Friday, May 30, 2008

The Responsibility Principle vs. Breach of Duty

So I stumbled upon a really jarring debate today. I'm sort of puzzled that I haven't already heard of this issue, and am suspicious that someone might just be able to explain to me why there isn't any problem, and I'm just confused. But in any case, here's the issue.

It seems that in our current legal system, in order to establish that someone owes you damages to compensate you for a tort, you need to show that they have breached a duty that they owed to you. If it is determined that they did nothing wrong in harming you, then the idea is that they don't owe you anything.

But on the other hand, there's this, care of Joel Feinberg:
Suppose that you are on a backpacking trip in the high mountain country when an unanticipated blizzard strikes the area with such ferocity that your life is imperiled. Fortunately, you stumble upon an unoccupied cabin, locked and boarded up for the winter, clearly somebody else’s private property. You smash in a window, enter, and huddle in a corner for three days until the storm abates. During this period you help yourself to your unknown benefactor’s food supply and burn his wooden furniture in the fireplace to keep warm. Surely you are justified in doing all these things, and yet you have infringed the clear rights of another person.

I agree that the hiker is justified in his actions. But as Judith Thomson points out, it seems true that in this case, the hiker would also be obligated to compensate the owner of the cabin for the damage. This is in line with a principle central to the doctrine of Strict Liability, called the Responsibility Principle. Talbot Paige phrased the principle like this: "When A's actions impose costs on B, A should be made responsible, by paying those costs." It sort of does seem like this is why the hiker should have to compensate the cabin owner. Even though the hiker didn't do anything wrong, he still imposed a cost on the cabin owner, and he should have to pay that cost.

So it seems like I'm rejecting the "duty of care" standard. But on the other hand, I feel like there are some situations in which Strict Liability is, well, too strict. It seems to me that the concept of negligence (as distinct from something like "mere harming") is not completely without value: I find it an attractive notion that in situations where a person does nothing wrong, they should not be subject to the coercive pressure of others (through being held to account for something by a court--here I obviously don't mean "coercive" to imply that there's anything objectionable about holding people accountable through courts).

I definitely need to think about this some more; any thoughts or suggestions would be very much appreciated!

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