Promises, Contracts and Voluntary Obligations

44 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2007 Last revised: 7 May 2008

See all articles by Michael G. Pratt

Michael G. Pratt

Queen's University - Faculty of Law


Contracts and promises are widely regarded as cognate ideas. In particular, it is widely believed that contractual obligations share with their promissory counterparts the characteristic of being self-imposed, or voluntarily acquired. Contractual obligations are thought to belong to the same class as promissory obligations, a class that is distinguished by the voluntariness of the obligations within it.

This orthodoxy parses into two claims. The first is that contractual obligations are voluntary in a particular and distinctive sense, which I refer to as "voluntarist." As I explain in the paper, an obligation is voluntary in a voluntarist sense just in case it rests for its validity on the intention of the obligor to acquire it, which intention counts as a positive reason in favour of its imposition. I dub this first claim the "c-voluntarist" thesis. The second claim is that promissory obligations are voluntary in the same voluntarist sense. I dub this the "p-voluntarist" thesis.

I regard the c-voluntarist thesis as highly plausible, and in the course of the paper I offer some preliminary observations in its favour. My main goal, however, is to reveal the p-voluntarist thesis to be false. The intention of a contractor to bind himself may count in favour of holding him bound, but the same is not true of the intention of a promisor. I argue, in other words, that contractual obligations are like what most jurists think promissory obligations are like, but that promissory obligations are not, in fact, like that.

Keywords: Contracts, Promises, Obligations, Raz, Rawls, Hume

Suggested Citation

Pratt, Michael Gordon, Promises, Contracts and Voluntary Obligations. Law and Philosophy, Vol. 26, No. 6, p. 531, 2007, Available at SSRN:

Michael Gordon Pratt (Contact Author)

Queen's University - Faculty of Law ( email )

Macdonald Hall
Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6 K7L3N6


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