ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Freedom, compulsion, and contract

The link (or lack of one) between contract law and morality is one of the ageless topics in our field.  Jeffrey M. Lipshaw, who'll be visiting next year at Wake Forest, offers his own new take on the issues in a new essay, Freedom, Compulsion, Compliance and Mystery: Reflections on the Duty Not to Enforce a Promise, now available on SSRN.   Here's the abstract:

In this essay, I suggest the difference between the law of consensual relationships (i.e., contracts) and the morality of those relationships is one of compulsion and freedom. In the former, we find ourselves being compelled by, or compliant with, a rule some distance removed from the basic norm; in the latter we find ourselves in touch, constantly and sometimes in the face of more visceral obligatory rules, with a far deeper and more fundamental (transcendental) sense of fairness. Moral decisions are the ones made without any threat of compulsion from the law. The clearest example in commercial relationship of a moral decision unfettered by the positive law is the promisee's choice not to enforce an otherwise legally binding contract. As a matter of logic, if not practice, a court cannot impose a duty to do so, either as a matter of positive law theory or natural law theory that contends law is not law unless it rests on a deep structure of values like fairness or justice or liberty. Nevertheless, that sense of obligation on the part of the promisee is regularly sensed and even acted upon in commercial relationships, and its source is the will of the autonomous agent who has not traded freedom for compulsion or compliance.

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