Charles Fried wrote Contract as Promise because he objected to the idea—growing increasingly prevalent in the years preceding the book’s publication—that something other than moral duty underlay the social institution through which the state intervenes to enforce, at the request of one private party, the promissory obligations of another private party. Under one view, for example, contract law is a product of social development since the Industrial Revolution, the means by which large, impersonal institutions—corporations, unions, governments—regulate their affairs. According to another line of thought, contract law is merely a way of doing justice and imposing social policy on parties who have come, in one way or another, to interact with each other. Professor Fried perceived a wholesale abandonment of the justification of contract law as a means by which the state affirms classically liberal individualism. Or, as he put it, “[t]he validity of a moral, like that of a mathematical truth, does not depend on fashion or favor.” The book is an unapologetic paean to Enlightenment (and particularly Kantian) conceptions of the free and autonomous self, able to injure another not just by way of inducing detrimental reliance, but also by acts of individual will that create disappointed expectations and undermine trust in the recipient of a promise.
For most of the thirty years since its publication, Contract as Promise has carried the lion’s share of the burden of deontological justification for contract law as against theories grounded essentially in consequentialism (the underlying moral basis of welfare economics) or sociology. This issue of the Suffolk University Law Review records a celebration of a man and his work that has stood the test of thirty years’ time as theoretical explanation, normative assessment, and an essential lightning rod for thinkers whose philosophical inclinations may well not accord with Professor Fried’s. On March 25, 2011, we gathered a stellar group of Professor Fried’s friends, admirers, and critics (not mutually exclusive categories, by the way) to consider the impact of his arguments, the current state of contract theory, and the likely direction of future work in the field. . .