clear but to induce such a promise from a hair-dresser or simple job applicant is as immoral as not paying one's debts when they come due.

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