An Introduction to the
Philosophy of Law

A lecture delivered before the Law School of Yale University as Storrs Lectures in the school year 1921-1922.

 A systematist who would fit the living body of the law to his logical analytical scheme must proceed after the manner of Procrustes. Indeed, this is true of all science. In life phenomena are unique. The biologist of today sometimes doubts whether there are species and disclaims higher groups as more than conveniences of study. “Dividing lines,” said a great American naturalist, “do not occur in nature except as accidents.” Organization and system are logical constructions of the expounder rather than in the external world expounded. They are the means whereby we make our experience of that world intelligible and available. It is with no illusion, therefore, that I am leading you to a juristic ultima Thule that I essay a bit of systematic legal science on a philosophical basis. Even if it never attains a final system in which the law shall stand fast forever, the continual juristic search for the more inclusive order, the continual juristic struggle for a simpler system that will better order and better reconcile the phenomena of the actual administration of justice, is no vain quest. Attempts to understand and to expound legal phenomena lead to generalizations which profoundly affect those phenomena, and criticism of those generalizations, in the light of the phenomena they seek to explain and to which they give rise, enables us to replace them or modify them or supplement them and thus to keep the law a growing instrument for achieving expanding human desires.

One of the stock questions of the science of law is the nature and system and philosophical basis of situations in which one may exact from another that he “give or do or furnish something” (to use the Roman formula) for the advantage of the former. The classical Roman lawyer, thinking in terms of natural law, spoke of a bond or relation of right and law between them whereby the one might justly and legally exact and the other was bound in justice and law to perform. In modern times, thinking, whether he knows it or not, in terms of natural rights and by derivation of legal rights, the analytical jurist speaks of rights in personam. The Anglo-American lawyer, thinking in terms of procedure, speaks of contracts and torts, using the former term in a wide sense. If pressed, he may refer certain enforceable claims to exact and duties of answering to the exaction to a Romanist category of quasi-contract, satisfied to say “quasi” because on analysis they do not comport with his theory of contract, and to say “contract” because procedurally they are enforced ex contractu. Pressed further, he may be willing to add “quasi tort” for cases of common-law liability without fault and workmen’s compensation—”quasi” because there is no fault, “tort” because procedurally the liability is given effect ex delicto. But cases of duties enforceable either ex contractu or ex delicto at the option of the pleader and cases where the most astute pleader is hard pushed to choose have driven us to seek something better.

Obligation, the Roman term, meaning the relation of the parties to what the analytical jurists have called a right in personam is an exotic in our law in that sense. Moreover the relation is not the significant thing for systematic purposes, as is shown by civilian tendencies in the phrases “active obligation” and “passive obligation” to extend the term from the relation to the capacity or claim to exact and duty to answer to the exaction. The phrase “right in personam” and its co-phrase “right in rem” are so misleading in their implications, as any teacher soon learns, that we may leave them to the textbooks of analytical jurisprudence. In this lecture, I shall use the simple word “liability” for the situation whereby one may exact legally and the other is legally subjected to the exaction. Using the word in that sense, I shall inquire into the philosophical basis of liability and the system of the law on that subject as related to that basis. Yellowplush said of spelling that every gentleman was entitled to his own. We have no authoritative institutional book of Anglo-American law, enacted by sovereign authority, and hence every teacher of law is entitled to his own terminology.

So far as the beginnings of law had theories, the first theory of liability was in terms of a duty to buy off the vengeance of him to whom an injury had been done whether by oneself or by something in one’s power. The idea is put strikingly in the Anglo-Saxon legal proverb, “Buy spear from side or bear it,” that is, buy off the feud or fight it out. One who does an injury or stands between an injured person and his vengeance, by protecting a kinsman, a child or a domestic animal that has wrought an injury, must compound for the injury or bear the vengeance of the injured. As the social interest in peace and order—the general security in its lowest terms—comes to be secured more effectively by regulation and ultimate putting down of the feud as a remedy, payment of composition becomes a duty rather than a privilege, or in the case of injuries by persons or things in one’s power a duty alternative to a duty of surrendering the offending child or animal. The next step is to measure the composition not in terms of the vengeance to be bought off but in terms of the injury. A final step is to put it in terms of reparation. These steps are taken haltingly and merge into one another, so that we may hear of a “penalty of reparation.” But the result is to turn composition for vengeance into reparation for injury. Thus recovery of a sum of money by way of penalty for a delict is the historical starting point of liability.

One’s neighbor whom one had injured or who had been injured by those whom one harbored was not the only personality that might desire vengeance in a primitive society. One might affront the gods, and by one’s impiety in so doing might imperil the general security, since the angered gods were not unlikely to hit out indiscriminately and to cast pestilence or hurl lightning upon just and unjust alike in the community which harbored the impious wrongdoer. Hence if, in making a promise, one called the gods to witness it was needful that politically organized society, taking over a field of social control exercised by the priesthood, give a legal remedy to the promisee lest he invoke the aid of the gods and jeopardize the general security. Again in making a promise one might call the people or the neighborhood to witness and might affront them by calling them to witness in vain. Here, too, the peace was threatened and politically organized society might give a remedy to the promisee, lest he invoke the help of his fellow citizens or his neighbors. A common case might be one where a composition was promised in this way for an injury not included in the detailed tariff of compositions that is the staple of ancient “codes.” Another common case was where one who held another’s property for some temporary purpose promised to return it. Such a case is lending; for before the days of coined money, the difference between lending a horse to go to the next town and lending ten sheep to enable the borrower to pay a composition is not perceptible. Thus another starting point of liability is recovery of a thing certain, or what was originally the same, a sum certain, promised in such wise as to endanger the general security if the promise is not carried out. In Roman law, the condiction, which is the type of actions in personam, and thus the starting point historically of rights in personam and of theories of obligation, was at first a recovery of a thing certain or a sum certain due upon a promise of this sort. In juristic terms, the central idea of the beginnings of liability is duty to make composition for or otherwise avert wrath arising from the affronted dignity of some personality desirous of vengeance, whether an injured individual, a god or a politically organized society. Greek law and Roman law give the name of “insult” to legally cognizable injury to personality. Insult to a neighbor by injury to him or to one of his household, insult to the gods by impious breach of the promise they had witnessed, insult to the people by wanton disregard of the undertaking solemnly made in their presence, threatened the peace and order of society and called for legal remedy.

Lawyers begin to generalize and to frame conscious theories in the later part of the stage of the strict law. At first these theories are analytical rather than philosophical. The attempt is to frame general formulas by which the rigid rules of the strict law may be reconciled where they overlap or conflict or may be distinguished in their application where such overlapping or conflict threatens. By this time, the crude beginnings of liability in a duty to compound for insult or affront to man or gods or people, lest they be moved to vengeance, has developed into liability to answer for injuries caused by oneself or done by those persons or those things in one’s power, and liability for certain promises made in solemn form. Thus the basis of liability has become twofold. It rests on the one hand upon duty to repair injury. It rests on the other hand upon duty to carry out formal undertakings. It is enough for this stage of legal development that all cases of liability may be referred to these two types and that useful distinctions may be reached therefrom. Consideration of why one should be held to repair injury, and why he should be held to formal undertakings, belongs to a later stage.

Juristic theory, beginning in the transition from the strict law to the stage of equity or natural law, becomes a force in the latter stage. As the relations with which the law must deal become more numerous and the situations calling for legal treatment become more complicated, it is no longer possible to have a simple, definite, detailed rule for every sort of case that can come before a tribunal, nor a fixed, absolute form for every legal transaction. Hence, under the leadership of philosophical jurists, men turn to logical development of the “nature” or ideal form of situations and to ethical ideas of what “good faith” or “good conscience” demands in particular relations or transactions. The strict law, relying on rule and form, took no account of intention as such. The words took effect quite independently of the thought behind them. But as lawyers began to reflect and to teach something more than a class or professional tradition, as they began to be influenced by philosophy to give over purely mechanical methods and to measure things by reason rather than by arbitrary will, emphasis shifted from form to substance; from the letter to the spirit and intent. The statute was thought of as but the lawmaker’s formulation of a principle of natural law. It was not the uerba that were efficacious, as in the strict law, which had inherited the primitive faith in the power of words and thought of the legal formula as if it were a formula of incantation possessing inherent magical force. It was the ratio iuris, which transcended words and formulas. So also the traditional rule was not a magic formula discovered by our fathers. It was a customary expression of a principle of natural law. Likewise the formal transaction was not a bit of private magic employed to conjure up legal liability. It was the clothing in legally recognized vestments of an intention to do what reason and good faith demand in a given situation. When form and intention concurred the promisor must answer for what he undertook. When the form used did not express or went beyond the intention or was the product of an apparent but not a real intention, the promisee was not to be enriched unjustly at the promisor’s expense on the sole basis of the form. Moreover the duty was to be one of doing what good faith demanded, not one of doing literally and exactly what the letter of the undertaking called for. And although there was no express undertaking, there might be duties implied in the relation or situation or transaction, viewed as one of good faith, and one might be held to a standard of action because an upright and diligent man, who was his own master, would so act. Such is the mode of thinking in the classical period of the Roman law and it is closely paralleled by an independent development of juristic thought in the rise of equity and the absorption of the law merchant in our law.

It was easy to fit the two categories, delict and formal undertaking, which had come down from the strict law, into the new mode of thought. The typical delict required dolus—intentional aggression upon the personality or the substance of another. Indeed Aquilian culpa, in which the fault did not extend to intentional aggression, is a juristic equitable development. Hence when the legal was identified with the moral, and such identification is a prime characteristic of this stage, the significant thing in delict seemed to be the moral duty to repair an injury caused by wilful aggression. The legal precept was alienum non laedere. Also the duty to perform an intentional undertaking seemed to rest on the inherent moral quality of a promise that made it intrinsically binding on an upright man. The legal precept was suum cuique tribuere. Thus liability seemed to flow from intentional action—whether in the form of aggression or in the form of agreement. The “natural” sources of liability were delict and contract. Everything else was assimilated to one or the other of them. Liability without fault was quasi-delictal. Liability imposed by good faith to prevent unjust enrichment was quasi-contractual. The central idea had become one of the demands of good faith in view of intentional action.

In the nineteenth century the conception of liability as resting on intention was put in metaphysical rather than ethical form. Law was a realization of the idea of liberty, and existed to bring about the widest possible individual liberty. Liberty was the free will in action. Hence it was the business of the legal order to give the widest effect to the declared will and to impose no duties except in order to effectuate the will or to reconcile the will of one with the will of others by a universal law. What had been a positive, creative theory of developing liability on the basis of intention, became a negative, restraining, one might say pruning, theory of no liability except on the basis of intention. Liability could flow only from culpable conduct or from assumed duties. The abstract individual will was the central point in the theory of liability. If one was not actually culpable and yet established legal precepts which were not to be denied held him answerable, it was because he was “deemed” culpable, the historical legal liability being the proof of culpability. If he had not actually assumed a duty, and yet established legal precepts which were not to be denied held him to answer for it, this must be because he had assumed some relation or professed some calling in which an undertaking to that effect was “implied” or had participated in some situation in which it was “implied,”—the implication being a deduction from the liability. The bases of liability were culpable conduct and legal transaction, and these came down to an ultimate basis in will. The fundamental conception in legal liability was the conception of an act—of a manifestation of the will in the external world.

Roman law and English law begin with a set of what might be called nominate delicts or nominate torts. In Roman law there were furtum (conversion), rapina (forcible conversion) and iniuria (wilful aggression upon personality). All these involved dolus, i.e. intentional aggression. The lex Aquilia added damnum iniuria datum (wrongful injury to property). Later there were added what might be called the equitable delicts of dolus (fraud) and metus (duress). Here also there was wilful aggression, and the delict of dolus gets its name from the intentional misleading that characterizes it in Roman law as it does deceit in English law. In damnum iniuria datum, a wider conception of fault, as distinguished from intentional aggression, grew up by juristic development, and Aquilian culpa, that is, a fault causing injury to property and therefore actionable on the analogy of the lex Aquilia, furnished the model for the modern law. All these may be fitted to the will theory and modern systematic writers regularly do so. But noxal liability for injury done by a child or slave or domestic animal did not fit it, nor did the liability of a master of a ship, an innkeeper or a stable keeper to respond without regard to fault. Liability for injury done by child or slave or domestic animal was enforced in a noxal action on the analogy of the action which lay for the same injury if done by the defendant in person. Hence procedurally it seemed liability for a delict involving intentional aggression, and it was possible to say that there was fault in not restraining the agency that did the injury, although no fault had to be shown nor could absence of fault be shown as a defence. There was fault because there was liability, for all liability grew out of fault. Such treadings on the tail of its own argument are very common in legal reasoning. Likewise in the case of the absolute liability of the master of a ship, the innkeeper and the stable keeper, the institutional writers could say that they were at fault in not having proper servants, although here also fault need not be established by proof nor could want of fault be made a defence. As procedurally these liabilities arose in actions on the facts of particular cases, the jurists at first lumped them with many other forms of liability, which were not in fact dependent on intention and were enforced in actions in factum, as obligations arising from the special facts of cases (obligationes ex uariis causarum figuris). Later they were called quasi-delictual obligations and they are so designated in the fourfold classification of the Institutes. Buckland has remarked that in almost all of the liabilities included under quasi-delict in the Institutes there is liability at one’s peril for the act of another, especially for one’s servant, as in the noxal actions, the actio de deiectis et diffusis (for things thrown or poured from buildings upon a way) and the actio de recepto against an innkeeper. In other words, in these cases one was held without regard to fault for injuries incidental to the conduct of certain enterprises or callings and for failure to restrain potentially injurious agencies which one maintained.

Modern law has given up both the nominate delicts and quasi-delict, as things of any significance. The French civil code made the idea of Aquilian culpa into a general theory of delictal liability, saying, “Every act of man which causes damage to another obliges him through whose fault it happened to make reparation.” In other words, liability is to be based on an act, and it must be a culpable act. Act, culpability, causation, damage, were the elements. This simple theory of liability for culpable causation of damage was accepted universally by civilians until late in the nineteenth century and is still orthodox. Taken up by text writers on torts in the last half of that century, it had much influence in Anglo-American law. But along with this generalization the French code preserved a liability without fault, developed out of the noxal actions, whereby parents and teachers may be held for injuries by minors under their charge, masters for injuries by their apprentices, employers for injuries by employees and those in charge of animals for injuries by such animals. Also it provided an absolute liability for injury by a res ruinosa, developed out of the Roman cautio damni infecti. In the case of parents, teachers and masters of apprentices, there is only a presumption of fault. They may escape by showing affirmatively that they were without fault and that what happened could not have been prevented by diligence on their part. In the case of employers no excuse is admitted. The liability is absolute. In the case of animals, fault of the victim, inevitable accident and vis maior may be shown affirmatively by way of defence. In the case of a res ruinosa there is no presumption of fault. But if the structure fell or did injury because of a defect of construction or want of repair, the owner is liable absolutely and may not show that he had no notice of the defect and no reason to suspect it, or that it was not in his power to prevent the structure from falling.

Thus it will be seen that French law came very near to a logically consistent scheme of liability for fault, and civil liability for fault only, throughout the whole delictal field. Employer’s liability remained absolute, and liability for animals but little short of absolute. For the rest there was in certain cases an imposition of the burden of proof that there had been no fault, leaving the ultimate liability to rest upon a presumed fault, if want of fault was not established. None the less this, the most thoroughgoing attempt to make delictal liability flow exclusively from culpability—to make it a corollary of fault and of fault only—fell short of complete attainment of its aim. Recent French authors do not hesitate to say that the attempt must be given over and that a new theory of civil delictal liability must be worked out. Meanwhile the same movement away from the simple theory of delictal liability for culpable causation of damage had taken place elsewhere on the Continent. Binding had subjected the culpa-prinzip to thorough analysis, and following him it had come to be rejected generally by recent German and Swiss jurists.

In the common law, as has been said, we begin likewise with a set of nominate torts—assault, battery, imprisonment, trespass on lands, trespass on chattels, conversion, deceit, malicious prosecution, slander and libel—developed procedurally through the action of trespass and the action of trespass on the case. All of these, except trespass on lands, trespass upon possession of chattels and conversion, are cases of intentional injury. Trespass on lands, trespass on chattels and conversion involve more than the general security and must be considered in connection with ideas of property. The social interest in security of acquisitions demands that we be able to rely on others keeping off of our lands and not molesting our chattels; that they find out for themselves and at their own risk where they are or with whose chattels they are meddling. But even here there must be an act. If there is no act, there is no liability. To these nominate torts, each with its own special rules, coming down from the strict law, we added a new ground of liability, namely, negligence, going on a principle, not of duty to answer for aggression, but of duty to answer for injuries resulting from falling short of a legal standard of conduct governing affirmative courses of action. Some, indeed, sought to give us a “tort of negligence” as a nominate tort. But it was soon recognized that in negligence we have a principle of liability dependent upon a standard, not a tort to be ranged alongside of assault or imprisonment. Later, with the rise of doctrines as to injury to advantageous relations and the failure of negligence to account for all unintended harms of which the law actually was taking note, we developed an indefinite number of innominate torts. Today with the obsolescence of procedural difficulties, there is no reason why we should not generalize, as the civil law did at the beginning of the last century; and such a generalization was attempted in the last third of the nineteenth century. It became orthodox common law that liability was a corollary of fault. So far as established common-law rules imposed a liability without fault, they were said to be historical exceptions, and some of our courts, under the influence of this theory, were willing to go a long way in abrogating them. Liability, without regard to fault, for the acts of servants and employees was reconciled with this theory by the fiction of representation, exposed long ago by Mr. Justice Holmes and later by Dr. Baty. Finally it came to be thought that no liability without fault was not merely common law but was natural law and that any legislative imposition of such liability was arbitrary and unreasonable in itself and hence unconstitutional. On that theory, the New York Court of Appeals held workmen’s compensation unconstitutional, and a minority of the Supreme Court of the United States recently announced the same proposition.

Because of its implications for constitutional law, in view of the increasing frequency of legislation imposing responsibility at one’s peril in certain enterprises, in the case of certain dangerous agencies and in situations where it is felt that the loss should be borne by all of us rather than by the luckless individual who chances to be hurt, the basis of tort liability has become a question of moment beyond the immediate law of torts. It is a practical question of the first importance, as well as a theoretical question of interest, whether we are to generalize our whole system of tort liability by means of one principle of liability for fault and for fault only, as the French sought to do and as we later sought to do largely under their influence, or, on the other hand, are to admit another source of delictal liability alongside of fault, as the French law does in fact and is coming to do in theory, and as our law has always done in fact. For in our law as it stands one may perceive readily three types of delictual liability: (1) Liability for intentional harm, (2) liability for unintentional culpable harm, (3) liability in certain cases for unintended non-culpable harm. The first two comport with the doctrine of no liability without fault. The third cannot be fitted thereto. We must either brand cases of the third type as historical anomalies, of which we are gradually to rid ourselves, or else revise our notions of tort liability. Let us remember that the nineteenth century was well advanced before we understood the subject of negligence and that before we had convinced ourselves that no liability without fault was orthodox common law, the highest court of England had given absolute liability a new field by the decision in Rylands v. Fletcher. We are not questioning a long-established dogma in Anglo-American administration of justice, therefore, when we ask whether the orthodox theory of the last generation is adequate as an analytical statement of the law that is, or as a philosophical theory of the law that ought to be. My own belief is that it is neither.

Suppose that instead of beginning with the individual free will we begin with the wants or claims involved in civilized society—as it has been put, with the jural postulates of civilized society. One such postulate, I think we should agree, is that in civilized society men must be able to assume that others will do them no intended injury—that others will commit no intentional aggressions upon them. The savage must move stealthily, avoid the sky-line and go armed. The civilized man assumes that no one will attack him and so moves among his fellow men openly and unarmed, going about his business in a minute division of labor. Otherwise there could be no division of labor beyond the differentiation of men of fighting age, as we see it in a primitive society. This postulate is at the foundation of civilized society. Everywhere dolus is first dealt with. The system of nominate delicts or nominate torts, both in Roman law and in our law, proceeds on this postulate.

Is it not another such postulate that in civilized society men must be able to assume that their fellow men, when they act affirmatively, will do so with due care, that is with the care which the ordinary understanding and moral sense of the community exacts, with respect to consequences that may reasonably be anticipated? Such a postulate is the basis of delictal culpa, using culpa in the narrower sense, and of our doctrine of negligence. In Roman law and at one time in our law attempts were made to develop this postulate contractually. If in a transaction involving good faith—that is an informal legal transaction—one’s conduct fell short of action to which the other party was justified by the understanding of upright men in expecting him to adhere, there was contractual culpa; there was a violation of a promise implied in the transaction and consequent liability. We borrowed something of this mode of thought from the Romans in our law of bailments and hence think indifferently in terms of tort or contract in that connection, although historically our action for such cases is delictal. In other connections also our law for a time sought to develop this postulate contractually by means of an “implied undertaking to use skill” for which one must answer if his skill fell short of that which the legal standard of affirmative conduct called for under the circumstances. Also in the Year Books an undertaking implied in certain relations or callings to use the skill or diligence which the relation or calling demanded is often made the basis of liability. But here the basis of liability must be found in a relation. The fiction of an undertaking to use the skill or diligence involved in a relation or calling is a juristic way of saying that one who deals with another in such a relation or with another who professes such a calling is justified in assuming the skill and diligence ordinarily involved therein, so that the law holds those in the relation or engaged in the calling to that standard in order to maintain the general security. In other words another, though closely related, postulate of civilized society is involved.

It is worth a moment’s digression to suggest that such things show how little the historical categories of delict and contract represent any essential or inherent need of legal thinking. Austin thought that “the distinction of obligations (or of duties corresponding to rights against persons specifically determined) into obligations which arise from contracts, obligations which arise from injuries, and obligations which arise from incidents which are neither contracts nor injuries,” was a “necessary distinction,” without which a “system of law evolved in a refined community” could not be conceived. This “necessary” systematic scheme, which must be “a constituent part” of any imaginable developed legal system, is but the Roman division into obligations ex contractu, obligations ex delicto and obligations ex uariis causarum figuris, in which the third category is obviously a catch-all. In trying to fit our law into this necessary scheme, we find three types of cases must go in the third: (a) Duties or liabilities attached by law to a relation, (b) duties imposed by law to prevent unjust enrichment, (c) duties involved in an office or calling. In the third of these our Anglo-American procedure allows recovery either ex delicto or ex contractu. In the second our law sometimes goes on a property theory of constructive trust. In the first duties are sometimes sanctioned affirmatively by conferring legal powers or negatively by legal non-restraint of natural powers, as in the law of domestic relations, where the wife has a power to pledge the husband’s credit for necessaries and the law does not interfere with the parent’s administering reasonable “correction” to the child. Are we to say that these dogmatic departures of our law from the Roman scheme are inconceivable or that because of them our law is not matured or was not “evolved in a refined community?” Or are we to say that Austin derived his systematic ideas, not from scientific study of English law, but from scientific study of Roman law in a German university? Are we to say that we cannot “imagine coherently” a system of law which enforces warranties indifferently ex contractu or ex delicto as our law does, or which goes further and applies the contract measure of damage ex delicto as does the law of Massachusetts? But enough of this. What we have here is not any necessary distinction. It is rather what Austin calls a “pervading notion,” to be found generally in the systematic ideas of developed legal systems by derivation from the Roman books. Roman law may have a contractual conception of obligation ex delicto—thinking of the delict as giving rise to a debt—and the common law a delictual conception of liability upon contract—thinking in terms of recovery of damages for the wrong of breaking a promise—without much difference in the ultimate results. The fundamental things are not tort and contract but justifiable assumptions as to the mode in which one’s fellow men will act in civilized society in many different situations of which aggression and undertaking are but two common types.

Returning to our second postulate of due care in affirmative courses of conduct, we may note that in the society of today it is no less fundamental than the postulate of no intentional aggression. Aggression is the chief if not the only form of anti-social conduct in a primitive society. Indeed, a Greek writer on law and politics of the fifth century B. C. knew of no other subject of legal precepts. But with the development of machinery and consequent increase in human powers of action, the general security comes to be threatened quite as much by the way in which one does things as by what he does. Carelessness becomes a more frequent and more serious source of danger to the general security than aggression. Hence a set of nominate delicts requiring dolus is supplemented by a theory of culpa. Hence a set of nominate torts, characterized by intentional aggression, is supplemented by liability for negligence, and the latter becomes the more important source of legal liability in practice.

Must we not recognize also a third postulate, namely, that men must be able to assume that others, who keep things or maintain conditions or employ agencies that are likely to get out of hand or escape and do damage, will restrain them or keep them within proper bounds? Just as we may not go effectively about our several businesses in a society dependent on a minute division of labor if we must constantly be on guard against the aggressions or the want of forethought of our neighbor, so our complex social order based on division of labor may not function effectively if each of us must stay his activities through fear of the breaking loose or getting out of hand of something which his neighbor harbors or maintains. There is danger to the general security not only in what men do and the way in which they do it, but also in what they fail to do in not restraining things they maintain or agencies they employ which may do injury if not kept strictly in hand. The general security is threatened by wilful aggression, by affirmative action without due regard for others in the mode of conducting it, and by harboring and maintaining things and employing agencies likely to escape or to go out of bounds and do damage. Looked at in this way, the ultimate basis of delictal liability is the social interest in the general security. This interest is threatened or infringed in three ways: (1) Intentional aggression, (2) negligent action, (3) failure to restrain potentially dangerous things which one maintains or potentially dangerous agencies which one employs. Accordingly these three are the immediate bases of delictal liability.

Controversial cases of liability without fault involve the third postulate. Systematic writers have found no difficulty in reconciling the law of negligence with the will theory of liability and the doctrine of no liability without fault. Yet they must use the term fault in a strained sense in order to fit our law of negligence with its objective standard of due care, or the Roman cases of liability for culpa judged by the abstract standard, into any theory of moral blameworthiness. The doctrine of liability for fault and for fault only has its roots in the stage of equity and natural law, when the moral and the legal are identified, and means that one shall respond for injuries due to morally blameworthy conduct upon his part. As Ames puts it, “the unmoral standard of acting at one’s peril” is replaced by the question, “Was the act blameworthy?” But is an act blameworthy because the actor has a slow reaction time or was born impulsive or is naturally timid or is easily “rattled” and hence in an emergency does not come up to the standard of what a reasonably prudent man would do in such an emergency, as applied ex post facto by twelve average men in the jury box? If our use of “culpable” here were not, as it were, Pickwickian, we should allow the defendant in such cases to show what sort of man nature had made him and to call for individualization with respect to his character and temperament as well as with respect to the circumstances under which he acted. As the Romanist would say, we should apply a concrete standard of culpa. But what the law is really regarding is not his culpable exercise of his will but the danger to the general security if he and his fellows act affirmatively without coming up to the standard imposed to maintain that security. If he acts, he must measure up to that standard at his peril of answering for injurious consequences. Whenever a case of negligence calls for sharp application of the objective standard, fault is as much a dogmatic fiction as is representation in the liability of the master for the torts of his servant. In each case the exigencies of the will theory lead us to cover up a liability irrespective of fault, imposed to maintain the general security, by a conclusive imputation of fault to one who may be morally blameless. This is no less true of cases where we speak of “negligence per se.”

Reconciliation of common-law absolute liabilities for the getting out of hand of things likely to escape and do damage with the doctrine of no liability without fault has been sought by means of a fiction of negligence, by pronouncing them disappearing historical anomalies, by an economic interpretation that regards them as results of class interest distorting the law, and by a theory of res ipsa loquitur. Blackstone resorted to the first of these. “A man is answerable,” he said, “for not only his own trespass but for that of his cattle also; for if by his negligent keeping they stray upon the land of another … this is a trespass for which the owner must answer in damages.” But note that the negligence here is a dogmatic fiction. No proof of negligence is required of the plaintiff, nor may the defendant show that there was in fact no negligence. The negligence is established by the liability, not the liability by the negligence.

In the last century it was usual to refer to absolute liability for trespassing animals, for injuries by wild animals and for injuries by domestic animals, known to be vicious, as disappearing rudiments of the old liability to make composition. The common American doctrine as to cattle running at large upon uncultivated lands seemed to confirm this. Yet one need but look beneath the surface to see that the English rule was rejected for a time in America, not because it was in conflict with a fundamental principle of no liability without fault, but because it presupposed a settled community, where it was contrary to the general security to turn cattle out to graze, whereas in pioneer American communities of the past vacant lands which were owned and those which were not owned could not be distinguished and the grazing resources of the community were often its most important resources. The common-law rule, without regard to its basis, was for a time inapplicable to local conditions. It is significant that as the conditions that made the rule inapplicable have come to an end the rule has generally re-established itself. In England it is in full vigor so that the owner of trespassing animals is held for disease communicated by them although he had no knowledge or reason to suppose they were diseased. A rule that can re-establish itself and extend its scope in this way is not moribund. It must have behind it some basis in the securing of social interests. Nor have the attempts of some American courts to narrow common-law liability for injuries by known vicious animals to cases of negligent keeping made much headway. The weight of American authority remains with the common-law rule and in England the Court of Appeal has carried the rule out to the extent of holding the owner notwithstanding the animal was turned loose by the wrongful act of an intermeddling third person. Nor have the predictions that the doctrine of Rylands v. Fletcher would disappear from the law through the courts’ smothering it with exceptions—predictions commonly made at the end of the last century—been verified in the event. In 1914 the English courts refused to limit the doctrine to adjacent free-holders and they have since extended it to new situations. Moreover in America, where we had been told it was decisively rejected, it has been applied in the past decade by more than one court. The leading American cases that profess to reject the doctrine did not involve it nor did they involve the postulate of civilized society on which, as I think, it is based. Also the Court of Appeals of New York, the leading exponent of no liability without fault, had theretofore imposed a liability without regard to negligence in the case of blasting.

An ingenious explanation of the doctrine of Rylands v. Fletcher by means of the economic interpretation of legal history demands more notice. We are told that the English courts were manned by landowners or by judges drawn from the land-owning class; that the doctrine of Rylands v. Fletcher is a doctrine for landowners and so was not accepted by artisans in the United States. But consider which states applied the rule and which rejected it. It was applied in Massachusetts in 1872, in Minnesota in 1872, in Ohio in 1896, in West Virginia in 1911, in Missouri in 1913, in Texas in 1916. It was rejected by New Hampshire in 1873, by New York in 1873, by New Jersey in 1876, by Pennsylvania in 1886, by California in 1895, by Kentucky in 1903, by Indiana in 1911. Is New York a community of artisans but Massachusetts a community of landowners? Did the United States begin to change from a country of artisans to one of landowners about the year 1910 so that a drift toward the doctrine began at that time after a steady rejection of it between 1873 and 1896? Rylands v. Fletcher was decided in 1867 and is connected with the movement Dicey calls collectivism, which, he says, began in 1865. It is a reaction from the notion of liability merely as a corollary of culpability. It restrains the use of land in the interest of the general security. If this view is well taken, if it was an attempt to take account of the social interest in the general security in a crowded country, this may explain the reluctance with which it was received in the United States at first, where pioneer ideas, appropriate to a less crowded agricultural country, lingered at least to the end of the nineteenth century. In the actual American decisions, some follow Rylands v. Fletcher as an authoritative statement of the common law. Other cases go rather on the principle that liability flows from culpability. Agricultural states and industrial states alike divide along these doctrinal lines. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, both industrial states, are on opposite sides. So are Texas and Kentucky, which are agricultural states. Massachusetts and New Jersey, each with an appointive bench, are on opposite sides, and so are Ohio and New York, each with an elective bench. In truth the Massachusetts court followed authority. In New Hampshire Chief Justice Doe was not willing to go on mere authority and decided on the general principle that liability must flow from fault.

Another view is that the doctrine of Rylands v. Fletcher is a crude attempt, when negligence and the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur were none too well understood, to apply the principle of the latter doctrine, and that those doctrines will suffice to reach the actual result. No doubt res ipsa loquitur gives a possible mode of treating cases where one maintains something likely to get out of hand and do injury. For four possible solutions may be found for such cases. One is absolute liability, as in Rylands v. Fletcher. Another is to put the burden of proof of due care on the defendant, as French law does in some cases and as is done by some American decisions and some statutes in case of fires set by locomotives. A third is to apply the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. A fourth would be to require the plaintiff to prove negligence, as is done by the Supreme Court of New Jersey where a known vicious animal breaks loose. That the fourth, which is the solution required by the theory of no liability without fault, has found but two courts to uphold it, and that only in the case of vicious domestic animals, is suggestive. Res ipsa loquitur may easily run into a dogmatic fiction, and must do so, if made to achieve the result of the doctrine of Rylands v. Fletcher, which does not permit the defendant to go forward with proof, short of vis maior or the unanticipated unlawful act of a third person beyond defendant’s control. The vitality and persistence of the doctrine against theoretical assault for more than a generation show that it is more than a historical anomaly or a dogmatic blunder.

Another type of common-law liability without fault, the so-called liability of the carrier as an insurer and the liability of the innkeeper, is relational and depends upon a different postulate. Nineteenth-century courts in the United States endeavored to hold down the former, restricting it because of its inconsistency with the doctrine of liability as a corollary of fault. But it has proved to have abundant vitality, has been extended by legislation in some states to carriers of passengers and has been upheld by recent legislation everywhere.

Two other types of liability, contractual and relational, must receive brief notice. The former has long done valiant service for the will theory. Not only liability arising from legal transactions but liability attached to an office or calling, liability attached to relations and liability to restitution in case of unjust enrichment have been referred to express or implied undertaking and hence to the will of the person held. But beneath the surface the so-called contract by estoppel, the cases of acceptance of a wrongly transmitted offer, the doctrine that a public utility has no general power of contract as to facilities or rates except to liquidate the terms of its relational duties in certain doubtful cases, and cases of imposition of duties on husband or wife after marriage by change of law, have caused persistent and recurring difficulties and call everywhere for a revision of our ideas. Also the objective theory of contract has undermined the very citadel of the will theory. May we not refer these phenomena, not to the will of the person bound, but to another postulate of civilized society and its corollaries? May we not say that in civilized society men must be able to assume that those with whom they deal in the general intercourse of society will act in good faith? If so, four corollaries will serve as the bases of four types of liability. For it will follow that they must be able to assume (a) that their fellow men will make good reasonable expectations created by their promises or other conduct, (b) that they will carry out their undertakings according to the expectation which the moral sentiment of the community attaches thereto, (c) that they will conduct themselves with zeal and fidelity in relations, offices and callings, and (d) that they will restore in specie or by equivalent what comes to them by mistake or unanticipated situation whereby they receive what they could not have expected reasonably to receive under such circumstances. Thus we come back to the idea of good faith, the idea of the classical Roman jurists and of the philosophical jurists of the seventeenth century, out of which the will theory was but a metaphysical development. Only we give it a basis in social philosophy where they sought a basis in theories of the nature of transactions or of the nature of man as a moral creature.

Looking back over the whole subject, shall we not explain more phenomena and explain them better by saying that the law enforces the reasonable expectations arising out of conduct, relations and situations, instead of that it proceeds upon willed action and willed action only, enforcing the willed consequences of declared intention, enforcing reparation for willed aggression and enforcing reparation for culpable carrying on of willed conduct? If we explain more and explain it more completely by saying that the ultimate thing in the theory of liability is justifiable reliance under the conditions of civilized society than by saying that it is free will, we shall have done all that we may hope to do by any theory.


Holmes, Collected Papers, 49-116 (1920).

Baty, Vicarious Liability (1916).

Hasse, Die Culpa des römischen Rechts (2 ed. 1838).

Jhering, Der Schuldmoment im römischen Privatrecht (1867).

Rümelin, Schadensersatz ohne Verschulden (1910).

Triandafil, L’Idée de faute et l’idée de risque comme fondement de la responsabilité (1914).

See Binding, Die Normen und ihre Uebertretung, I, §§ 50-51; Meumann, Prolegomena zu einem System des Vermögensrechts, 80 ff. (1903); Duguit in Progress of Continental Law in the Nineteenth Century (Continental Legal History Series, Vol. XI), 124-128; Geny, Risque et responsabilité, Revue trimestrielle de droit civil, I, 812; Rolin, Responsabilité sans faute, Revue de droit international et legislation comparée, XXXVIII, 64; Demogue, Fault, Risk and Apportionment of Risk in Responsibility, 15 Illinois Law Review, 369; Thayer, Liability Without Fault, 29 Harvard Law Review, 801; Smith, Tort and Absolute Liability, 30 Harvard Law Review, 241, 319, 409; Bohlen, The Rule in Rylands v. Fletcher, 59 University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 298, 373, 423; Isaacs, Fault and Liability, 31 Harvard Law Review, 954.

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