Happy Accident

I missed the last philosophical phriday - I was actually caught up in a philosophical email discussion. So to make up, this week it's a double bill. In this the first part, an example of what's known as 'ordinary language philosophy'.

Is it possible to keep a promise by mistake?

When I first heard this one, I thought the answer was obviously yes. I mean, here's a scenario:

I promise to be in London on Tuesday, but have no intention of keeping the promise because I've already decided to be in Brighton on Tuesday. So on Tuesday I catch the train to Brighton...but it's the wrong train and I end up in London.

I promised to be in London, I made a mistake, and the result was I went to London, keeping the promise.

But it's not quite as simple as that. Because surely keeping a promise doesn't just involve getting the promised result, but also doing everything needed to get that result, and doing it with the intention of doing so.

There's plenty of verbs which refer to internal states - want, know, hope, calculate, remember etc. - but not to the visible expression of these states. And there's plenty of verbs which say nothing about what's going on 'inside' - robots can jump, roll and even speak without consciousness.

Can a robot be obnoxious? It could certainly be programmed to act like a jerk, but I don't think we'd describe it as being one. But the same robot programmed to play chess can win and lose games - it's not just pretending.

"Keep" though, in the sense of 'keep a promise', looks like it concerns both states and actions. And the same goes for making and breaking promises. Can you make a promise to someone by accident? You can certainly say something which they misinterpret as a promise, but that's a failure of communication, not an accidental intention. If you believe you've kept a promise to someone, but they maintain you've broken it, there may be disagreement about exactly what constitutes keeping and breaking, but they're not saying you did anything without meaning to.

In one sense, a bad egg can poison you, in that it can be the source of an infection. In another sense, the loved one who cooked you the bad egg in good faith has poisoned you, though they didn't mean to. But to be fully justified in accusing someone of poisoning you, they'd have to have correctly believed the egg was bad, and served it to you not just intending you to be ill as a result, but believing, perhaps falsely, that your lymphatic system couldn't just shrug it off.

The Russian noblemen who put poison in Rasputin's wine didn't succeed in poisoning him (killing him), even though they succeeded in...poisoning him (giving him poison).

Sometimes we use the same word for an action which is deliberate and one which isn't. It's possible to insult someone by mistake, and it's also possible to do it deliberately. Same word, different action.

It's possible to arrive on time by mistake, having intended to be late, but that's not the same as being punctual. It's possible to make someone feel complimented, when you intended to be sarcastic, but that's not the same as flattering them.

And it's possible to catch a train to the promised city having intended to go to a different one, but that's not the same as keeping a promise by mistake.

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