Voluntary Obligation and Contract

Theoretical Inquiries in Law 20 (2):433-455 (2019)

Absent mistake or misrepresentation, most scholars assume that parties who agree to contract do so voluntarily. Scholars tend further to regard that choice as an important exercise in moral agency. Hanoch Dagan and Michael Heller are right to question the quality of our choices. Where the fundamental contours of the transaction are legally determined, parties have little opportunity to exercise autonomous choice over the terms on which they deal with others. To the extent that our choices in contract do not reflect our individual moral constitutions — our values, virtues, vices, the set of reasons we reject and the set of reasons we endorse — we are not justified in regulating contracts reluctantly. Contracts are entitled to the privilege of liberal regulatory deference only to the extent that they are the work product of individual autonomy. The assumption that contract is voluntary does enormous work in most normative theories of contract. This Article takes still more seriously the obstacles to autonomous choice that contracting parties face. The most important constraints are not in contract law itself but in the material and moral imperatives that dictate parties’ contracting preferences. Many contracts are driven by circumstantial considerations or actual background obligations. While these contracts are not wholly lacking in the element of voluntariness, we should distinguish them from those choices — and those contracts — which more fully realize our potential to self-consciously author our relations with others. Autonomous choice in contract requires more than Dagan and Heller imply, and it is likely beyond the power of contract law standing alone to deliver it.
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DOI 10.1515/til-2019-0017
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