Narrative Capacity

63 Pages Posted: 7 Sep 2021 Last revised: 10 Jun 2022

See all articles by James Toomey

James Toomey

Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University

Date Written: August 31, 2021


The doctrine of capacity is a fundamental threshold to the protections of private law. The law only recognizes private decision-making—from exercising the right to transfer or bequeath property and entering into a contract to getting married or divorced—made with the level of cognitive functioning that the capacity doctrine demands. When the doctrine goes wrong, it denies individuals, particularly older adults, access to basic private-law rights on the one hand and ratifies decision-making that may tear apart families and tarnish legacies on the other.

The capacity doctrine in private law is built on a fundamental philosophical mismatch. It is grounded in a cognitive theory of personhood, and determines whether to recognize private decisions based on the cognitive abilities thought by philosophers to entitle persons in general to unique moral status. But to align with the purposes of the substantive doctrines of property and contract, private-law capacity should instead be grounded in a narrative theory of personal identity. Rather than asking whether a decision-maker is a person by measuring their cognitive abilities, the doctrine should ask whether they are the same person by looking to the story of their life.

This Article argues for a new doctrine of capacity under which the law would recognize personal decision-making if and only if it is linked by a coherent narrative structure to the story of the decision-maker’s life. Moreover, the Article offers a test for determining which decisions meet this criterion and explains how the doctrine would work in practice.

Keywords: private law, capacity, contracts, property, bioethics, law and dementia, elder law, guardianship reform

Suggested Citation

Toomey, James, Narrative Capacity (August 31, 2021). 100 N.C. L. Rev. 1073 (2022), Available at SSRN: or

James Toomey (Contact Author)

Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University ( email )

78 North Broadway
White Plains, NY 10603
United States

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