Suppose a friend tells us something that happened with him and asks us to keep it a secret. Suppose it is nothing very important, but our friend thinks it is. Suppose the story could have been known by many people, because it happened in a public place, but in fact no relevant person knows of it, except for our friend and us. Do we have the duty to keep it a secret? It seems that if we have that duty, it is only because our friend asked us to do so. But do people have the power to create duties for other people only by asking them to do something?

Let's consider two scenarios.

1) The friend asks you to promise not to divulge what she's about to tell you. You agree and then she tells you the "secret."

2) The friend tells you her story without any preamble to her tale. Then she asks you to promise not to tell anyone.

In the first case, the obligation is a matter of your making a promise. Promises create obligations. You could have said no. Or you could have said "Only if I can keep it secret in good conscience." If you hadn't said "I promise," there wouldn't be an obligation. Your friend didn't create the obligation; you did.

In case 2), you can still say no, but leaving things at that misses something. Respecting your friend's wishes could still be what you ought to do, because she's your friend, and not respecting her wish would distress her, and you've got no good reason to do that.

In case 2), do we want to say that when your friend asked you not to tell, that created an obligation? Your friend's request isn't like an order from the court. It doesn't create an obligation in that sense. But worrying about that risks worrying about words rather than about the real question. The real question is what you should do all things considered, and one of the considerations is the fact that hurting your friends for no good reason is usually the wrong thing to do.

We tend to use the word "obligation" when what's at stake is a matter of law or widely-accepted convention or explicit or implicit promise or contract. If that's the sort of obligation you have in mind, then the fact that your friend asked you not to tell doesn't create an obligation. But respecting her wishes is probably what you should do anyway.

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