When I was at Princeton, every exam began with a strange ritual required by the Honor Code: Students had to sign a promise not to cheat.  The promise reads:

I pledge my honor that I have not violated the honor code during this examination.

When I was TAing for Alan Blinder, I couldn’t resist mocking this system.  “Doesn’t everyone realize what a joke this is?” I told him.  When he earnestly replied, “It’s not a joke,” I shut up.

My rationale, though, was simple: If students have to promise not to cheat, why don’t they have to promise to keep their promises about cheating?  Promise to keep their promises about promises about cheating?  Etc.  Suppose Princeton didn’t make students promise not to cheat.  If it caught a student cheating, would “I never promised not to cheat!” be a non-laughable reason to let the student off the hook?

The lesson: You can’t base all moral obligations on contract.  There have to be pre-existing non-contractual obligations to get any moral obligation off the ground.  And if you can buy a non-contractual obligation to keep your promises, why not a non-contractual obligation not to cheat?

I remember Princeton’s Honor Code whenever I hear someone defend social contract theory.  Admittedly, there are many version of social contract theory; maybe yours is reasonable.  But lots social contractarians – especially Hobbes and his numerous heirs – unreasonably try to ground morality itself in contract. 

This is a joke for the same reason that promising to follow Princeton’s Honor Code is a joke.  Suppose I explicitly sign a social contract not to punch you.  Then I punch you.  You say, “That’s immoral because you promised not to.”  I reply, “It’s perfectly moral, because I never promised to keep my promises.”  You now have two intellectual options:

1. Admit that I can rightfully punch you despite my explicit promise.

2. Say, “You’re morally obligated to keep your promises even if you never promised to keep them.”

#1 seems plainly wrong.  And if you’re willing to go with #2, why not just skip the social contract and say, “You’re morally obligated not to hit me even if you never promised not to hit me?”

Assuming you’re with me so far, let me flip things around.  If you can be obligated to do X even though you never promised to do X, you can also be obligated not to do X even though you did promise to do X. 

A murder-for-hire contract is the most obvious example.  Suppose I agree to murder your nosy neighbor for $1000.  I take the money.  Am I morally obliged to commit the murder?  Of course not.  Why not?  Because I have a non-contractual moral obligation not to commit murder.  If you find that unacceptably spooky, remember my previous point: no moral theorist – social contract theorists included – can dispense with the idea of non-contractual moral obligations.

When political leaders violate their official obligations, these lessons immediately apply.  Yes, “you broke your solemn pledge” sounds bad.  But what if you solemnly pledged to murder thousands of babies?  To uphold slavery?  To exile millions of innocents to the Third World?  In cases like these, oathbreaking is a moral duty.  Perhaps the most righteous course would be to refrain from promising to do great evil in the first place.  But once you make a morally impermissible promise, refusing to follow through is the first step on the road to redemption.