By Nathan B. Oman
Why should the law care about enforcing contracts? We tend to think of a contract as the legal embodiment of a moral obligation to keep a promise. When two parties enter into a transaction, they are obligated as moral beings to play out the transaction in the way that both parties expect. But this overlooks a broader understanding of the moral possibilities of the market. Just as Shakespeare’s Shylock can stand on his contract with Antonio not because Antonio is bound by honor but because the enforcement of contracts is seen as important to maintaining a kind of social arrangement, today’s contracts serve a fundamental role in the functioning of society.
With The Dignity of Commerce, Nathan B. Oman argues persuasively that well-functioning markets are morally desirable in and of themselves and thus a fit object of protection through contract law. Markets, Oman shows, are about more than simple economic efficiency. To do business with others, we must demonstrate understanding of and satisfy their needs. This ability to see the world from another’s point of view inculcates key virtues that support a liberal society. Markets also provide a context in which people can peacefully cooperate in the absence of political, religious, or ideological agreement. Finally, the material prosperity generated by commerce has an ameliorative effect on a host of social ills, from racial discrimination to environmental destruction.
The first book to place the moral status of the market at the center of the justification for contract law, The Dignity of Commerce is sure to elicit serious discussion about this central area of legal studies.
Kim Krawiek on The Faculty Lounge wrote:
"Liberals maintain that markets create wealth, promote mutual gain, and unlock talents and resources in individuals and nations. And, they say, markets have political benefits. Since the Enlightenment, liberals have argued that markets promote civic pluralism by making people more reasonable and prudent; less given to political and, especially, religious enthusiasm; and eager to avoid divisive debates about deep commitments. That markets have these advantages is known as the doux commerce thesis. (That’s doux as in soft, or having a softening effect.) The thesis is most closely associated with the Baron de Montesquieu and Voltaire, though David Hume and Adam Smith endorsed it, too. In a very fine new book, The Dignity of Commerce, contracts scholar Nathan B. Oman advances a version of the theory, updated to take account of current contract doctrine. Oman, a law professor at William and Mary Law School, combines immense learning and sophistication with a lightness of touch that makes his book a pleasure to read."
The Dignity of Commerce sets out an ambitious market theory of contract, which Nate argues is a superior normative foundation for contract law than either the moralist or economic justifications that currently dominate contract theory. One of the book’s most important contributions is its emphasis on the positive role played by markets and thus, by extension, of contracts. In an era rife with warnings about the market’s dangers to society, Nate’s cogent reminder of the market’s benefits is both refreshing and welcome. I was particularly drawn to the discussion of the market’s (and, therefore, contract’s) often forgotten role in organizing productive social interactions. These social benefits, Nate argues, are so important that it is these benefits—rather than a commitment to markets in and of themselves—that justify the use of state resources to support markets, and thus contracts. Nate’s theory is also descriptively appealing: by recognizing that conceptions of morality and blameworthiness impact contract law, The Dignity of Commerce surely provides a descriptively more realistic account of contract law than theories that contend that contract law is explained solely by economic considerations or solely by moral ones. We find Nate’s market theory of contract less successful as a normative or prescriptive theory, however. To our mind, Nate makes moral judgments about the validity of certain markets (and, therefore, certain contracts) without providing a theoretical framework to replace either the moralist or economic theories he rejects. As a result, we don’t think the market theory can provide meaningful guidance to courts, policymakers, or scholars confronted with the more difficult questions facing contract law."
Trailer for the Book Made by the Author
Table of Contents
- Introduction: Shakespeare and the Predicament of Contract Theory
- Well-Functioning Markets and Contract Law
- The Moral Consequences of Well-Functioning Markets
- Contract Law, Efficiency, and Morality
- Pernicious Markets and the Limits of Contract Law
About Nathan B. Oman
According to Wikipedia "Nathan B. Oman (born 1975) is the Rollins Professor of Law at the law school of the College of William and Mary. He is a legal scholar and educator. In 2006, he became an assistant professor at The College of William & Mary Law School. In 2003, Oman founded Times & Seasons, An Onymous Mormon Blog."