Is Breaking a Scholarship Bond Immoral?
By Guest Writer (Twasher) on 24 Mar 2007 5:04 PM
Comments (20)

The author and her articles can be found at the blog "The Rot Within".

The most common argument for the immorality of bond-breaking runs along the lines that agreeing to be a scholar involves making a promise of unconditional commitment to the scholarship agency. By unconditional commitment, I mean a commitment on the part of the scholar to return to work for the agency for at least the length of the bond insofar as that is possible.

In this common line of argument, it is immoral to break a bond because doing so violates the promise of unconditional commitment, and violating a promise is immoral.

However, as we all know, the actual legal contract a scholar signs is far from unconditional. Therefore when people assert the existence of a promise of unconditional commitment, this is not to be found in the legal contract itself. It must be something existing outside of the legal contract, as an implicit part of the act of taking up the scholarship.

Here is what is required for the above argument for the immorality of bond-breaking to work:

Premise 1: It is immoral to violate a preexisting promise.
Premise 2: As part of the act of taking up the scholarship, the scholar and the scholarship agency implicitly agree that the scholar has promised to commit herself unconditionally to serving the agency for at least the length of the bond period.
Conclusion 1: From P2, if the scholar breaks her bond when she had an option not to, then she is violating a promise she had made.
Conclusion 2: From P1 and C1, if the scholar breaks her bond when she had an option not to, then she is being immoral.

Therefore, to show that breaking a bond is immoral because it involves breaking a promise, P1 and P2 need to be true. In order to avoid going too deep into the morass of general theories of morality, I ask readers to accept that P1, as a common human intuition, is relatively uncontroversial. So let us let P1 pass, and turn our attention to P2. Note that P2 is, as such, an empirical fact about the world that can, in principle, be verified or falsified. This means, amongst others, that even if I think that a scholarship agreement should contain an implicit promise of unconditional commitment on the part of the scholar, that does not justify my concluding that breaking a bond is immoral. This is because what I think should be the case has nothing to do with the fact as to whether there indeed exists an implicit agreement between the scholar and the scholarship agency. It also means that whether breaking a bond is immoral could differ from scholar to scholar --- if scholar A did make that implicit agreement, then it would be immoral for A to break the bond; if scholar B did not, then it would not be immoral for B to break the bond. Therefore, P2 does not support blanket assertions that all scholars who break bonds are immoral, unless one has good empirical evidence that every scholar who breaks her bond had made an implicit promise of unconditional commitment to her scholarship agency.

In summary, contrary to what one may have intuitively thought, this common argument for the immorality of bond-breaking turns out to hinge on an empirical fact about whether a certain promise was made. No one will know whether the promise was made except by asking the parties to the scholarship agreement themselves. Ultimately, the fate of the argument rests on what was actually agreed upon in the world we live in, not on what we think should be agreed upon in an ideal world.

Comments (20)

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Wong Hoong Hooi:

Whether it is immoral for a scholar ( or anyone else ) to break a bond depends on whether he/she has either a) expressly made a promise not to break a bond or b) has in his/ her own mind accepted the scholarship on an undertaking to serve out the bond ? That's it ? That's the core argument of the entire post ??

What about these other possible components in the dynamic:

1) The would-be scholar is well aware that the other contracting party believes that there is an implicit undertaking not to break the bond and does nothing to disbuse the other party of this notion ( or even encourages it ) in order not to prejudice his/ her chances of getting the scholarship. Playing along with or encouraging the misconceptions of another to gain something from that other is morally OK ?

2) AND/ OR it is part of our societal norms ( or collective value system if you will ) that the very requirement of a bond as a condition to grant of scholarship carries the implicit promise that the bond should not be broken. Should the would-be scholar, if he/she does not subscribe to this, not make it clear from the start ?

Sorry but the post comes across as an attempt to come up with 'clever' arguments to justify bond-breaking.



In both cases you mention, the immorality would consist in taking up the scholarship in the first place (since you are in effect deceiving the organisation by doing so). Not in breaking the bond. I believe the distinction is worth making.


Also, to forestall further comments along this line, listen very carefully: I will say this only once (in the immortal words of Michelle from 'Allo 'Allo):

My analysis does not justify bond-breaking. All it does is show what needs to be shown to prove that bond-breaking is immoral by the usual argument. According to my analysis, those who want to argue that bond-breaking is not immoral have as much of a difficult empirical question to answer as those who want to argue that bond-breaking is immoral.



How about this as a way of articulating the distinction. If the scholar knowingly takes up the scholarship while not suscribing to the agreement that the other party in the agreement thinks he/she is suscribing to, then the scholar is being immoral whether or not she breaks the bond. Therefore your two cases cannot justify the immorality of actually breaking the bond, since the scholar is immoral regardless.


Well done. Maybe we'll get to hear less spin on why bond breaking is immoral / justified and actually leave the decision of bond breaking up to the scholar in question.

Most likely not.


I am generally sympathetic to your arguments. However, I'm not sure if your formulation can convincingly "knock-down" all views regarding the immorality of bond-breaking.

You claim that the implicit agreement of not breaking a promise is agent-relative. That means you believe that the agreement only exists, when BOTH the scholar, and the scholarship organization, believes in such an implicit agreement. Empirically, you are probably right in believing that is not the case. In fact, I kind of doubt that the scholarship organization believes in the agreement themselves.

Nevertheless, certain individuals (like Aaron, for example) might hold the view that such implicit agreement is NOT agent-relative, i.e. even if the scholar and/or the organization don't believe in the implicit agreement, THERE IS STILL an implicit agreement, perhaps because such is the definition of a scholarship. In order words, even if the scholar did not knowingly agree to make such an agreement or actually disagrees with such an agreement, by virtue of signing on the dotted line, he has already made it.

Of course, such a view warrants its own defense, but my point is that your argument cannot sway individuals who believe in this.



I hope I am not misinterpreting you, but I just don't see how an agreement that neither party believes in can still be considered an agreement. Disagreeing with an agreement that one has made seems to me to be an outright contradiction. You do realise, I hope, that while we are at liberty to define the terms of a scholarship, we are not at liberty to redefine the meaning of the English word "agreement", and that meaning is all that is used in my argument. The details of the scholarship are irrelevant except insofar as they concern an agreement as understood in conventional English.

The KTM's view is that this argument over the morality of bond-breaking is a bit like the argument over the death penalty. The two camps can never be reconciled. They both have their views and it's not possible to pass judgment on who is right and who is wrong.

The KTM believes however that any general blanket statement that denounces all bond-breakers or that claims that bonds are but legal contracts devoid of any elements of morality is somewhat wrong(?). People take up scholarships for a variety of reasons, and bond breaking happens for a variety of reasons.

That said, if people have decided to break their bonds, it might perhaps be better for the scholarship organizations to be a little more gracious about the whole matter. Coming down hard on the bond breakers probably doesn't help the situation.


Point taken, and someone who believes otherwise might have to deal with the semantics of the word "agreement".

Let us use another word instead of "agreement", say "promise" or "covenant". Is what makes a promise or a covenant binding the actual ACT of making the promise/covenant, or the SENTIMENTS behind it?

For example, on your wedding day you make the marriage vows "till death do us part". Let's say you don't really mean the words when you make the vows. Does this make the vow any less binding, or since you already made the ACT of vowing, it is still as binding? I think it is not totally unreasonable to believe in the latter.

Of course, you may argue that the nature of a scholarship agreement is nowhere similar to the nature of wedding vows. I actually agree to that. Just that I suspect some individuals might argue that a scholarship is in just the same fashion as wedding vows, a binding promise/covenant.



The vow, I take it, has to be something the other party believes has been made. If the other party doesn't believe it has been made, then the other party cannot be wronged, so there can be no possible immorality in breaking the vow.

However, as I said to Wong, if you don't mean the words when you make the vow, and the other party believes that you mean it, then you are deceiving the other person, and that is immoral. It means that you have committed an immoral act whether you later break the "vow" or not --- the immorality consists in the deception.


Minor caveat: Deception must be deliberate, of course. That is, if I mistakenly believe that the other person accepts the vow I think I am making, when actually he/she doesn't, then I am not deceiving them when I make the vow.


And I think herein lies a possible worldview clash. One might hold a view (differing from yours) that insofar as a marraige vow is made, it is binding, by virtue of the ACTION of making the vow. (In other words, less agent-relative but more action-relative.) Regardless if both parties took the sentiments seriously, regardless if there was "unintensional deception" or not. Such individuals might hold the view that the vows are somehow "sacred", before God, or before what a common instituition (society, or the law) decrees as a binding convenant. I don't think this view is unreasonable. But I also think it is reasonable for you to hold your view too. Just that it is very difficult (as with the case for all worldview clashes), to try and deductively argue that one view is absolutely wrong or false.

Similarly, folks like Aaron might have the worldview conception that scholarship agreements are similarly "sacredly binding". I personally would disgaree with that. But it is quite hard to argue, by reason alone, how that view is wrong.


I disagree that my view is not action-relative. It is action-relative because it depends on an agreement between parties. An agreement is an action, not an agent.

Therefore I do not think it is a worldview clash at all. In the first place, my criticism was that Aaron had not shown that such a vow, sacred or not, was made. In fact, I completely agree that making a vow is binding by virtue of the action of making the vow. That's exactly the point of this entire exercise: to show that in order to prove bond-breaking is immoral, you have to show that such a vow was made. It is not to show that no such vow was made. Aaron's mistake is to equate signing the contract with making such a vow.

Now, you may locate the 'worldview clash' in the fact that Aaron chooses to make such an equation, and I don't think that is a justified move. However, this is distinct from saying that it is a wrong move. The fact is that Aaron has zero grounds on which to make the equation. Since he is making the argument for the immorality of bond-breaking, the burden is on him to show that there are grounds for the equation. Presumably, all of us agree that Aaron has zero grounds. Thus we are not opposing one another on that front. But that front is all my analysis is concerned with. I am not taking up an "opposing" view to Aaron's --- I don't "feel" that the equation is wrong. I just admit that we don't know if it is right or wrong. Aaron's so far unwarranted assumption might turn out to be correct for all I know. Therefore, it's not like I say "black" and he says "white". Rather, it's more like he says "black", and I say, "I don't know, show me the proof." Unlike Aaron, I do not have a position on whether bond-breaking is immoral, so I cannot possibly clash with his position.

I hope that makes the nature of my analysis clear enough.


Similarly, folks like Aaron might have the worldview conception that scholarship agreements are similarly "sacredly binding". I personally would disgaree with that.

Now that is a worldview clash. However, my position is not "I personally would disagree with that." My position scrupulously avoids using the poisonous word "personally", which is never productive. My position is that neither you nor Aaron have grounds for your respective claims. You might think of it more as a skeptical, third-party observation, from outside the boundaries of the battlefield of opposing worldviews. I am not playing the game of simply declaring "X/Y/Z worldview is right". I am playing the game where I try to understand why each participant in the battlefield is supporting the claim they support. To use the battlefield metaphor, you might think of me as a referee who declares that both participants are disqualified from the competition because neither has provided evidence for their claim.


I just re-read your article and all your comments. I admit that I may had some misconceptions with regards to your purposes and intentions, and I apologize for presuming you to carry certain beliefs when you might not have.

I think we both agree to this:
1) Aaron (and proponents of similar views) cannot prove conclusively (via philosophical reasoning alone) that bond-breaking is immoral.
2) Detractors (such as myself) cannot prove conclusively (via philosophical reasoning alone) that bond-breaking is morally permissible.

However, I disagree that you are but a passive observer, and that your own worldview beliefs are not called into play in this debate. Consider your claim that the burden on proof lies on Aaron to show that signing the scholarship consists of making a "vow". You can only make this claim, if it is already part of YOUR worldview that it is NOT intuitively obvious that a scholarship consists of making such a vow. Someone like Aaron might carry the alternative worldview that it IS intuitively obvious that signing a scholarship DOES entail making a "vow", and that the burden of proof does not exclusively lie on him.

Aaron's worldview might be mistaken. I happen to think it is. But this is a worldview clash, and not something which can be easily resolved just by examining the logic of the structural arguments and the semantic meaning of the words. Or so it seems to me.

Ben Lim:

I find it curious that your method makes no attempt to take the wider socio-political context into consideration, and is concerned only with analytical considerations. I also find it curious that nobody mentioned this earlier.

The Singapore government suffers from a huge legitimacy crisis which partly explains why your blog gets such attention. It needs to control the press, muzzle opposition, use treats, use a complaint judiciary to bankrupt opposition, use the ISA when needed, use gerimandering etc to stay in power.

To depoliticize the population, it has always argued that economic considerations should be uppermost. In order to make money, we have dropped dialects, imposed Mandarinisation policy, adopted english as the main medium of instruction in schools; stopped at two, appealed to non-graduate women to tie their wombs, adopted trans-nationalism as the latest state religion (singapore the global city) in order to keep the economy ticking over.

Everything has been subordinated to turning Singaporeans into economic animals. And, not surprisingly, as Catherine Lim so rightly puts it a few years back, there is therefore an affective divide between the government and average Singaporeans.

It reaction, people don't feel a need to adopt anything other than a
contractual relationship with government bodies. There is no love lost, so the appeal to wider categories, "public spirit", "patriotism" just doesn't mean much to people. They might have these qualities, but they don't link it to the government. They link it to say, supporting Singapore in the Tiger cup.

Philip Yeo may talk till the cows come home, but the insistence on purely contractual considerations when breaking bond is a product of a SYSTEM (lifeworld) which HE helped to build. Until political liberalisation occurs all his talk of "values" is just more shite.

I wish the Straits Times would publish this. I wish young PAP members who monitor the internet would send this onwards to their political masters.



I agree that the wider socio-political situation is interesting, and I agree with your general point about Sgeans being economic animals etc. However, this analysis arose directly as a response to certain recent claims in the blogosphere that breaking a bond is immoral because it constitutes breaking a promise. I chose to deal with a very specific claim due to frustration with what I thought was a simple logical mistake in that claim. If you would like to synthesise it into a larger theory about the socio-political climate in Sg, I encourage you to write it up into a longer article for the main SA site. The only reason I didn't do so was that it was exhausting enough to write and defend that short piece above --- I don't feel up to the task of defending a longer piece that pushes even more hot-buttons. I'm open to collaborating on a longer piece though --- contact me at [my name] if you're interested in doing so.


But this is a worldview clash, and not something which can be easily resolved just by examining the logic of the structural arguments and the semantic meaning of the words.

Agree. But the logic does show that in the end, the 'argument' boils down to both sides arguing from different premises. In such a situation, neither side has a better claim to being correct. Really, I'm satisfied if people realise that arguments of Aaron's sort depend on a certain assumption which is not intuitively obvious to everyone. Most of the counter-arguments I've seen just cook up their own unjustified assumptions, which is equally pointless --- kind of like arguing over what your favourite colour is.

Ben Lim:

Thanks for the offer, Twasher. I'm honoured but not properly trained in formal philosophy to be of much help, I think. The ideas I expressed are now public property and can be used by anyone.

Would like to see some of that intellectual prowess displayed on these pages trained towards wider issues and the making of big claims though. I think that's what Singaporeans needs: big picture arguments, ideologikritik, and counter-narratives or resistance-narratives so that they have more personal space and autonomy. Straits Times is soul destroying, dito young PAP: We need alternatives.


Chey, like how breaking employment contracts to hop to better paying companies, which hundreds of Singaporeans do everyday, is immoral? Of course it is not lah. Scholarships are pure monetary contracts with attached prestige pure and simple. You don't need much philosophy to see that;)

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