Narrative Capacity

64 Pages Posted: 7 Sep 2021

See all articles by James Toomey

James Toomey

Harvard University - Harvard Law School

Date Written: August 31, 2021

Abstract

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). North Carolina Law Review, Vol. 100, 2022 Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3914839 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3914839

James Toomey (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Harvard Law School ( email )

1563 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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