I’m in a philosophical mood today. I’ve been re-reading George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords); it got me thinking about promises and loyalty. Specifically, two questions:

  • When you make a bargain or arrangement or contract with someone, you’re making a promise to someone else and they to you. How related are those two promises? Under what conditions of their breaking their promise are you freed from yours? Obviously it’s different for a business contract and an oath of fealty and a marriage. Is there a single framework within which these disparate ideas can fit? Being somewhat mathematically minded, my first instinct is to reach for some sort of “point system”. Each part of the agreement is worth a certain number of points, say, and if you fall N points behind the other person is allowed to violate some equal-points part of the agreement. Maybe at a certain deficit threshold the entire agreement is considered null and void, or maybe there’s a specified cost (e.g. in dollars) per point. Simple agreements would just have one point on each side. Yeah, it’s way too quantitative for human agreements, but maybe there’s something useful in there for defining or enforcing rules in a distributed system.
  • What happens when the party with which you made an agreement is absorbed by another, or thrust into conflict? This sort of thing comes up in the books when a lesser knight or lord swears fealty to a greater lord, who in turn is vassal to a king. Then the greater lord rebels. What’s the lesser lord to do? To whom do they owe loyalty? A very different twist on the same thing in the modern world is what happens when the company you work for gets bought out. To what extent do you owe loyalty to your new employer, particularly when they do not hold to – or even know about – the non-contractual understandings you had reached with your previous boss before the buyout? Maybe that’s a reason to get everything in writing ahead of time, but IMO that way lies madness. Besides my revulsion for the idea that any written deal unconditionally takes precedence over any spoken one, nobody can anticipate all of the future deals and possible conflicts that can occur. Divided loyalty and irreconcilable promises are always going to happen; whatever you might do to avoid them, there are still interesting questions of how to deal with them when they inevitably occur anyway.

I don’t have any conclusions about all of this. About the only concrete thought that occurs to me is that, if I ever own a business that’s about to go public or be sold, I should stop and think about whether I’m “selling out” my employees or creating unnecessary ethical dilemmas for them.