Contract is Not Promise; Contract is Consent

22 Pages Posted: 24 Mar 2011

Date Written: March 22, 2011


In the 1980s, Charles Fried was right to focus on what was missing from both the “death of contract” and “law and economics” approaches to contract law: the internal morality of contract. But he focused on the wrong morality. Rather than embodying the morality of promise-keeping, the enforcement of contracts can best be explained and justified as a product of the parties’ consent to be legally bound. In this essay, I observe that, in Contract as Promise, Fried himself admits that the “promise principle” cannot explain or justify two features that are at the core of contract law: the objective theory of assent and the content of most “gap fillers” or default rules of contract law. After summarizing how consent to contract accounts for both, I explain that, whereas the morality of promise-keeping is best considered within the realm of ethics - or private morality - legally enforcing the consent of the parties is a requirement of justice - or public morality.

Keywords: contract, promise, moral theory, law and ethics

JEL Classification: K00, K12

Suggested Citation

Barnett, Randy E., Contract is Not Promise; Contract is Consent (March 22, 2011). Suffolk University Law Review, Forthcoming; Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 11-29. Available at SSRN:

Randy E. Barnett (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9936 (Phone)


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