January 27, 2019


Legal standards invoke the 'reasonable person'. Who is it? (Kevin Tobia, 1/25/19, Aeon)

Theorists often remark that the reasonable person is not the average person. As the American legal philosopher Peter Westen puts it:

[R]easonableness is not an empirical or statistical measure of how average members of the public think, feel, or behave ... Rather, reasonableness is a normative measure of ways in which it is right for persons to think, feel, or behave ...
The fact that a reasonable person can't be an average person inspires 'ideal' theories of the reasonable person. The UK's Supreme Court elaborates this view, on which facts about average people are entirely irrelevant. Evidence about ordinary people is 'beside the point. The behaviour of the reasonable man is not established by the evidence of witness, but by the application of a legal standard by the court.' On this view, the reasonable person is some 'ideal' person. As the UK Supreme Court observed, it is 'the anthropomorphic conception of justice ... the court itself'.

Of course, often 'the court itself' reflects the judgment of ordinary jurors. Perhaps surprisingly, the question of how ordinary people judge reasonableness is largely neglected. When people evaluate a standard of 'reasonable care', it might be that they're considering the common level of care or a good level of care. Or perhaps they're considering both.

To test this thought, I ran an experiment. I divided participants into three groups. One group provided their estimates of the reasonable number of different things, such as 'the reasonable number of weeks' delay before a criminal trial' and 'the reasonable loan interest rate'. Another group provided their estimates of the average number of each thing (eg, the 'average loan interest rate'), and the last provided their estimates of the ideal number of each thing (eg, the 'ideal loan interest rate'). Then, I compared the three groups' mean estimates for each example. For instance, is the 'reasonable loan interest rate' more like the average or the ideal interest rate?

A striking pattern emerged: across all these different examples, the estimates of 'reasonable' amounts tended to be intermediate between the 'average' and 'ideal' ones. For example, the reasonable number of weeks' delay before a criminal trial (10 weeks) fell between the judged average (17) and ideal (7). So too for the reasonable number of days to accept a contract offer, the reasonable rate of attorney's fees, and the reasonable loan interest rate.

These results suggest that our conception of what is reasonable is informed by thinking about both what people actually do and what people should do. Reasonableness is not a purely statistical notion, nor is it a purely prescriptive one; instead, it is a 'hybrid'. In this way, reasonableness is similar to other hybrid judgments, such as our judgment of what is 'normal'.

Posted by at January 27, 2019 7:59 AM