Honor & Private Law

Nate Oman has a terrific short paper up on SSRN that’s a must read for contract and tort scholars (and teachers): The Honor of Private Law.  From the abstract:

“While combativeness is central to how our culture both experiences and conceptualizes litigation, we generally notice it only as a regrettable cost. This Article offers a less squeamish vision, one that sees in the struggle of people suing one another a morally valuable activity: The vindication of insulted honor. This claim is offered as a normative defense of a civil recourse approach to private law. According to civil recourse theorists, tort and contract law should be seen as empowering plaintiffs to act against defendants, rather than as economically optimal incentives or as a means of enforcing duties of corrective justice. The justification of civil recourse must answer three questions. First, under what circumstances – if any – is one justified in acting or retaliating against a wrongdoer? Second, under what circumstances does the state have reasons for providing a mechanism for such action? Finally, how are the answers to these questions related to the current structure of our private law? This Article offers the vindication of wronged honor as an answer to these three questions. First, I establish the historical connection between honor and litigation by looking at the quintessential honor practice, dueling. Then I argue that the vindication of honor is normatively attractive. I do this by divorcing the idea of honor from unsavory associations with violence and aristocracy, showing how it can be made congruent with certain core modern concerns. In particular, when insulted parties act against wrongdoers, they reestablish the position of respect and equality that the insult upset. I then show how having the state provide plaintiffs with a means of vindicating their honor avoids making the political community complicit in the humiliation of its citizens and provides those citizens with a means of exercising their agency in ways that provide a foundation for self-respect. Finally, I show those areas of private law where honor operates most powerfully as a justification for providing recourse through the courts while acknowledging that it operates less powerfully as a reason in other areas.”

The paper is of a piece with Nate’s other recent work that illustrates the structural oddness of private litigation (odd from an economist’s perspective, that is).  Nate also has a novel analysis about dueling & its relationship with lawsuits.  (If you want to learn more about dueling – and why wouldn’t you? – read Harwell Wells’ End of the Affair.) Over time, I’ve become an increasing fan of civil recourse theory as a way to conceptualize and teach contract law, and Nate’s paper makes an important contribution to that literature.  Check it out.

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