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This article begins to articulate a theory that a central moral concern in contract law in action is flexibility to recognize the need for adjustment, release, and forgiveness among good faith parties, most obviously in relational contexts. The article explores some telling examples, from the morality of the businessmen Stewart Macaulay wrote about in Non-Contractual Relations in Business to that of the characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s satiric novel The Minister’s Wooing, which puts the need for promissory forgiveness at the center of the dramatic action. Also examined in this article are the animating moral concerns of the law in action school of thought itself. The overall aim is to promote inquiry by contracts scholars into the moral concerns of contracting parties, particularly concerning the question whether a forgiveness principle may be as important as a principle of promise-keeping. . .
Charles Fried’s Contract as Promise is the first post-realist will theory of contract. It is post-realist in two senses. First, Fried has learned the lessons of the realist critique of Langdellian formalism. He does not attempt to deduce the entire law of contract from a single promise principle. The theory is attuned to the multiple purposes and principles, as well as the practical exigencies, that figure into contract law. In his discussion of Red Owl, for example, Fried writes that “contract as promise has a distinct but neither exclusive nor necessarily dominant place among legal and moral principles.” While Fried minimizes the conflict between those different principles and purposes—imagining established boundaries and diplomatic relations rather than competing armies and territorial dispute—his approach is mildly pluralist. Second, the book is post-realist in its implicit rejection of Holmes’s suggestion that scientific study of the law must “wash it with cynical acid.” Fried has also learned the lessons of Lon Fuller’s critique of the realists. While Fried disagrees with much in The Reliance Interest in Contract Damages, I think he is sympathetic to its complaint that “at a time when men stand in dread of being labeled ‘unrealistic’ . . . we have almost ceased to talk about reasons altogether.” Contract as Promise is an inquiry into the reasons for a law of contract—its justification. It attempts to provide a principled account of contract law. . .
Charles Fried’s 1981 book, Contract as Promise, started the modern discussion in the United States and many other places on contract theory, and remains an influential view to which all contract theorists who have come later must respond. This Article will consider two important themes connected with Fried’s project: first, the nature of the theoretical claims in Contract as Promise; and second, the question of whether contract law, especially when this area is equated with the enforcement of promises, is in tension with John Stuart Mill’s “Harm Principle.”
Part I of this Article looks at Fried’s book from the perspective of theory construction, evaluating Fried’s claims in the context of the project of offering a theory of contract law. Part II looks at the way that Contract as Promise has become the center of a question about whether contract law “enforces morality” in an inappropriate way. . .
What sanctions should the law inflict on those who break their contracts? Would it matter if more severe sanctions were likely to cause prices to rise? What if most contracting parties prefer higher sanctions and higher prices, or what if they prefer lower sanctions and lower prices? And whatever the answer to these questions might be, why do economists and philosophers think about these issues so differently?
Of course, when I speak of “economists” I mean something closer to “most economists, though not necessarily all of them; and including the many lawyers (like me) who do not have advanced degrees but who use economics in their scholarship.” An analogous but even broader qualification should be presumed whenever I speak of “philosophers.” Indeed, on the issues I discuss here, many philosophers of a utilitarian or welfarist persuasion will be closer in spirit to my “economists” than they will be to other professional philosophers. So, too, will contractualist philosophers such as T.M. Scanlon. . .
The concept of “efficient breach”—the idea that a contracting party should be encouraged to breach a contract and pay damages if doing so would be more efficient than performance—is probably the most influential concept in the economic analysis of contract law. It is certainly the most controversial. Efficient breach theory has been criticized from both within and without the economic approach, but its most prominent criticism is that it violates deontological ethics—that the beneficiary of a promise has a right to performance, so that breaching the promise wrongs the promisee. This essay argues that this criticism is misplaced, and that efficient breach theory, properly understood, is not inconsistent with parties’ complying with their deontological obligations. Instead, the intuitive resistance that most people experience to the concept may be better explained by aretaic concerns—specifically, that failing to complete a contractual relationship is not conducive to virtuous character or to the maintenance of a flourishing community. While efficient breach can be squared with deontological ethics, it cannot be squared with virtue ethics unless one is prepared to argue that seeking efficiency is a virtue, or at least that it is not a vice. . .
Charles Fried’s Contract as Promise stands as a model of principled legal argument. It took a single, integrating thought—that a promise lies at the heart of every contract—and then reconstructed broad swaths of doctrine as elaborations of that thought.
The book’s argument is all the more impressive because the promissory ideal in whose name it seeks to unify contract law is not straightforward. On the contrary, grounding contract in promise highlights two of contract law’s most distinctive yet least understood features: that the law establishes liability strictly, rather than based on fault; and that it creates forward-looking rather than the usual backward-looking entitlements, entitlements to be made better off rather than to secure the status quo ante. These features of promissory obligation have long been considered mysterious by a chain of thinkers whose pedigree goes back at least to David Hume and, in the law, to Lon Fuller and William Perdue.
Fried understood the unusualness of promissory obligation and hence the shaky foundation that emphasizing promise places beneath contract law. He thus began Contract as Promise by addressing the problem of establishing the ground of promise head on, in two separate ways. . . .
To a generation of law students, lawyers, and legal scholars, Contract as Promise has provided a liberal theory of contract that explains fundamental features of contract law and provides a normative foundation for evaluating the legal doctrine. As is well known by now, the promissory theory of contracts justifies the legal enforcement of contracts in terms of respect for individual freedom and autonomy to make binding commitments. The touchstone of contractual analysis from this perspective is the intent of the promisor. Together with other moral theories of promising, this perspective on contract law has generated voluminous scholarship. Thirty years after the book’s publication, I am unlikely to shed new light on the merits of the perspective. Rather, I take the occasion of this symposium as an opportunity to explore how economic analysis since the book’s publication might elaborate its thesis. . .
The promise principle and its roots in a certain type of morality of individual obligation, which play the central role in Charles Fried’s vision of contract law, have importantly contributed to rescuing contract law from absorption into tort law and from the imposition of externally imposed standards that are collective in origin. The principle makes a mammoth contribution to alerting us to the tyranny of interference with individual self-determination. However, this Essay questions whether a promise-centered system, derived from a moral philosophy of promising (without an observable and testable foundation in reality) and geared to internal individual obligation and duty, can provide the basis on which the public law can decide the hard cases in contract law. First, the promise-sufficient principle will not help when the promises are incomplete. Second, this Essay hypothesizes that there is an evolutionary trend toward efficient social contracts (or institutions of any kind). Therefore, if different communities at different times, using the latitude that our cultural genetic makeup allows, choose to veer away from that trend, they will suffer by comparison with communities that do not. It is as if they are competing. In understanding what contract law should look like normatively, we must move beyond the purported internally reflective, a priori processes of individual will and understand, through casual and formal empirics and comparisons among economies, the background of how parties’ externally expressed natural impulses act to coordinate on social problems in the games of life. The law should look to how parties act to coordinate through exchange and produce improving welfare when they construct contracts and the rules of contractual enforcement. In that way, contract law will develop around, and not in a manner at odds with, naturalistic sources for normative principles; ones that are consonant with the parties’ own expressions. . .
Contract as Promise, Charles Fried’s modern classic, argues that contract law has a “moral basis” in the “promise principle.” It was written, of course, in response to scholars who foresaw the “Death of Contract.” According to them, it is a mistake to think of contract as a distinct domain of law, with a distinct foundation. Properly understood, contract is just an instantiation of the more basic category of tort, with the latter understood as law that requires persons who wrongfully cause losses to compensate their victims.
Contract-as-tort scholars made their point in different ways. Patrick Atiyah took a historical route, arguing that promising was only center stage in contract law for a brief period in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, and has little to do with modern transactions. “Relationalists” downplayed the importance of specific agreements and formal legal rules, instead highlighting the enforcement of extra-legal interpersonal norms. Grant Gilmore combined these and other themes with a healthy dose of sarcasm, decrying the rules of classical contract law as barriers to justice. Despite these differences, all subscribed to the idea that contract collapses into tort. As Fried put it so memorably, to these scholars, a breach of contract “is like a pit I have dug in the road, into which you fall. I have harmed you and should make you whole.” The fact that D harms P by breaking their deal rather than by breaking P’s nose is of no consequence. . .
Contract theory has long been preoccupied with the common law. Contracts is taught in the first year of law school along with the other “common law subjects.” The rise of the modern view of contracts as involving mutually dependent undertakings—as opposed to the earlier independent covenants model—was carried out by the common law courts. Contracts are usually enforced with damages, the classic common law remedy. From proto-realists like Holmes, through the realists and their successors in law and economics, theorists have emphasized the law and downplayed the special role of equity, as developed over the centuries by Chancery and building on a tradition of thought going back at least to Aristotle. Equity is treated either with disdain as useless moralizing or with impatience as a mere proto-version of freewheeling contextualized inquiry that the law courts should be engaging in without artificial constraints of a separate “equity.” Whether they have been antimoralists, formalists, realists, or consequentialists, commentators have been quite unified in their preference for contract law over equity. . .