Breaking Bad Promises

45 Pages Posted: 14 May 2016 Last revised: 25 Nov 2019

See all articles by F. E. Guerra-Pujol

F. E. Guerra-Pujol

University of Central Florida; Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico

Date Written: November 22, 2019


When are illicit promises morally binding? Although sundry moral philosophers and legal scholars have offered a wide variety of theories to explain why and when promises are morally binding, there is a significant blind spot in this conversation, for few theorists have given sustained attention to the problem of illegal and immoral promises. Even Charles Fried, for example, makes no mention of illegal or immoral agreements in his classic work Contract as Promise. This Article thus explores the law and ethics of illicit promises--defined broadly as promises to perform illegal or immoral acts. After presenting several motivating examples to illustrate the problem of illicit promises, such as promises to join criminal partnerships, promises to repay usurious loans, and promises to obstruct justice, the Article presents a fourfold classification of illicit promises and then explores the inner logic of such promises in light of existing theories of promises. This Article then proposes a framework inspired by the common law and applies this new framework to the examples introduced earlier in the paper. The Article also explains how this common law framework sheds new light on old contract doctrines such as fraud in the inducement and duress. (An Appendix contains several examples of illicit promises.)

Keywords: paradox, promises, promissory obligation

JEL Classification: K12

Suggested Citation

Guerra-Pujol, F. E., Breaking Bad Promises (November 22, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

F. E. Guerra-Pujol (Contact Author)

University of Central Florida ( email )

Orlando, FL 32816
United States


Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico ( email )

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