Some Promises Ought Not Be Honored: The Case of Odious Debt

Abstract: According to a popular belief, states should honor the debts incurred by public officials in their name. Against this belief, I argue that the population of a state and its future generations are entitled not to honor debts, if these debts were incurred by governments in their name, but used for private or illegitimate purposes. I also argue the portion of debts the population is entitled to repudiate is huge, as several different governments of all kinds have used public funds for private or illegitimate purposes. Finally, I address some possible replies to my account.

Odious Debts

Promises ought to be honoured. There is not much disagreement about this proposition. If it was permissible to break promises, Kant would say, the practice of promising would lose its meaning and would ultimately disappear, as people will not be able to trust each other anymore. Utilitarians will not really disagree with this argument. For the proponents of utilitarianism, a world of reliable rules is a far better world than a world without rules.

Now, I agree honouring promises is a valuable practice and a necessary one. However, I also believe not all promises ought to be honoured. The kinds of promises I have in mind involve financial transactions and occur regularly in international financial markets.

More specifically, I believe despite the fact many countries have been borrowing funds from the international community and have made the promise to repay these funds, the debtor countries are not under any moral obligation to live…