ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Alces on Contract Theory

The age-old struggle between deontology and consequentialism in American contract law never seems to end.  In The Moral Impossibility of Contract, Peter Alces (William & Mary) offers a new take on the dilemma.  Here's the abstract:

Peter_alces_1 In efforts to formulate the deontological or consequentialist conceptions of Contract, or to demonstrate that Contract is neither wholly explicable in terms of one or the other type of theory, claims are necessarily made about the nature of Contract as a body of doctrine, claims about what doctrine is. Now I do not mean simply that theorists disagree about what a particular doctrine entails, such as what a court should do in order to apply, for example, the consideration, frustration or unconscionability doctrines correctly. I acknowledge that reasonable minds disagree about the substance and constituents of those common law Contract doctrines. That is not my point.  Instead, I am curious about what it means for a set of rules (say, the set of rules that fixes the parameters of "agreement") to be doctrine, the phenomenon that theory would try to explain.  The function of theory is heuristic. The object of theory is either normative or positive.  The best theorists are able to blur the distinction, often for rhetorical purposes.  Legal theory (at least in some of its iterations) depends upon a posited conception of doctrine (and doctrine, too, is heuristic). That is, theory either explains or corrects doctrine. To accomplish that, legal theory is dependent upon a theory of legal doctrine. Contract theory, whether deontological, consequentialist, or pluralist, begins and must end with the doctrine, must have something to say about doctrine that serves a heuristic purpose (as well as, perhaps, other purposes). My interest is not so much with what Contract theorizing tells us, heuristically, about Contract doctrine; my concern is more with what Contract theory, in all of its extant phases, assumes about the nature of Contract doctrine.  In this paper, I engage each of the foregoing observations about the theory-doctrine dynamic and try to say something important concerning Contract theory by drawing conclusions about the relationships among them.

[Frank Snyder]

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