The general position that moral obligation is a sufficient consideration for an express promise is to be limited in its application to cases where good or valuable consideration has existed.
Plaintiff provided board, nursing, and care to defendant's adult son for a two week period after he returned from a voyage at sea poor, in distress, and sick. After plaintiff had finished caring for defendant's son, defendant wrote a letter promising to pay plaintiff for his expenses. When defendant did not pay as he promised, plaintiff sued. Plaintiff's complaint was dismissed for lack of consideration. Plaintiff appealed.
Was the defendant's promise enforceable?
A deliberate promise, in writing, made freely and without any mistake, one which may lead the party to whom it is made into contracts and expenses, cannot be broken without a violation of moral duty. But if there was nothing paid or promised for it, the law, perhaps wisely, leaves the execution of it to the conscience of him who makes it. It is only when the party making the promise gains something, or he to whom it is made loses something, that the law gives the promise validity.
The supreme court affirmed because there was no consideration for defendant's promise to pay plaintiff's expenses. The kindness and services provided for defendant's son were not bestowed at defendant's request, and defendant was not legally obligated to support his son in any way. Thus, because defendant's son was an adult who was responsible for his own debts, any debt he incurred created no obligation upon defendant. Without consideration, defendant's promise founded upon such a debt had no legally binding force.