June 2009 Vol. 107 No. 8 THE REVIEW

Let Us Never Blame a Contract Breaker

Richard A. Posner

My thesis is that concepts of fault or blame, at least when understood in moral terms rather than translated into economic or other practical terms, are not useful addenda to the doctrines of contract law. I have borrowed this thesis from Holmes, who in The Common Law (and later in The Path of the Law) drew a sharp distinction between tort and contract law, so far as issues of fault or blameworthiness are concerned. In the case of an accident giving rise to a tort suit, he thought the loss should lie where it fell, that is, on the victim, unless the injurer was at fault, that is, negligent, and the victim faultless, that is, not contributorily negligent. He thus disapproved, in general, of strict tort liability. But a complication in his analysis arose from his belief in “objective” standards of liability; negligence was the failure of the average person to take proper care, even if the defendant was below average in his ability to do so. That belief was not a fatal defect in Holmes’s fault-based theory of tort law, however; as Bernard Williams has reminded us, consequences, and not just states of mind, influence our moral judgments. “[I]n the story of one’s life there is an authority exercised by what one has done, and not merely by what one has intentionally done.” So inability to meet society’s expectations concerning care to avoid inflicting injury can, when injury results, be considered a species of fault.

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