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Moral theories of torts: Their scope and limits: Part I

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One approach to legal theory is to provide some sort of rational reconstruction of all or of a large body of the common law. For philosophers of law this has usually meant trying to rationalize a body of law under one or another principle of justice. This paper explores the efforts of the leading tort theorists to provide a moral basis — for the law of torts. The paper is divided into two parts. In the first part I consider and reject the view that tort law is best understood as falling either within the ambit of the principle of retributive justice, a comprehensive theory of moral responsibility, or an ideal of fairness inherent in the idea that one should impose on others only those risks others impose on one. The second part of the paper distinguishes among various conceptions of corrective or compensatory justice and considers arguments — including previous arguments by the author himself — to the effect that tort law is best understood as rooted in principles of corrective justice. This paper argues that although the use of principles of justice may render defensible many (but by no means all) of the claims to repair and to liability recognized in torts, it cannot explain why we have adopted a tort system as the approach to vindicating those claims. Some other principle — probably not one of justice — is needed to explain why it is that the victims claims to repair is satisfied by having his losses shifted to his injurer — rather than through some other means of doing so. The paper concludes that the law of torts cannot be understood — in the sense of being given a rational reconstruction — under any one principle of morality.

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Coleman, J.L. Moral theories of torts: Their scope and limits: Part I. Law Philos 1, 371–390 (1982). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00231221

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  • Large Body
  • Social Issue
  • Moral Responsibility
  • Moral Theory
  • Corrective Justice